Your raffle number has been declared the winning ticket. If you’re an optimist you say, “Great! I’m glad I purchased that ticket!” If you’re a pessimist you pronounce loudly, “Boy was I lucky. That will never happen again.”
Optimism is more than just a sunny disposition or a glass-half-full view of life. It’s a strategy of interfacing with our environment that has far-reaching effects on how we feel and what we do.
Highly optimistic people are very satisfied with who they are and what they’re doing. They delineate clear goals for themselves and are likely to accomplish what they set out to do. Optimists pay close attention to positive events and spend little time fuming over failures.
Optimists attribute success to their own behaviors. They sense a strong degree of control over their surroundings. When life is good, it’s because of wise choices that they’ve made. When they’re in a slump, they imagine what they can do to correct it or at least how best to survive the current downturn.
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Pessimists, on the other hand, take little responsibility for their success or shortcomings. They believe that luck is the major factor in eventual outcomes. They foist the locus of control onto others’ shoulders, refusing to recognize their own role in their disappointments. If a pessimist is passed over for a promotion, she’s more likely to blame her idiotic boss than to question what she can do to improve her work performance before her next evaluation.
While we all know that optimists are happy people, we often overlook the fact that they’re healthier and live longer, too. In a study of 99 Harvard University students, those who were rated optimistic when they were 25 years of age were much healthier at 45 and again at 60 than the pessimistic control group.
Researchers tracking 97,000 women found the risk of dying of heart disease was 30 percent lower in optimists than pessimists and the risk of dying of cancer decreased by 23 percent. Studies have shown that optimistic breast cancer patients have better health outcomes than hopeless, negative ones.
Pessimism has even been associated with certain mental disorders. Individuals with no previous psychiatric problems but who scored very high on a scale for pessimism showed a 30 percent higher chance of developing dementia as they aged. The incidence of dementia climbed to 40 percent if they scored very high on both anxiety and pessimism scales.
Why are some of us naturally cheery while others predisposed to negativity? A variety of factors are at play. We’re all born with an innate personality. Babies can be easy going and smiley or they can be fretful and difficult to sooth. Next, we learn how to act by watching our families. If our folks were trusting and positive, we’re apt to follow suit. When they’re dour or fearful, those characteristics rub off as well.
The events of our lives impact us, too. If we perceive that we have no power, we sometimes behave in powerless ways. Psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman has coined the term “learned helplessness” to describe the sense of futility and inaction that can accompany an inability to effect change.
Wondering if you’re an optimist? Respond yes or no to the following statements:
• I believe that life is basically fair.
• I look forward to going to work.
• Most of my good fortune is a result of my hard work and sound decisions.
• When I start something new I see myself as being successful.
• Whenever I get frustrated I take a break before trying again.
• If I’m faced with an unpleasant task I do it quickly so it’s not hanging over my head.
• I think that people enjoy being around me.
• I don’t dwell on past disappointments.
If you answered yes to 6 or more, you’re already wearing rose-colored glasses. If not, there’s still plenty you can do to add more cheer to your day.
Tips for looking on the sunny side
Optimism is definitely within your grasp. Try these simple techniques for creating a happier you:
• Put on a happy face. Happiness is contagious. When others see you grinning they’ll feel like smiling, too. You’ll also jumpstart your own feel-good mood. Research shows that turning up the corners of your mouth changes the blood flow to the brain and causes positive emotional changes.
• Replay the highlights of your life. Make a mental video tape of your successes and view it whenever you need a lift.
• Spin events in your favor. Be your own personal promoter and couch everything you do in a positive light. Even weaknesses can be translated into neutral facts that you’re managing on a daily basis.
• Catch yourself in the pessimistic act. Notice when you’ve gone negative. A gentle reminder, such as saying “Oops! That’s a downer!” helps you develop the glass-is-half-full habit.
• Learn from your failures. We all make bundles of mistakes. What we do about them determines our rate of personal success. Don’t obsess about past shortcomings. Analyze what went wrong, then dust yourself off and get back in the game.
• Practice, practice, practice! Optimism doesn’t come naturally for most people. It takes vigilance and effort to perfect. Set your sights on a sunnier attitude. Rehearse the necessary moves. You’ll be amazed at how quickly your outlook brightens. Soon you’ll notice bluebirds on every branch.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit lindalewisgriffith.com