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Are You (Still) an Optimist?

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Are You (Still) an Optimist? These Questions Might Help Explain Why


It may seem impossible to feel upbeat about the future, especially now. But there are common traits optimists share that can help improve anyone’s outlook.


-By Eva Holland


Imagine you’re back in high school — fluorescent lights humming, hard plastic chairs, a classroom stuffy with hormones and anxiety — and you’ve just aced a test. Do you think to yourself, “I guess I got lucky today?” Or does your internal monologue say, “Damn, I’m good!”?


Now imagine that you’ve failed the test. Does the voice inside you whisper: “Of course. You’re so bad at this.”



Or does it say, “Ugh — you just didn’t study hard enough.”



And which of these responses might brand you as an optimist?



You might think, for example, that the first response — crediting luck for a good outcome — is a sign of optimism, since it suggests good times ahead.(After all, you’re lucky!) But the belief that a good result is thanks to elements out of your control actually indicates a pessimistic outlook.And while the self-critical response to the bad outcome (you didn’t study hard enough) might seem like a downer, it’s actually a product of positive thinking


— since it suggests you believe that, if you take a different approach to future tests, you can expect a better result.


When we talk about optimism, it’s often easy to oversimplify it as having a relentlessly upbeat outlook. Optimists, we imagine, spend their time gazing at the bright side of life through rose-colored glasses, sipping glasses half-full of good cheer.


But the science suggests that optimism is best understood not as an unchanging attitude but as a pattern of responses — which taken together dictate how we view our prospects.



Being optimistic is more complicated than blithely thinking, “Everything will turn out fine.”


Optimism and pessimism, it turns out, are all about the stories we tell ourselves after both our successes and our failures. So ask yourself this: What kind of stories have you told yourself over the last few years — a stretch of time that even the most practiced optimist may have found challenging?Because, as it turns out, those stories matter. And psychologists have devised questions that can help us understand why.




 

Let's try a sample question.



You fall down a great deal while skiing. It’s because:


Skiing is difficult.

Or, The trails were icy.


In 2023, optimism can feel like a challenge. The pandemic is three years old and the planet’s climate future seems increasingly in crisis, to name just two outsized concerns.


If ever there were a time to be pessimistic about optimism, it would seem to be right now.


Sure enough, a 2022 Gallup poll found that the number of Americans who believe the next generation will enjoy a higher standard of living than their parents has fallen by 18 percent since 2019.



That dramatic shift is understandable. But it doesn’t have to be permanent.



When Dr. Martin Seligman was a young man on the verge of adulthood, at the dawn of the 1960s, he was a committed pessimist.


“I toyed with writing about death and dying, and I wore black much of the time,” Dr. Seligman wrote in his autobiography, “The Hope Circuit.” “I was morbidly introspective and through freshman year kept a handwritten journal of dark thoughts.”



Dr. Seligman had his reasons. His father, after a series of strokes, had become paralyzed and depressed, never recovering either physically or emotionally. On scholarship at a private military academy where he didn’t fit in easily with his affluent classmates, Dr. Seligman had been denied promotions and prizes, despite being at the top of his high-school class — slights that, years later, a former faculty member confirmed were manifestations of anti-Semitism. At 18, Dr. Seligman would have seemed an unlikely character to become a future founder of the field known as positive psychology. But he found his place and his people at Princeton University, he writes, and later settled into graduate research in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.


Dr. Seligman distinguished himself for his work on the phenomenon of learned helplessness: the idea, internalized to varying degrees by some of us, that nothing we do matters and so there is no point in trying.



In other words — the opposite of optimism.



Dr. Seligman and other researchers examined this phenomenon through a series of experiments, such as exposing lab animals or human subjects to adverse conditions like a mild shock or an irritating noise.


Sometimes they would provide a mechanism for the subjects to make the irritant stop; in other cases, there was no way for the subject to change their situation. The aim was to see if people could either be taught to seek a solution or persuaded to give up trying.


But there was a group, Dr. Seligman found, that kept persistently trying to improve their circumstances, long after the other study subjects had quit.


Seligman became fascinated by these subjects — who, it turned out, skewed more heavily optimistic when their attitudes were tested.



So Dr. Seligman decided to study them instead.



In the nearly 40 years since, he and his colleagues have examined the optimists among us:


what makes us optimistic, what optimism looks like and the extent to which optimism can be learned.


Now 80, he is still teaching, studying and publishing about the benefits of optimistic thinking — and advancing our understanding of how optimism works.



 


Let’s try another question.



Your romantic partner wants to cool things off for a while. Is it because:


I’m too self-centered.


Or- I don’t spend enough time with him or her.



So what else do we know about optimism?


Research suggests that our starting point, or default mode, is at least partly inherited.


In a study of a large group of twins, Dr. Seligman and others found that identical twins — whose DNA is a perfect match — were more likely to both be optimists than were fraternal twins, who only share half their DNA.


