Source: Vitality, 1999, 4(1)
"You see, when you're hunting for the glad things, you sort of forget the other kind," says Pollyanna. The optimist. "One who looks on the bright side of things or takes hopeful views." One who anticipates a positive future, who looks for the silver lining. The optimist. Somewhat suspect? Are you shallow? Naive? "You don't seem ter see any trouble bein' glad about everythin'," says Nancy to Pollyanna. Is a Pollyanna glow masking great depths of despair? Can you be trusted? How, given hard realities and the suffering of others, can you maintain this relentlessly hopeful attitude? Don't you read the newspaper?
Is the optimist, at the very least, uninteresting, particularly in our more cynical times? "Don't ask him. He'll just grin and tell you that everything is going to be okay." Psychology, itself, has tended to steer a wide path around the optimist. "Come on get happy" research has been seen to lack rigor and credibility. Psychology is naturally a problem-driven field. There are so many stressors, symptoms and syndromes to address. Now, however, psychologists are finding compelling reasons to look at optimism, its roots and its effects.
What does optimism look like in practice? How do optimists distinguish themselves? They are less stressed by ordinary ups and downs. They suffer less anxiety and depression. Pessimists tend to see bad events as inevitable, as some permanent reflection of the environment or themselves. Optimists, on the other hand, tend to see bad situations as temporary and specific — something they can address. They can take responsibility for their own poor behaviour. They will not, however, blame themselves as a whole. Pessimists, in fact, can be more "realistic" about their flaws. Optimists function effectively with even a slightly enhanced view of themselves. Not arrogance or delusion, just a polished reality.
Optimists will not let themselves be easily felled by failure. They will, rather, look to the next challenge and push on. Genuine optimists are not in denial. They will not smother real feelings and fears under a sunny patina. They will not try to numb themselves with marmalade phrases like "I am special," "I am the master of my bliss." They will, rather, look for a healthy avenue to express and work through their real feelings.
Rose-coloured glasses do have their perks. An optimist's attitude is self-fulfilling. Research shows that most optimists cope better with disease and surgery. The American Psychological Association, for instance, reports on research by psychologist, Charles Carver. He finds that among women with breast cancer, those who are optimistic show far less trauma even twelve months post surgery. These women are not in denial. They accept that illness has been in their lives and they try to move forward, tackling new problems as they appear. Optimistic HIV patients show slower immunity decline and symptom onset.
Optimism also helps the healthy population deal with stressors. A study of first-year law students, for instance, found optimists with a higher level of self-acceptance and more confidence about their achievements. They started school with the same level of immunity as the pessimists. By the end of the year, however, the optimists had higher levels of helper T cells and natural killer-cell cytotoxicity— that is, an ability to kill cancer cells.
There are certain cases where optimists can be more affected by negative events. Optimistic seniors were actually more depressed by a shattering event — such as the death of a spouse — than their more pessimistic peers. It is hypothesized that these usually optimistic seniors are dealing with more realistic, end-of-life issues.
Who are these people? Are optimists born or bred? These are not just people who are "better" or lucky. A life of privilege does not guarantee a hopeful outlook. It is clear, however, that optimism does start early. Optimistic parents are more likely to have optimistic children. Much of this, however, can stem from upbringing. Martin Seligman, a pioneering psychologist, has studied this learned optimism extensively. Inspired by conversations with his polio-vaccinating hero, Jonas Salk, he turned his focus to the building of optimism, to "psychological immunization." Seligman has had great success in working with children who face warring parents, bitter conflict, abandonment — children at risk for depression. The Optimistic Child, his influential book, describes situations and techniques that help these, and other children, become more optimistic.
For the preschool child, Seligman says, optimism stems from masterful action. Young children who have the opportunity to persist in the face of reasonable obstacles and experience real success are more likely to become optimistic. It is masterful thinking that breeds optimism in the older child. This is much different, Seligman argues, than the "everything you do is great," self-esteem movement. Emphasizing how a child feels over what they actually do can make them more vulnerable to depression. Children learn to dismiss puffery, or false or unfounded compliments. Seligman believes that the self-esteem movement has backfired, that its unflagging self-focus is responsible for a growing epidemic of depression. To become genuinely optimistic, children need to have real successes. They need the chance to fail and recover.
How can parents encourage healthy optimism in their children? With preschool children, says Seligman, offer them choices and realistic opportunities for mastery. Attend to their needs and engage them in simple role plays. "Now, you are making dinner for Mummy." Build a warm, loving, enthusiastic environment with grounded praise. Give children some warning before possibly traumatic events, such as shots. That way they learn that no warning means, for the most part, they are safe. When you criticize a child, focus on behaviour. "Hitting George is unacceptable because...." Don't label the child in any permanent, global way. "You are so aggressive; you are always causing trouble." Stimulate more good thoughts. At bedtime, for instance, review the day. Discuss things your child found upsetting. "I felt bad when Sally broke my toy." Start and end, however, with an emphasis on the positive, the things they liked. "The best thing was the park, when we were playing in the sand."
What if we, or our older children, are already pessimistic? Is it too late?
Catch yourself. Detect your negative thoughts—"I'm not very interesting"—as they scurry across your mind.
Check it out. Evaluate your assumptions. Is that really true? Gather evidence to the contrary. "Well, my Christmas presentation was a hit."
Get real. Look for more accurate explanations. "Everyone is too distracted by deadlines to listen properly."
Don't spin. Don't escalate your fears. "I don't belong here. I'll probably get fired. No one else will hire me." De-catastrophize. Think about more likely alternatives.