An upbeat outlook isn’t just something you’re born with. The latest research shows it’s a skill anyone can master.
If you’d asked me six months ago, I’d have said optimism means having faith I’d make it through the week without a child getting sick or a major appliance breaking down. And I’d have claimed to be an optimist myself, because despite the fact that my kids are constantly catching colds and my fridge is forever going on the fritz, I continue to make plans that assume no such setbacks.
Then I saw the movie Apollo 13, and I realized that positive thinking is a lot more than blind faith, and its power over people’s lives is pretty awesome. Just watch Ed Harris as the mission control leader: Here’s a guy who, despite every indication to the contrary, insists there’s a way to eke out enough power from a wounded spacecraft to bring three astronauts back to earth–and then figures out how to do it, using little more than socks, spit, and bubble gum.
I want to become more like him, I decided. And fortunately, I can. The latest research shows that optimism isn’t simply a trait a person is born with–or without. It’s a skill anyone can master.
But first let’s clear up a few misconceptions. “Optimism is not about constant elation, or being lucky enough to escape disappointment,” says David G. Myers, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, MI. And it has nothing to do with feeling entitled to wealth and well-being. In fact, an attitude of entitlement without a sense of responsibility only leads to frustration. “Most of us live with a level of material comfort undreamed of half a century ago,” Myers says. “But because we think we deserve home computers and brand name athletic shoes, we feel cheated if we don’t automatically get them. It’s the same with relationships. Our grandparents didn’t expect endless ecstasy from marriage, and their marital satisfaction was higher.”
So what is optimism? “It’s a habitual way of explaining your setbacks to yourself,” explains Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Learned Optimism and The Optimistic Child. Here’s how it works:
* The pessimist believes bad events stem from permanent conditions (“I lost the tennis match because I’m a lousy player”), and good events from temporary ones (“My husband brought me flowers because he had a good day at work”). The optimist, however, attributes failure to temporary causes (“I lost the match because I was exhausted today”), and favorable situations to enduring causes (“He brought me flowers because he really loves me”).
* The pessimist allows a disappointment in one area of her life to pervade the rest. Say she’s laid off from work. The pessimist not only feels bad about losing her job, she also starts to worry that her husband has lost interest, her kids are out of control, and her house is a wreck. The optimist doesn’t let one setback contaminate her whole life. “Okay, so at the moment I don’t have a job,” she thinks. “My husband and I are still close, my kids made the honor roll, and my garden’s the envy of the neighborhood.”
* When things go wrong, the pessimist blames herself even if she wasn’t at fault. If another driver dents her parked car, she chides herself for parking in a stupid spot. The optimist ascribes such trouble to a fluke–“Darn, a dent! Oh well, everybody has bad luck occasionally”–or evidence that she needs a new approach–“Next time I’ll park in the far lot where there are fewer cars.” It boils down to control. While the optimist feels she’s in charge of her life, the pessimist feels helpless and, therefore, hopeless.
“The thought, Nothing I do matters, prevents the pessimist from trying to improve her situation,” Seligman notes. “So, confronted by a setback, she just gives up.” Her first should is a flop? She quits her cooking class. Her first pregnancy ends in miscarriage? She’s too afraid of heartbreak to try to conceive again.
Optimists, however, persist in the face of failure because they “believe in themselves,” says New York City psychologist Penelope Russianoff, Ph.D. That’s why, as we’ve often heard, optimists fare better in almost every aspect of life.
“Professionally, the pessimist’s lack of perseverance may lead her to achieve less than her talents warrant,” Seligman says. In contrast, optimists often achieve beyond their apparent potential. “Studies show that the level of hope among freshmen more accurately predicts college performance than do SAT scores or high-school grades,” says C.R. Snyder, Ph.D., director of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
Hopeful people enjoy greater social success as well, while pessimists may let friendships wither rather than work through misunderstandings.
Small wonder, then, that pessimists are prone to depression. But they’re also more susceptible to physical ills, from colds to cancer to heart disease. “An optimistic outlook encourages people to stick to health regimens and seek medical ad when sick,” Seligman explains. “There’s strong evidence, too, that optimism bolsters the immune system.”