Evidence also suggests that optimism is basically equal across racial categories and largely the same in men and women.



And, in general, it is a fairly stable trait: 


People who are optimists when they are young are likely to still be optimists in old age. But where does the capacity for optimism come from? Dr. Elaine Fox, a professor of psychology at the University of Adelaide, has studied the neuroscience of optimism and pessimism. She frames these two attitudes as manifestations of our two most basic drives: to pursue reward and to avoid danger.

There are two primary brain structures implicated in those drives, she explained: the amygdala, which is associated with emotional reactions such as fear and uncertainty, and the nucleus accumbens, which is involved in our pleasure system. Both are ancient structures that we have in common with many other animals. But, in humans, both structures are in constant conversation with our prefrontal cortex, which mitigates, or reasons with, the other parts of the brain.



The standard analogy is an accelerator and a brake.


In a highly anxious person, the amygdala might be more active as an accelerator while the prefrontal cortex is less likely to slam on the brakes. In an optimist, the nucleus accumbens might be more active, said Dr. Fox, while “the controls on that are also slightly less active.” The pleasure systems in the brain aren’t solely about feelings of enjoyment or satisfaction, she explained. They also run our desires and drive. Dr. Fox argued that much of the success attributed to having an optimistic outlook is really about persistence and adaptability.


“It’s not some sort of magic juice,” she said of optimism — it’s that people inclined toward optimism are more likely to persist in chasing their goals.

Or, as Dr. Seligman put it: “Optimists try harder.”


And that helps in all sorts of evolutionarily beneficial ways, including “in sex and in survival.” Beyond the most basic evolutionary struggles, we know that, on the whole, optimism is good for us. Optimists tend to live longer, be more successful professionally and be less likely to experience depression and other illnesses. When crises occur, Seligman’s research shows, optimism can even offer some protection against the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.




Optimism is not just a factor in our mental health. 


Dr. Seligman and others have conducted long-term studies that track optimists and pessimists through the years, monitoring for things like cardiovascular disease.


“People have estimated that being in the bottom quartile of pessimists is roughly the same as smoking two and three packs of cigarettes a day, for cardiovascular death,” said Dr. Seligman.

As for all-cause mortality, he reported that “optimistic people live on average between six and eight years longer than pessimistic people.”



Can pessimism ever be a good thing? 


“Clearly it’s got utility because there is so much of it,” he said. But he’s only found one profession of those he’s examined (he hasn’t studied journalism; I asked) where it seems to be a clear-cut advantage.



“Lawyers call it prudence,” he said. “But it’s basically trying to protect your client against all these awful unlikely things that could occur.”



In a study of a University of Virginia law school cohort, the pessimists were more likely to land on the law review and ultimately more likely to find better jobs.



 


OK, last question.



You tell a joke and everyone laughs:



The joke was funny.


Or- My timing was perfect.


We can, with some effort, alter our balance of optimistic and pessimistic thinking.


“It’s now a robust, replicated finding that you can teach people to, for example, argue against their most catastrophic thoughts with reasonable evidence and move pessimism into optimism,” he said.

Several recent meta-analyses, which crunched data from dozens of studies using tens of thousands of study subjects, have examined the research on counseling techniques known as positive psychology interventions, programs that help us reframe the stories we tell ourselves. These meta-analyses found that the interventions were consistently beneficial.


“So there’s a technology,” said Dr. Seligman, “and it works.”


Whether you’re inclined toward optimism or pessimism, you have some control over your outlook. And that’s something to be optimistic about.



Q&A with Deepak Chopra, PsyD on Goop


https://goop.com/wellness/mindfulness/how-to-think-like-an-optimist/?gclid=CjwKCAiAuaKfBhBtEiwAht6H79wF1kG7sA2omR_J3Ek96LONBTB-7ggo9N3oa1GaAcag45rwnKxvbBoCBSkQAvD_BwE




Deepika Chopra, PsyD, is a visual imagery expert and a happiness researcher specializing in evidence-based manifestation and the science behind cultivating joy.


Using sensory visualization, mindfulness, and meditation, Chopra coaches her clients to become more optimistic and teaches parents how to raise optimistic children.




Q
What is optimism? What makes someone a true optimist?

A

Optimism is hopefulness: positively anticipating something in the future—that could be a few moments from now or a few days or weeks or even years from now. The whole basis of optimism is that our brains are anticipatory organs. Meaning the brain is extremely future-oriented. It’s constantly anticipating what will come next. For example, our brains predict what our eyes will see before our eyes actually see it. And with this in mind, the question really becomes: Are we predicting something good or are we predicting something bad? And how do these predictions fuel our feelings? Optimists, like everybody, experience a full range of emotions, and that includes emotions that don’t always feel good. The difference is that an optimist or someone who is being optimistic sees setbacks, roadblocks, and problems—anything unideal—as temporary, as things that they have the ability or power to overcome. On the flip side, someone who leans toward pessimism might see the same problems that an optimist sees but register those problems as permanent and not really in their power to move through.



