United States was born in the spirit of 'optimism.' Thomas Jefferson wrote...'
life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' Both religious
and secular elements of our society offer concepts of spiritual and material
success. The Puritans favored self-help; working hard and living a Godly
life. Benjamin Franklin espoused that success and wealth could be achieved
by industry, perseverance, and personal initiative. The whole concept
of the self-made man entailed the continuous possibility of improving
oneself and creating a better life, no matter what one's station in life
was. It is more than obvious that these initiators of the 'American scene'
were steadfast optimists. Knowing the hardships that lie ahead, these
innovators stood firm with their convictions, and endured the many obstacles
that endangered their success. They were optimists in the truest sense
of the word.
Mary McCarthy, an American author and critic states 'the happy ending
is our national belief.' According to McCarthy, optimism is the 'American
way.' The majority of Americans believe that happiness is attainable,
and it is inevitable that we will eventually experience it. She underscores
the fact that there is a tremendous emphasis on optimism within our culture.
In referring to our earliest personal recollections of optimism, McCarthy
makes reference to children's stories. She notes The Little Train That
Could reciting 'I think I can, I think I can,' as it chugs along
So, what does it mean to be
optimistic? We've all heard the word, and most of us have used the word
'optimism' in routine conversation. Optimism entails viewing the positive
side of a situation. No matter how dismal a dilemma we face, one can always
find a way to make it more palatable. We may even learn to grow as a result.
An integral part of optimism is the 'sense of hope' that is necessary
to see the positive side of a sometimes non-negotiable situation. Some
say that optimism grows out of pessimism; that pessimism must be present
so that the individual can clearly see the alternatives that are available
in lieu of viewing things in a negative and powerless manner.
Most individuals have experienced powerlessness, and have suffered tragedies;
some physical, some emotional, some both. This is an ongoing peculiarity
of the human condition. It is difficult to compare and measure the importance
of problems that effect us individually. It's all relative. Some individuals
address problems more effectively than others. The term 'mind-body
connection' manifests at various levels of physiology. For example,
an individual who has lost a limb might be addressed more sympathetically
than an individual who is suffering from a bad knee. Initially, most might
consider the individual with the lost limb to be in a dire situation when
compared to the individual with the afflicted knee. However, if the limbless
individual is able to accept, work with, and grow from this loss, and
the individual with the afflicted knee falls into a deep depression, who's
actually suffering the most? Again, it's all relative.
Optimists have a general tendency to expect a good outcome. This disposition
reflects expectancies that individuals have for the future. The future
is often determined by whether or not the individual strives or yields.
A person's mind remains lucid when he or she believes that goals
are attainable. The individual feels better, works more efficiently, and
is not encumbered by negative emotions. According to experts, a feeling
of happiness or elation allows the body to function in a healthier state,
and creates an energy that empowers the individual to function more productively.
Only ten years ago, the concept of mental activity being linked with physical
effects and conditions was considered scientifically impossible. (Dana:
'Positive Thinking') This concept is now universally supported.
Some individuals are able to find the energy to prevail more easily than
others. In 1979, Robert Shuman was a practicing psychologist at a children's
hospital. Married for 11 years, and a father of two, he began to experience
a real phenomenon that changed his physical and emotional view of life
forever. After experiencing numerous substantial impasses, Shuman was
finally hospitalized for a severe back spasm. After several years of excruciating
and undiagnosed discomfort, Shuman was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
He realized feelings of helplessness and isolation, and began to understand
how others in similar and more critical conditions felt when faced with
devastation and torment. He understood that many would be faced with this
anguish for the rest of their lives, and decided to document his difficulties
and other's difficulties with chronic illness. These manuscripts resulted
in his book entitled The Psychology of Chronic Illness. Shuman's
definition of 'chronic illness' is as follows: a chronic illness is
one in which a person's symptoms continue over a long period of time to
impair his or her ability to continue with significant activities and
According to Shuman, approximately thirty million Americans have been
diagnosed with chronic illnesses that limit normal day-to-day activities.
Twenty-five per cent of the 30 million are between the ages of 45 and
60, and 45 per cent are over the age of 65. It's possible that as many
as sixty million people are directly affected by chronic illness. These
statistics are based on a 'two-person' household. He further states that
many of these individuals will seek out professional health care providers
for relief from physical and psychiatric distress. Health care professionals
are often able to fill a void for the chronically ill individual, as doctors
are frequently insensitive to the suffering realized by their patients.
The inability of the individual to function in the same manner prior to
the illness plays a powerful role for those with chronic illnesses and
disabilities. As difficult as life may seem at times, the road is a much
more challenging undertaking. Many individuals faced with these challenges
view their new lives as burdensome. Some might feel the day to day 'grind'
of existence, and others might see themselves as a burden. Others might
ask the very common question, 'why me?'