Psychologists believe optimism and pessimism are habits we learn as children, and our parents are our primary role models. When a water pipe broke and flooded the rec room of your brand-new home, did your mother lament, “Why did I pick such a lousy house? Who knows how we’ll pay for the damage?” Or did she declare, “Our contract guaranteed everything would be in perfect condition. I’ll have the builder fix the plumbing and replace the furniture”
The kind of criticism you received as a child also influenced your outlook. Say you failed a math quiz. If you were told, “You didn’t pay attention during the lesson on fractions,” you learned to see the causes of failure as temporary. But if you heard, “You don’t have a head for numbers”–a permanent weakness beyond your control–you were steered down the path of pessimism.
Luckily, learned habits can be unlearned. A variety of techniques can boost your optimism level, whether you’re a hard-core naysayer, or someone who’s occasionally susceptible to the defeatist power of pessimism (who isn’t?). Below, a ten-step program to help you to think positive.
Challenge Your Negative Thoughts
* Find the inaccuracies. Suppose you’re late getting to work. Rather than berating yourself–“I’m always late. I have the worst punctuality record in the company”–try to remember when you were last late. Yesterday? No, eight weeks ago. Are you really the least punctual? Consider your coworker who’s been late three times this month.
* Don’t always blame yourself. Are you late because you lazed in bed? No, your teenager emptied the car’s tank last night, so you had to make an emergency stop for gas.
* Consider the consequences. “I’m going to get fired,” you moan. Not likely. Imagine the worst case scenario if you must, but then picture the best. Maybe the boss gets caught in traffic and arrives even later than you. Finally, envision the most likely scenario: The boss scowls as you scurry to your desk–embarrassing, but far from fatal–and by five o’clock she’s forgotten the whole incident.
* Instead of brooding, look for a solution. Maybe you can appease the boss by working through lunch. Strategize, too, on how to prevent a recurrence. Tell your teen to fill the tank whenever he uses the car. Leave the house ten minutes earlier to allow for unforeseen delays. “Think of failure as the result of a faulty strategy, not some character flaw,” says Seligman. “Then, instead of feeling helpless, you can take action.”
Rehearse the Role
* Picture yourself a winner. “In experiments, people who imagine themselves succeeding outperform those who expect to fail,” explains Myers. Suppose you’re afraid you’ll blow your diet at your niece’s wedding. Before the big day, visualize yourself passing up crab puffs in favor of crudites. Anticipate the problems you might encounter–“Yikes, they’re serving cheesecake!” Then imagine your ideal response: “Quick, Harry, dance with me so I don’t go near that dessert table.” By the time you face the real challenge, your mental rehearsals will have given you confidence and willpower.
* Act like an optimist. Suppose you were recently divorced. A friend arranges a dinner party to which she’s also invited an eligible man. The pessimist in you moans, “He probably won’t be interested in me anyway.” Now ask yourself what the optimist would do. Put on that little black dress friends say is so flattering? Do it!
“Advising people to act positively sounds like telling them to be phony,” Myers admits. “But when we step into any new role–perhaps our first day playing parent, boss, or teacher–an amazing thing happens. The phoniness gradually subsides, and the new role and the accompanying attitude begin to fit us as comfortably as an old pair of jeans.”
Give Yourself Credit
* Acknowledge past successes. Make a list of all the good things that have happened to you, Russianoff suggests. Then analyze each as the result of your own efforts. Your vacation photographs were superb not because cameras today are designed for dummies, but because you are skilled at lighting and composition. Your garden party was a great success, not because the weather was nice, but because of your preparation and social skills.
* Celebrate achievements. Share good news with friends and family. And don’t forget to reward yourself. “I fixed that hole in the wall without having to call the carpenter. Now I’ll treat myself to a manicure.” Taking pride in your accomplishments builds your sense of self-worth.
Optimism, Snyder says, “requires both willpower and way power, the means to achieve your goals.”
* Choose goals wisely. Be sure your goal is your own. Maybe your father did always dream you’d take over the family hardware store, but if you love books more than drill bits, you’ll be happier as a librarian. Guard against disappointment by striving to improve in various arenas–family life, friendships, career, recreation. The woman who achieves her goal of running a marathon is less demoralized at being passed over for a promotion.
* Be specific. Vague plans to do more for the community have less chance of succeeding than do vows to volunteer once a week at the soup kitchen.
Break down large goals into smaller objectives to keep from being paralyzed by the enormity of your task. “With each interim goal you reach,” says Snyder, “you see progress. You feel energized and excited about what’s to come.” And that is the mark–and the power–of an optimist.