"How to Be an Optimist~ By Lise Funderberg
From the February 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
Lise Funderburg argues that optimism isn't the refuge of bubbleheads; it's a scientifically proven way to get happier, healthier and even catnippier to the opposite sex.
Many of us have a hunch—though it hasn't been proven beyond the shadow of doubt—that the only category of humanity more annoying than street mimes is relentless optimists. You know them: endlessly, unbearably sunny Pollyannas, clearly in denial about the world's harsh realities, skipping along blithely, head in the clouds, and no doubt (everyone else can't help hoping) about to step in something very, very unpleasant.
But optimism is much more than a reckless chirping through life. According to experts in the field, optimism is a high-voltage power tool in the life-skills toolbox. Researchers have characterized it as everything from a coping mechanism to a physical patterning of neurobiological pathways established in the earliest years of life. Susan C. Vaughan, MD, author of Half Empty, Half Full: How to Take Control and Live Life as an Optimist, describes it as a psychological righting reflex. "It's like cats," she says. "When you throw them out the window, they land on their feet."
Optimists, in other words, know how to bounce back. Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, explains it this way: "If a setback is thought about as temporary, changeable, and local, that's optimism. If it's thought about as permanent, unchangeable, and pervasive, that's pessimism." Victories are just the reverse: Optimists think of them as permanent and far-reaching; pessimists think of them as fleeting and situation-specific. For instance, if an optimist encounters a recipe she can't make work, she's likely to perceive the failure as external and temporary ("I'm just having an off day"), while the pessimist makes it internal and indelible ("I'll never learn to cook"). As Seligman explains, optimism serves as a crucial framework for relating to experiences. "It's the skeleton of hope," he says.
If you approach life with a sense of possibility and the expectation of positive results, you're more likely to have a life in which possibilities are realized and results are positive. You'll have a better chance of being promoted, fighting off the cold that's been going around, and attracting people to you—platonically and (hubba-hubba) otherwise. According to Seligman, pessimistic people are two to eight times more at risk of depression, a significant statistic in a country that seems a half step away from putting Prozac in its drinking water. Optimists are more productive at certain jobs—one company made sales-force hiring decisions based partially on the outcome of psychological tests. (People who tend to see themselves as responsible for positive situations are more resilient and more likely to bear up under repeated rejection.) And researchers have found that optimists are less likely to develop cancer or to die from heart disease.
Where are all these sunny-side uppers? Jeffrey E. Garten, dean of the Yale School of Management, interviewed 40 of the world's most successful business executives for his book The Mind of the CEO. Garten found every last one of them to be extremely optimistic. "I didn't find a lot of other common traits," he says. "For example, there's a conventional wisdom that these are all alpha people who exude aggressiveness and do nothing in life besides work. I didn't find that. But the one thing they had in common was how they all talked about the mountains they had to climb every single day." His subjects kept a perspective on the tasks at hand by placing them within a larger, long-term vision. "Their view was, I know I have succeeded in the past, and I'm quite confident that if I can look beyond today's problems to a point on the horizon, I know I'm going to get there."
How do people turn out this way? Lifelong optimism can be explained in one of three ways, says Seligman. About 50 percent is due to inheritable conditions, he says. Seligman circulated a questionnaire at an annual twins convention (in Twinsburg, Ohio) and found identical twins more similar than fraternals in levels of optimism and pessimism. "You might think that means there is an optimism gene," Seligman says. "But I don't think so. Identical twins are also similar in terms of physical traits: how they look, what talents they have—the things that can attract people to you and make you successful in life. And we know success tends to produce optimism and failure tends to produce pessimism."
Another source, Seligman says, is a person's mother: "There's a markedly high correlation between your level of optimism and your mother's, but not your father's." Although no one knows why this is, one hypothesis is that mothers still tend to be primary caretakers and therefore have a greater influence on their offspring. Another theory is that women have evolved to be more cerebral and expressive, so they're more likely to communicate their outlook, positive or negative.
"The third source is the reality of the bad events that happen to you," says Seligman. "If you want to be an athlete but you're born clumsy, you're likely to expect one setback after another. A sequence of failures naturally leads to the expectation of failure."
According to Seligman, almost everyone can learn how to be more optimistic, except, perhaps, those who are severely depressed and may benefit only from professional counseling or medication. A key component of optimism seems to be a willingness to look for the bright side, even if that means distorting reality. You can also begin to recognize and catalog the negative messages you tell yourself, then dispute those thoughts as if debating an external foe. Gradually, the new responses become automatic. (Get more exercises to improve your sense of optimism.)
Even though he teaches techniques for learning optimism, Seligman warns that no one should think of it as a panacea. "It doesn't give you wisdom, compassion, or a direct line to the truth," he says. Seligman advocates a "flexible optimism," which factors in risk, rather than a blind faith in positive outcomes. You don't want an overly optimistic pilot to look out the cockpit and say, "Oh, the weather doesn't look so bad from here. Let's not bother deicing the plane."
