Being an Optimist – Part 2


Now pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start to feel good about yourself. Take a lesson from Step 4, “Practice Emotional Broadcasting,” and have a chat with the poor little guy. Help him dispute feeling badly about himself. Tell him accidents do happen and that he’s a great little guy. Provide a real emotional bond. Try the same thing when you get into an altercation with adults. Let the anger cool, then try to change the emotional atmosphere so that you are energized by the situation and walk away feeling better for having undergone it.

Once you change your explanatory style from pessimistic to optimistic, research suggests that the change is permanent. You will have set skills for talking to yourself when you fail. You can use these skills to stop depression from taking hold when failure strikes. On a philosophical level, changing explanatory styles works because, as Dr. Seligman says, “it takes advantage of newly legitimized powers of the self.” For more help, you’ll want to read Professor Seligman’s excellent book, Learned Optimism. The ADAPTIV company now makes his methods more widely available to businesses. For further help, you may also seek out psychiatrists or psychologists who practice cognitive therapy.

Immunizing against Pessimism

The late Jonas Salk, M.D., the polio vaccine pioneer, told me, “If I were a young scientist today, I would still do immunization. But instead of immunizing kids physically, I would do it psychologically. I’d see if these psychologically immunized kids could then fight off mental and physical illness better:”

Seligman proved this psychological immunization could work through an elegant animal experiment. You may recall the classic Pavlovian experiment in which rats learned to avoid electric shocks by discovering what actions caused the shock. What Professor Seligman did was to take rats that had thoroughly mastered the art of avoiding electric shocks, and then put these animals in a situation in which they could not avoid the shock. Because they had been “immunized” against helplessness, the rats continued to avail themselves of every imaginable effort to avoid the new series of shocks. They had learned how to help themselves and weren’t about to give up. They were optimistic rats. However, rats who could not escape the series of electric shocks in their early training learned how to become helpless or pessimistic. They simply wouldn’t move no matter how painful or often the shocks.

Does the immunization of optimism work against real human illness? Consider these two studies.

A classic study at Harvard Medical School followed Harvard graduates for fifty years after they graduated, permitting a rare opportunity to follow the effect of positive thinking over an entire lifetime. Those who handled life with humor, altruism, and positive thinking went on to much more successful and healthy lives. By sixty, very few of them were chronically ill. Fully one-third of those who were pessimistic in their thinking showed poor health by age sixty.

In a groundbreaking study, David Spiegel, M.D., Director of the Psychosocial Treatment Laboratory at Stanford University School of Medicine, showed that women suffering from breast cancer lived eighteen months longer than their counterparts if they participated in weekly groups that involved strong social support and encouraged expression of all emotion – positive and negative. Dr. Spiegel says, “These groups developed realistic optimism – members learned to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. We found that when these women with advanced breast cancer shared their grief, sadness, and fear together, they also shared great joy. They learned to trivialize the trivial in their lives and value their contact with one another, their families, and friends.” With a better social support system, the patients fared better; they learned that expressing honest emotion is a source of closeness with others, and that, in turn, made them feel better. The good news is that in this study, it wasn’t innate optimism that was associated with living longer, it was developing a positive attitude and participating in a group that made them feel that they – and all of their emotions about the illness – belonged. Even in the face of insurmountable obstacles, such as death itself, optimists triumph. Says Dr. Spiegel, “The lesson is to focus on facing the illness directly, understanding that you can live richly even if you are dying of breast cancer.”

Tommy Lasorda, the famous baseball coach, once told me that if you’ve got a great attitude, you’ve got a chance – with a bad attitude, you’ve got nothing. I’m amazed that more and more people today have a major attitude problem. Those who stand out as successes in their profession usually have a great attitude. In fact, a great attitude is probably the most important part of making your own good luck. That great attitude is what gets you noticed by people who want to hire you and work with you. Too many people with a bad attitude are tinged by just enough pessimism that many of the rest of us want to keep them at arm’s length in order not to be infected by their negativity.

A bad attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The individual with a bad attitude believes the events that have soured his attitude are out of his control, and that as a result he is damaged goods. When optimistic, you fundamentally believe something is possible. Optimists may get knocked around a lot, their ideas may get trashed, their careers thwarted, but by getting up instead of knocking their heads against the wall, they win again and again. Dr. Michael DeBakey, the famed heart surgeon, did bypass surgeries five years before they were proven effective, established the link between smoking and lung cancer in 1937, and was the first doctor to back Medicare. In each case he found himself awash in criticism. How did he pull through? “I think optimism is the basic attitude.” Optimism, a basic belief in himself, and self-discipline. Dr. DeBakey adds self-discipline because it is the belief in self tied together with self-discipline that allows one to be optimistic in the face of adversity.

Many of us do have doubts about ourselves, about our abilities, or even about the feasibility of our life’s work. If you’re pessimistic, you’ll never believe you can do anything, and that will leave you without a chance. Remember, even the wildest optimists sometimes fail in the scope of their vision. But look back through the long lens of history. Man almost always underestimated what could be done. Alexander Graham Bell most likely never foresaw cell phones or low earth-orbiting satellites for worldwide sat phone operations. Rather than envisioning something too grand, we imagine too little.
The bottom line is that optimism is the foundation of positive thoughts.

By becoming optimistic, you remove the energy-draining funnel of pessimism. Consider the author Frederick Langbridge’s epigram titled “Pessimist and Optimist”:

Two men look out through the same bars: One sees the mud, and one the stars.

Look out and see the stars! The more optimistic you are the greater your chances of remaining vibrantly healthy, beating disease, living longer, being more successful at work, having a better marriage, and becoming far more financially secure.

Dr Leo Kady