We all know that optimism is good for us. We know that we should see the glass half full. We know that a positive attitude is essential to living well and long.
But, Jane Brody asks, do we really understand what optimism is? Is it about attitude and sensibility or is something else involved?
Cognitive psychologists discovered the importance of positive emotion when they noticed that depressed patients were burdened by negative emotions. They also recognized that too many therapists had been trained in negative emotion, an thus, were ill prepared to help pessimistic individuals.
Clearly, the antidote for excessively negative thinking is positive thinking.
Within rational limits, of course.
It’s better to see life as a comedy than as a tragedy, but shutting out reality in the name of an illusion is not the most constructive way to face the world.
It’s not a good idea to travel through life repeating Candide’s mindless mantra: Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
The real problem with blind optimism is that if everything is for the best, then it doesn’t matter what I do. It’s still going to turn out for the best.
If depression occurs when people become so pessimistic that they give up, Candide’s blind optimism is its cousin. If everything always works out for the best it doesn’t matter what I do. So, why try to get things right? Why do anything?
Since it is too easy to misunderstand optimism, Jane Brody’s recommends that we look at the definition offered by psychology professor Suzanne Segerstrom in her book Breaking Murphy’s Law.
According to Segerstrom, it is less about attitude and sensibility than about how we behave.
In Brody’s words:
… Segerstrom … explained that optimism is not about being positive so much as it is about being motivated and persistent.
Dr. Segerstrom and other researchers have found that rather than giving up and walking away from difficult situations, optimists attack problems head-on. They plan a course of action, getting advice from others and staying focused on solutions.
Planning an action, taking advice, and focusing on solutions… it’s what coaching is all about. It is not what therapists are trying to do when they recommend that you explore your issues and get in touch with your feelings.
Segerstrom is also aiming at a definition of optimism that involves ethical behavior. It’s not about having the right sensibility; it’s about doing the right thing.
Cognitive exercises help to produce optimism, but the proof, Segerstrom is saying, is in the doing.
In Brody’s words:
Noting that it is easier to change behavior than emotions, she eschews the popular saying “Don’t worry, be happy.” Instead, she endorses a form of cognitive behavioral therapy: Act first and the right feelings will follow. As she puts it in her book, “Fake it until you make it.”
She wrote, “People can learn to be more optimistic by acting as if they were more optimistic,” which means “being more engaged with and persistent in the pursuit of goals.
Many therapists assume that they must change minds first and that a changed mind will allow or instruct a body to behave differently.
Yet, you can change your bad habits without knowing why or how you acquired them. Worrying about why you have them will make them more meaningful, and thus, harder to change.
Asking how you build optimism in Segerstrom's sense is like asking how you build character.
You do it by doing the right thing even if you do not know why it’s the right thing.
If you know how an optimistic person confronts problems then you should do as that person does regardless of how you feel. If you act as though you have confidence you will eventually gain confidence.
It suffices to know how someone who possesses optimism and confidence would deal with a problem.
Brody offers other constructive suggestions, taken from the Mayo Clinic. To build up your optimism you should solve the problems you know you can solve before tackling those that are more difficult.
It’s like taking the SATs. First, answer the questions that are relatively easy. Skip over the difficult questions and come back to them after you have finished the rest.
Also, if you want to build your optimism, you should surround yourself with optimistic people, with people who are persistent and confident.
If you do not know what to do when faced with a difficult task, you do not need to look into the depths of your soul. And you do not need to become more conscious about how your parents ruined your life.
You should imitate the strategies of those people who have the right attitude. Initially, it will feel unnatural, but eventually you will acquire true optimism.