Being an Optimist – Part 1

OK, so maybe you hate optimists. You have this picture in your mind of someone mindlessly watching Pollyanna on the late show until three o’clock in the morning, then rising at 5:00 A.M. and singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” in the shower until the entire household is awake, causing a bad start to an otherwise perfectly OK day. A far more discerning look at optimists shows that they are life’s big winners. They are richer, more successful, healthier, do better in school, and have both better relationships and marriages. Linda S. Wilson, President Emerita of Radcliffe, says: “I’m an optimist. Optimism is the expectation that we can make things better. For example, in the face of pending illness, assume that it has the probability of coming out OK. It’s important not to have a defeatist attitude.” What’s different about optimists is that they are tough-minded and creative when faced with adversity. Optimism is high mental energy. Fran Shea, President of E! Entertainment, says: “I think optimism is something you have to put effort into. I’m optimistic by nature, but society is so sped up, and that contributes to the overwhelm mode. Not having time to prioritize works against optimism.”

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Optimists can’t handle reality.
THE REALITY OF SUCCESS: Optimists are the most skillful manipulators of reality.

The Reality of Optimism

Individuals who are more optimistic report themselves to be more alert, more proud, more enthusiastic, active, and engaged. These individuals are less likely to get depressed. Dr. Richard J. Davidson, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madium, has studied the biology of optimism and found optimists have higher levels of natural killer-cell activity with a smaller decline under stress, so they are more capable of fighting disease. Optimists also have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. All these observations add up to solid biological advantages that may help explain why optimists are generally so much more successful than pessimists.

Creating the Reality of Optimism

Much of what follows in this section is born of conversations with Professor Martin Seligman, Ph.D., author of the acclaimed bestseller Learned Optimism and the world’s leading authority on optimism, helplessness, and explanatory styles.

Overcoming helplessness

The number one stumbling block to reaching success for most people is that they do not genuinely believe that they can succeed. They have learned, over time, how to become helpless. This condition, which Dr. Seligman calls “learned helplessness,” is at the very heart of pessimism. We invent a million different excuses as to why we can’t do something – and you know what … as a result we can’t. The sad truth is that we are creating our own flawed destiny through pessimism. Dr. Seligman says pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Twenty-five years of study have convinced me that if we habitually believe that misfortune is our fault, is enduring, and will undermine everything we do, more of it will befall us than if we believe otherwise…. If we are in the grip of this view, we will get depressed easily, we will accomplish less than our potential, and we will even get physically sick more often. Pessimistic prophecies are self-fulfilling.” Pessimists are more passive and less likely to take steps to avoid bad events and less likely to do anything to stop them once they start.

Who are you? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Which category do you fall into? The typical pessimist believes that when something bad happens, it will last a long time, that the event has undermined everything he’s ever done, that it’s entirely Ills fault. The pessimist imagines the worst, is prone to depression, and generally feels helpless. The optimist believes that a bad event is temporary and surmountable, that it’s a cause of bad luck or other people. The optimist is unfazed by defeat and feels the bad event is a challenge to overcome. He or she easily regains energy and above all feels in control.
How you explain life’s events to yourself determines if you are an optimist or pessimist. For pessimists, those events are explained by Professor Seligman’s three “p’s” of pessimism.


Pessimists give up easily because they believe the situation is permanent. The bad events will continue and always be a part of their lives. An optimist believes the causes of bad events are temporary. Here’s an example you may find in your own relationships:

PESSIMIST: “You never talk to me:” OPTIMIST: “You haven’t talked to me lately.”

When things go wrong, everyone experiences a momentary sense of failure. How quickly you bounce back is reflective of this dimension of permanence.


Some people let failure pervade every aspect of their lives. If you lose your job, your role as a wife or a daughter or a volunteer has not diminished one bit. Dr. Seligman says it comes down to this: universal versus specific explanations. “People who make universal explanations for their failures give up on everything when a failure strikes in one area. People who make specific explanations may become helpless in that one part of their lives yet march stalwartly on in the others.”


Whom do you blame when something goes wrong? Those who internalize blame tend to have low self-esteem, feeling unloved or unworthy, while the opposite is true for those who place the blame outside themselves.

Becoming an optimist

This section will take you, step by step, toward being an optimist. The more optimistic you become, the more your mood will lift.

Becoming an optimist means learning a set of skills that help you to talk to yourself when you confront failure, a setback, or a tragedy. You’ll do that by changing the way you explain events to yourself. Technically, Dr. Seligman calls it the ABCDE (Adversity, Belief, Consequence, Disputation, Energization) method. Here’s an example of how to fight pessimistic thoughts by changing the way you explain bad events.


You’ve gotten up at the crack of dawn, made the beds, called two new clients, and are about to leave for work when your four-yearold flips his breakfast onto the floor. You totally lose it and scream at the little tyke, who gives you a look of bewilderment.


“I’m a lousy mother. I just can’t do it all. I’m providing a miserable example of how to behave and can’t even be nice to my own children. My children will grow up to be hostile people who deal with the world through the prism of anger and frustration. They’ll never amount to much of anything:”

CONSEQUENCE “I’m depressed.”


A good way to dispute any charge is to imagine that your worst enemy said that to you. You wouldn’t believe that you were a lousy mother and would argue the point SO, ARGUE! Like a lawyer launching an attack on a hostile witness, prepare the following arguments to counter your pessimistic thought.

– Make your belief factually incorrect with evidence. Look at all the evidence showing you that in fact you’re not a lousy mother – you take good care of your children, get them to school on time, read to them … you just had a bad moment.

– Decatastrophise the implications of the situation. OK, You yelled. Just how bad is that? Does that mean your child won’t graduate from Harvard or will become an ax murderer? Yelling once is just not a catastrophe.

– Search for alternative explanations for your behavior. Focus on the causes that are changeable, specific, and nonpersonal. For instance, you were up all night with a new baby and just felt a little cranky. That’s a long way from being a bad mother.

– Look at the usefulness of your belief. How useful or productive is it for you to think you’re a lousy mother? Does that really help you be a better mother? Often, it’s simply better to get on with what you have to do, to distract yourself, than to dwell on destructive beliefs.

We will continue the road on, Being an Optimist, next when we look at Energization and Immunization.

Dr Leo Kady