Q
Is optimism a result of nature or nurture?



A

There was a study that looked at 500 sets of twins and showed that only about 25 percent of an individual’s optimism is inherited. Which is so cool; it leaves us with so much room to work on our optimism factor.




Q
What are the effects of optimism on the body?


A

We know that the more optimistic we are, the more positive moods we experience.


With more positive moods, there aren’t just mental and emotional benefits; there are also measurable physical benefits. For example, people live longer and better. Studies suggest happier people might live longer, or get sick less often, or bounce back faster from health conditions, or experience less pain, etc.



Q
What’s the key to increasing optimism?


A

Raising our optimism point really takes work. In her work with clients, they focus on perception and collecting believable evidence. Like, maybe there’s a handful of really crappy things that have happened to you, and you put so much attention on those things that it’s created a perceptive imbalance: You focus on the bad things and somewhat ignore the good or neutral things that have happened to you. And if you actually take a closer look at the evidence, maybe you’d start to see that more often than not, you’re doing okay, and that more happy things happen than unhappy ones. And from there, you can make that shift toward anticipating positive things in your life.




Q
What are some daily practices to increase your optimism?



A

Move to your favorite music. Music and movement are significant ways to increase happiness and optimism. And it’s a great in-the-moment practice: Turn on some music that makes you happy and dance, even if it’s just for thirty seconds. Spend time in nature. Get outside for twenty minutes. That’s it. You don’t even have to be active; you can just sit down in the grass. Contact with nature increases positive mood, and we know that when our mood is increased, our brain also anticipates events more positively.



Thank yourself.



We’re getting so familiar with the idea of gratitude—it’s one of the most researched concepts in mindfulness. Celebrate your wins, even if they’re super small. Actually, the smaller the better. When we’re celebrating something we’ve achieved, we’re so much more likely to focus on what we want or what good things are up next than on what is not going well.



Q
What does optimism have to do with manifestation?


A

The brain doesn’t spend time or energy on things that are not believable.So the work that we do is really about changing your expectations of what’s possible for you. Once your expectations match your wants, you can effectively work toward your goals.




Q
Why don’t positive affirmations work for everyone?




A

If someone has a core belief that they don’t deserve love or shouldn’t love themselves, just giving them the homework to look in front of the mirror and say “I love myself” ten times is not going to do it. It can actually be detrimental because your brain is so efficient. When you repeat that affirmation, it kicks up and says, “No, and here are a hundred reasons based on the experiences I’ve collected over the last thirty-five years why that’s not true—how stupid you are to even say that.”

So in her practice, everything that they work on or every thought you tell your brain to think is something that you believe to be true.




Q
How do you raise kids to see the world through an optimistic lens?


A

The main thing about raising an optimistic child to remind them to look around and within themselves; there are so many happy things that are easy to skip over. And so reaching out to our kids and emphasizing the importance of things that make them happy—and giving them a space to talk about them—is huge. Her favorite thing to prescribe to kids and families is a “happiness hunt.” It’s the practice of taking some time every day to go on a very short hunt for all the things that make you happy in those few moments. Maybe it could be a tree or the wind or a certain flower or your smile. Maybe it’s something about yourself, maybe it’s a person, or maybe it’s a song. Your exercise is just to be mindfully aware, using all your senses, of things that make you happy.



Second, there’s the idea of embracing struggle:


We can teach our kids not to shy away from things that feel difficult and really help them make positive associations with resiliency and problem-solving. It’s not about limiting the news or trying to hide things from our kids but more about adjusting their lens.If you are going to talk about something scary or sad or unjust, turn the focus toward the groups or people that are trying to help


—those who are making a change or fighting for the rights of others or helping in times of crisis.


Third, She emphasizes involving your family in your community and putting an emphasis on doing kind, empathic things for others.


And then talk with your kids about how taking kind action makes them feel and how they think it makes the recipients of their kindness feel.



We hope you all have a wonderful week!

As always,


Be Kind, Do Fearless






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2 Comments


Marianne Mason
Marianne Mason
Apr 15, 2023

Great topic. Loved the reminder to acknowledge the success no matter how small. In fact small is A-OK, even better. Thx for such a great topic!

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Being more optimistic is a wonderful goal that can make a big difference in your life. The first step to a more optimistic outlook is to focus on the positive things that are happening in your life, even if it's something minor, like enjoying a cup of coffee. In addition, making time for mindfulness practices, such as meditation and journaling, will help you focus on being present in the present moment and allowing yourself to experience good emotions. Finally, it's also important to find ways to connect with people who lift your spirits and bring out the best in you. You can read How to Be More Optimistic https://us.calmerry.com/blog/motivation/lemons-lemonade-how-to-be-more-optimistic/ for helpful answers. With enough practice, optimism gets easier over time!

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