The Optimism Factor
My dog died about a month ago. She was 11—ancient for a Great Dane—and had been gradually losing control of her back end for months. By the time my husband and I made the heart-wrenching decision to have her euthanized, she could barely walk and hadn’t relieved herself outside the house in almost half a year. To any rational person, our decision was the only right and humane one. And yet, the instant I felt the life leave Daisy’s body, I was overcome with self-doubt. Had we really tried everything to help her live a good, long life? If we had walked her more frequently, tried aquatherapy, kept her on that “miracle” joint supplement that didn’t seem to be doing any good … would we have slowed the deterioration and, thus, prevented her death?
Within hours, the tentacles of my grief extended throughout my universe. Not only was Daisy dead, but soon Saffron, our 10-year-old Great Dane would be, too. And my dad, well he’s getting up the years. Let’s not forget my sisters, who are both older than I am, or my husband, two years my senior. It wasn’t long before I was planning the funerals of everyone around me, immobilized by my borrowed sorrow.
In other words, I’m a textbook pessimist. I blame myself for bad events, take for granted that the situation will never get better, and globalize the negativity. Optimists, on the other hand, are able to bounce back from misfortune because they see it as a temporary, singular event, and they blame circumstance, other people, or just plain bad luck—but certainly not themselves.
Bad News for PessimistsAs if their constant downer of a mental state weren’t punishment enough, pessimists are in for some more hard blows when they look at the research about positivity and health. In study after study—and literally hundreds have been conducted—optimists fare better than pessimists in just about every health measure.
Emotional health, obviously, depends greatly on one’s perception of life events (depression and anxiety, for instance, are significantly more common in pessimists), but so does physical health. Studies show that across the board, optimists are less prone to illness, including heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure, than pessimists. Their immune systems are more robust, they’re more likely to kick cancer, and, perhaps most importantly, they live longer.
In one study, researchers administered a personality test to almost 7,000 University of North Carolina students in the mid-1960s. They then followed those students for 40 years and found that the ones who scored as the most pessimistic had a 42 percent higher death rate than the most optimistic. (Now that’s something to be bummed about.)
Pessimism Isn’t ForeverA pessimist like myself might look at all these studies and figure we’re out of luck—once a pessimist, always a pessimist, right? But luckily there are some goodhearted optimists out there determined to point out silver linings everywhere—optimists like Martin E. P. Seligman, PhD, who has dedicated his career to finding links between world view and health. Founder of the burgeoning field of science known as Positive Psychology , Seligman heads a department at the University of Pennsylvania devoted to the topic. His landmark book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, offers hope to skeptics. Not with fuzzy self-help language and self-esteem boosts (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it …”), but with clear, attainable, and thoroughly researched steps, Seligman outlines a plan for retraining the brain to see hardship as a temporary setback—not as calamity. It all comes down to changing your explanatory style, or the way you explain life events to yourself.
The first step, he says, comes down to ABC: Adversity, Belief, and Consequence. “When we encounter adversity, we react by thinking about it. Our thoughts rapidly congeal into beliefs. These beliefs may become so habitual we don’t even realize we have them unless we stop and focus on them. And they don’t just sit there idly; they have consequences,” Seligman writes. For a couple of days, record some instances of adversity you face. It doesn’t have to be major—it could be something as simple as not getting a return call from your friend, or slipping up with your diet. Record the adversity, and then write down your beliefs about it—in other words, what you thought after the adversity. Then think about how it made you feel or what it made you do, and record that as the consequence. Once you’ve recorded five events, look for links between the beliefs and the consequences. Do you notice that pessimistic explanations (beliefs) result in feelings (consequences) of dejection or passivity, whereas optimistic explanations bring about positive and energized feelings?
What comes next is simple, but will take some practice. “If you change the habitual beliefs that follow adversity for you,” Seligman advises, “your reaction to adversity will change in lockstep.” Here’s how to make it happen:
1. Recognize that it’s not the adversity that causes your feelings or actions, but rather the beliefs you’ve become habituated to formulating after the adversity.
2. When you find yourself experiencing the familiar pessimistic thoughts after a negative event, stop yourself immediately and redirect your attention. If it helps, you can jot down the thoughts and make a commitment to think about them later—this gives those thoughts the acknowledgment they’re demanding, but it prevents them from controlling you.
3. Argue with your beliefs. Remember some of the negative thoughts you’ve had in the reaction to adversity in the past (e.g., “I’m a terrible mother,” or “I’m a fat slob with no willpower.”) Now imagine that someone else were making these accusations of you. How would you react? Would you take them as fact, or would you argue them? Likely you’d put up a pretty good defense for yourself, and that’s exactly what you need to do—even when the tongue-lashing is self-directed.
It may feel a little awkward at first, but luckily, optimism (like pessimism) is self-fulfilling. “Once you get into the habit of disputing negative beliefs,” Seligman writes, your daily life will run much better, and you will feel much happier.”
Editor’s note: How optimistic are you? Take Seligman’s online optimism test to find out how you fare in the face of adversity.