It probably won’t surprise anyone that an optimistic outlook is good for your physical and emotional well-being. Optimists react to problems with a sense of confidence in their ability to respond effectively to the challenges in their lives. They are hopeful about the future, and believe that their personal problems, as well as those of the world, can be met successfully. As a result, they respond better to stress: research shows that pessimists have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and have a harder time regulating this hormone in response to stressors. Optimism, on the other hand, is linked to positive mood and good morale, to perseverance and effective problem solving, to achievement in a variety of domains, to good health, to longer life and to freedom from trauma. It is positively correlated with life satisfaction and happiness, and it is negatively correlated with depression and anxiety.
Most of us tend to think that our basic outlook on life is fate – that our level of optimism or pessimism is just “how we are” and that we can’t do anything about it. But one of the most important findings in psychology in the past 30 years is that we do have the capacity to choose the way we think about our situations, and in so doing alter our fundamental outlook on life.
According to Martin Seligman, one of the most respected modern psychologists, pessimists can deliberately acquire the skill of optimism by consciously doing what an optimist does intuitively.
In his book, Learned Optimism, he summarizes research which shows that pessimists tend to think in identifiable and predictable patterns. They see difficulties as personal- “It’s my fault,” permanent – “It’s always going to be like this,” and pervasive – “It’s going to ruin my life.” The result is a sense of learned helplessness, which tends to characterize pessimists. But Seligman found that these thought patterns are just habits, and any habit can be unlearned. By noticing the subtle differences in how optimists and pessimists think and describe things and by deliberately adopting the optimist’s thinking patterns, pessimists can begin to challenge the sweeping statements they make about the bad things that happen in their lives. Over time and with practice they can weaken the habit of pessimism and learn to think more like an optimist.
But we’re not going to try to learn optimism if we believe that it’s just about fooling ourselves. Can an optimistic attitude be defended as realistic or is it just a Pollyannaish perkiness based on denial of the grim realities of real life? When we look at the many daunting problems facing the world and the horrible political situation in our own country at this time in history, it is easy to conclude that optimism is delusional, but I’m encouraged by the perspective of one of my personal heroes, Howard Zinn. Zinn was a life-long political activist and the author of A People’s History of the United States, a book which chronicles in excruciating detail the suffering and oppression that is often swept under the rug in conventional histories of the U.S. But after spending a lifetime looking the reality of evil in the face he still came down on the side of optimism. His personal conclusion is worth remembering:
“An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”