Realistic optimism

You can train yourself to argue against a negative style of thinking and develop a more realistic, upbeat approach.

Smiling boy 311 (photo credit: Juan Garcia/Dallas Morning News/MCT))
Smiling boy 311
(photo credit: Juan Garcia/Dallas Morning News/MCT))
Thanks to John Lennon, people hear the word “imagine” and think of an idealistic, positive future. In reality, when we think of what will happen in the future, most people think negative thoughts.
Historically, due to a constant struggle for survival people were preoccupied with constantly identifying dangers. Personal and familial survival was challenged on a daily basis, and it was adaptive to think negatively and worry about dangers and worst-case scenarios.
Yet even today, there are many people who live with the same sense of hypervigilance and worry about danger. The first smell of smoke in the house, the siren of a police car, the crash of thunder and the first sign of fever can make many people nervous and worrisome and begin thinking negatively.
Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania claims cognitive scientists have demonstrated that negative thinking patterns lead to negative emotional reactions. Therefore, the thought of danger causes anxiety, the thought of loss causes sadness and the thought of trespass causes anger. If we habitually think that misfortune is lurking and enduring, it will become inevitable.
If you think about bad events that happened to you in terms of “always” (“I never win”), then you have a permanent negative and pessimistic style of thinking. That can lead to a universal pervasive interpretation of failure even when failure strikes only one area of life.
An example of this would be losing a job if it then leads to feelings of social incompetence and withdrawal from friends, family and loved ones. Ultimately that leads to helplessness and depression. On the other hand, if you interpret and think in terms of “sometimes” using qualifiers for bad events, you have an optimistic style. Such a person will feel that next time in the same situation the result will be different.
Seligman developed the concept of “learned optimism,” which uses a cognitive approach to help people overcome negative pessimistic thoughts by disputing them. Cognitive psychology has shown that arguing against negative pessimistic interpretations and expectations improves your ability to cope and helps relieve anxiety and depression.
You can train yourself to argue against a negative style and develop a more realistic, optimistic thinking style. For example, if you had tried and failed to sell your car, you would be considered optimistic if you attributed the failure to causes that were external and specific (e.g. wintertime is a buyers’ market). On the other hand, if you attributed it to causes that were internal and pervasive (I am terrible at persuading people), you are considered negative and pessimistic. To dispute that, you would learn to take an objective approach and look at all the factors that could impact the sale (timing, location, type of car, etc.).
IN ADDITION to helping with anxiety and depression an optimistic approach can also be a strong motivating tool to change behavior.
Researchers have documented optimism’s positive impact in helping people reach a particular goal. This is most effective when people focus on an image of the goal, and the steps needed to reach that goal.
Dr. Dean Ornish, a cardiologist who has written six books on heart disease, conducted a study of 333 patients with severely clogged arteries.
They were all at high risk for a major heart operation.
He gave them incentives to quit smoking and put them in a program with meditation, yoga and aerobic exercises. One year later, 77 percent stuck with the new lifestyle changes and avoided bypass surgery or angioplasty.
Ornish claims this approach worked because he reframed the program from the negative to positive. Rather than threatening them to change their destructive habits or die within 12 months, he had them experience healthy living, joy and a hopeful future. His conclusion was that no one would be motivated (even by the threat of death) if they are in constant chronic pain. If they have an experience and vision of the “joy of living” and the steps needed to get there, that optimistic message would motivate them.
The immediate impact of optimism was studied by Laura King, a professor at the University of Missouri. She instructed students to spend 20 minutes writing a narrative description of their “best possible future selves.” Basically this is a mental exercise in which you visualize the best possible future for yourself in multiple domains of your life. It is an energizing and enjoyable activity. Kling found that people who wrote about their vision for 20 minutes a day over several days, relative to those who wrote about other topics, were more likely to show immediate increases in positive moods, to be happier several weeks later and even to report fewer physical ailments several months later.
Optimism does have limitations and the guideline for not deploying optimism is to ask what the cost of failure is in the particular situation.
If the cost of failure is high, optimism is the wrong strategy. The airline pilot deciding to deice the plane one more time, or the partygoer deciding whether to drive home after drinking, should not use optimism. The costs of failure are too great. On the other hand, if the cost of failure is low, use optimism. Take the risk when failure is only a lack of success.
It is important to see the difference between this approach and the power of positive thinking.
Positive thinking often involves trying to believe upbeat statements such as “every day in every way, I am getting better and better.” In the absence of evidence, most people get skeptical quickly and consider such statements silly cheerleading. Learned optimism in contrast is about accuracy. It is a developed skill of disputing pessimism and identifying steps to an optimistic goal. When the goal is important to you, and you can see the steps to its outcome, you will persist in the plan even when you hit inevitable obstacles.
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty” – Winston Churchill.
Dr Mann is a Jerusalem based clinical psychologist and certified life coach who helps teenagers, adults and executives achieve positive goals.