Pessimism and optimism aren't mutually exclusive, agrees Edward C. Chang, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. He believes that the two can in some circumstances coexist and argues that pessimism shows up in the attitudes of certain groups, the result of life-shaping forces such as world events, socioeconomic circumstances, and culture. "I see myself as a pessimist," says Chang, whose family emigrated from South Korea to Brooklyn when he was 5 years old. Chang says his outlook is rooted in the Confucian emphasis on striking a balance in life—not being overly positive or negative. Chang also believes that his parents' experience as immigrants in a new, unknown land made them particularly cautious and inclined to prepare for the worst at all times.
Chang sees pessimism as a sensibility, not a biological trait or an automatic marker for depression. He believes it can serve as a viable strategy for a positive outcome. In his study of Asian-American college students, participants had above average levels of pessimism but, notably, no less optimism than European-Americans. Their version of pessimism was more elevated but not debilitating.
"I have a 1-year-old daughter," he says. "In some ways, I'm a naive optimist. I believe everything in her life will be wonderful and that she's going to be a beautiful, intelligent woman. But I can assure you that when the time comes for her to marry, I will use a pessimistic strategy to make sure the caterers show up, the musicians are on time, and that the outcome is positive. Say it's an outdoor wedding; even if an unexpected storm came through, I'd have plans B, C, and D ready."
Outcome is the point here: Beefing up your optimism isn't the ultimate goal, proponents argue, happiness is. According to research psychologist David T. Lykken, each of us has a happiness "set point." We've each been dealt a happiness hand, some of us with higher cards than others. But as Lykken points out in his book Happiness: What Studies About Twins Show Us About Nature, Nurture, and the Happiness Set Point, we can increase our potential for joy by taking steps to get involved with people, causes, and ideas. According to Seligman, one of the hallmarks of depression is self-absorption. And so optimism, with its emphasis on seeking and seeing what's good outside of ourselves and in the world, helps us take those steps.
Get boosted now! Here are 5 exercises rooted in scientific studies to help train your brain for optimism:
PLAY INTERPERSONAL PING-PONG
If you serve up a smile to people, they usually bounce it back. Hit them with a snarl and watch them scowl instead. Research shows that facial expressions and the moods that accompany them are contagious, probably because they evolved as a means of nonverbal communication between people. You can use the infectious effects of a grin to jump-start an optimistic outlook in yourself by sending others what you want them to lob back at you. A kind word to the man behind the deli counter can get your day bouncing in the right direction.
There's another reason for putting on a happy face: It influences your brain in a positive way. In one study, subjects who were asked to hold a pen in their mouth (causing them to inadvertently make the facial muscle movements characteristic of a smile) rated cartoons to be funnier than did other subjects, even though they were unaware that it was the smile that was boosting their reaction. There's an interesting biological reason for this effect: When you feel down, your brain tells your face you're sad and your facial muscles respond by putting on a depressed expression—and convey back to the brain that, yes, you're feeling blue. Consciously changing the facial muscles so they don't correspond to what you're feeling is a way of sending a different message: "Hey, it's not so bad down here after all." The brain will respond by beginning to change your mood accordingly.
EXPLAIN SUCCESS AND FAILURE LIKE AN OPTIMIST
Research shows that it's not what happens that determines your mood but how you explain what happens that counts. If an optimist encounters a computer program she can't figure out, she's likely to say, "Either the manual is unclear or this program is hard or maybe I'm having an off day." The optimist keeps the failure outside herself ("the manual"), specific ("this program"), and temporary ("an off day"), while the pessimist would make it internal, global, and permanent. When success occurs optimists say, "Of course dinner turned out; I'm a good cook," while pessimists say, "Boy, was I lucky today," literally snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. If you start to speak to yourself in a more positive way when you succeed and fail, you'll gradually become more optimistic.
STACK THE DECK IN YOUR FAVOR
It's easy to be envious: Compare yourself to those with thinner thighs and fatter bank accounts and you'll always come up wanting—and pessimistic. But the corollary is also true: No matter how bad things get, there's always someone who's worse off. In one simple study, subjects were randomly divided into two subgroups. One group was to finish the sentence "I wish I were a ______." The other was asked to complete the sentence "I'm glad I'm not a ______." When individuals rated their sense of satisfaction with their lives before and after this task, those who completed the "I'm glad I'm not a ______" sentence were significantly more satisfied than before.
LEARN TO SHIFT YOUR FOCUS
Pessimists can't stop depressing facts or negative thoughts from poking into their consciousness, but they can choose not to dwell on them. If you look through a camera lens, you'll find that when one part of the picture is in focus, the other areas blur a bit. (This is a distortion, sure, but sometimes we need to sustain the idea of being in a protective bubble to feel optimistic.) This active self-direction of your own moment-to-moment perspective allows you to create a new life story, one in which you take charge of your emotions and actions. Since research shows that those who feel they have a better sense of control tend to be the most optimistic, why not take charge of where your psychological lens is focused?"