Friday, April 9, 2010

Learning Optimism

While I was pounding away on the treadmill today (cranked it up to 7.0 for a while today and barely felt a thing! Woo! Progress.), I was reading an article in an old Shape magazine. The author was talking about her struggle to become a more patient person, since upon further inspection and talking with a therapist, she determined that impatient people have lower IQs, higher blood pressure, narcissistic tendencies ("My time is more important than yours so hurry the hell up!"), and they procrastinate. That's good; I can buy it. In talking to this therapist she gleaned that impatience was a learned characteristic and something you could train yourself to overcome. That's cool, too. But then she compared it to optimism and stated something along the lines of, "It's not like optimism, which you're born with or you're not." Is that true? Or do you think you can learn optimism? I do. But maybe I'm "just an optimist." I never thought of myself as one or the other, honestly. It just depends on my mood. Ha.

Positive Psychology News seems to agree with me. It's just a matter of changing the way you think. Optimists automatically see bad situations as fleeting and good ones as permanent. Pessimists are the opposite. If a pessimist knocks out a presentation and does a fabulous job with it, it was a fluke. Hmm...I wonder if a lot of writers are pessimists, because I have seen so many say they feel like posers once they reach a modicum of success. LOL However, if an optimist does the same good job, it's because they worked hard, they know their stuff, etc, etc.

If you like the way you think and you're a pessimist, great. However, by shifting to a more optimistic perspective, you may find yourself getting sick less--and you could live longer than your glass-half-empty buddies. Plus in the case of self-fulfilling prophecies, your chances of having a happy, rewarding life increase when you have an optimistic outlook.

Build Freedom is another site that talks about learned optimism. It offers a similar explanation of the differences in the way optimists and pessimists look at life and also how a good dose of learned optimism can help alleviate depression by teaching you that you are not helpless. This site agrees that, in the human mind, bad things are a pessimists fault and will influence everything they do and everything that happens to them forever (or at least a very long time), but they're simply unfortunate and temporary events in the optimist's life that he or she didn't necessarily cause.

If you visit the Build Freedom site, you'll see 10 ways to learn to become an optimist. It's written regarding the 1992 recession, but I doubt the human brain as it relates to optimism and pessimism has changed too much since then. ;) There are statements listed there that you should remember like (these aren't word for word, so be sure to check out the site):
  • Since I'm human, that means I can learn and set goals. I'm not helpless. I can achieve things.
  • Change happens. Just as things change and get worse, they can change and get better. Tough people outlast tough situations.
  • Relax and think to achieve a more realistic, positive outlook.
  • When your thoughts start to stray to "the dark side," reign them in and put them back into the Positive Mental Attitude camp. Eventually, your positive thoughts will become a habit.
  • Look at everything you have left rather than looking at what you've lost.

You can also see more at, where Lucy MacDonald, the author of Learn to Be an Optimist: A Practical Guide to Achieving Happiness (Chronicle Books), explores the differences between the two states of mind.

I would love to present the other side of the argument--that once you're an optimist or a pessimist, you can't change, but I can't find anything that supports it. I'm not saying that the Shape article's author or the therapist was wrong--I'm no expert, first of all. I have seen articles that suggest that optimism and pessimism are fixed states, but I haven't seen anything to back up why they think so. It seems to be a common belief, but not one that has a ton of information.

I guess it doesn't matter if you can be "born" an optimist or a pessimist, or if it's nature or nurture that turns you into whichever one you are. The important question is whether or not you can change it. Though it's hard, it seems that it is possible to re-shape your way of thinking.

So what do you think? Can you change your way of thinking and become an optimist, or are you stuck with a glass that's half-empty no matter what you do? Are we born one way or the other at all, or is it nurture that sculpts our positive or negative outlook? 


Kim said...

I don't have a clue - but I've often wondered about this. I am definitely an optimist - and my dh is a pessimist. He often asks me "Doesn't anything ever bother you?" - of course it does, but I just look at things differently. If something breaks down & we have to replace it - he sees it as bad luck and "just can't get ahead" - I see it as "at least we had the cash to pay for it". It's all about perspective - but I have no idea what made us the way we are...

Eclectic Musings said...

It is funny how perspectives can be so different when two people are in the same situation. Have you ever been able to get him to jump onboard with your way of looking at a situation that affects you the same way?

I wonder how many pessimists actually want to change the way they think. LOL I know when I'm in a funk and looking at something negatively, if someone tries to change my mind about the way things are, I dig in my heels and look for more bad things about the situation. At the same time, sometimes I'm ridiculously hopeful about things.

Kim said...

Actually, I do think that I've rubbed off on him a bit - and he has mellowed with age. He's much more relaxed/forgiving/tolerant than he was when he was younger.