Human nature requires answers for the unanswerable, and day to day Life
is usually connected to the medical establishment that places a tremendous
emphasis on 'getting well' or a 'cure.' The search for healing
the person or the soul often goes unnoticed. Shuman unmasks the fact that
many do not receive the reassurance that they are seeking. The medical
establishment frequently treats the external person, and ignores and neglects
the inner life or world of the individual. Both the psychological level
and the spiritual level are in need of the same attention given to physiological
The concept of optimism has prevailed for centuries, however, it has only
been formally and scientifically researched for the past 30 years. Martin
Seligman is one of the foremost leaders in 'optimism research.' While
the majority of his work can be found in scholarly journals, he wrote
a national bestseller entitled Learned Optimism.
In the 1960's, Seligman introduced the concept of 'learned helplessness'
to describe the giving-up reaction of people who are experiencing stressful
events which they believe to be out of their control. His first studies
on this subject used three groups of dogs. The first group was given repeated
electric shocks with no opportunity to escape. The second group was given
the opportunity to perform some action that would stop the shock from
occurring. The third group was a control group that received no shocks.
All three groups of dogs were then placed in a new situation where they
had the opportunity to escape the shocks by jumping a small barrier. The
group that had been previously unable to escape stood helplessly enduring
the shocks. The other two groups easily jumped the barrier to safety.
The first group had learned to be helpless. They had developed the expectation
that no attempt at avoiding the shocks would work; there was no point
to even trying, so why bother?
Seligman went on to perform this experiment with people. He explained
that learning helplessness in humans is modified by their explanatory
style. In other words, what we tell ourselves about an event will determine
our reaction to the event. Explanatory style is what we tell ourselves
about the causes of our successes and failures. According to Seligman,
there are two explanatory styles: the optimistic explanatory style and
the pessimistic explanatory style. The pessimistic explanatory style can
be based on three characteristics. When experiencing failure the pessimist
believes s/he is responsible for the event. The pessimist also believes
that the event will prove to be a permanent situation, and this negative
event will spread to other situations. Pessimistic thinking might lead
to learned helplessness because the individual is blaming her/himself.
The situation might be viewed as a permanent one (I don't have the
ability), or pervasive in spreading to other situation (no wonder
I don't have any friends). The individual who does not experience
helplessness does not take blame, and views the situation as a temporary
one. The situation would then be confined to one aspect of the individual's
life, and is, therefore, not pervasive. A pessimistic explanatory style
changes learned helplessness from brief and local to long-lasting and
general. Full-blown depression could result when the person who fails
is a pessimist. The optimist, however, experiences only a brief period
Recent research studies indicate that college students with a pessimistic
explanatory style of coping, experience more psychological and physical
problems than those with a positive explanatory style. Alternatively,
college students who are optimistic experience less stress and depression,
and are more likely to seek social support. The optimistic student does
not experience the 'loneliness' that is often experienced by the 'pessimistic'
student, and is able to function in a more independent manner. Additionally,
recent studies of cancer patients reflect that the optimists were more
likely to engage in active attempts to deal with the stress of cancer
and its treatment through an optimistic explanatory style. They were less
likely to dwell upon negative emotional experiences, and did not employ
avoidance strategies or disengage from active coping. Based on existing
studies, it appears that optimism is likely to be related to psychological
and physical well-being, by means of its relation to active versus inactive
In Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman discusses optimism as the
antithesis of pessimism. It embraces a harboring quality which reflects
the following phenomenon: fewer infectious diseases are incurred by optimists;
preferable health routines are practiced by optimists; optimists experience
better immune systems; and, an optimist's life span is normally longer
than a pessimist's. He proposes four ways that optimism can influence
health. He first notes that in studies with animals, learned helplessness
contributed to a weakness of the immune system. An optimistic explanatory
style prevents helplessness, and contributes positively to the body's
natural immune defense. Secondly, Seligman believes that an optimist is
more likely to stay with a suitable health regimen, and will swiftly seek
medical advice. The optimist will cultivate healthy eating and exercise,
and will seek early treatment for illness. Seligman's third way of influencing
health through optimism, is through taking action in one's life, and to
avoid negative situations or events. The fourth and last way views the
seeking and maintaining of social support systems and associations as
contributing greatly to maintaining good health. A 'passive behavioral'
style could easily lead to isolation and a lack of a solid support system.
Seligman and others have demonstrated that the explanatory style is responsible
for predicting good or bad performance in academics, athletics, recovery
from illness, and work performance. Optimistic candidates are the ones
most likely to be elected.
Alice McAndrew is a Ph.D. candidate in Adult Learning and Human Resource
Development at the Virginia Tech Graduate Center, located in Falls
Church, Virginia. Her extensive preliminary dissertation research on the
topic of optimism brings additional support to existing writings advocating
optimism as an antidote to pessimism.
McAndrew, who worked 20 years as a counselor, observed that people sometimes
go into a 'negative spiral' of emotional response upon receiving a life-threatening
diagnosis. For instance, an individual who has been diagnosed HIV+ often
regards this as a death sentence. The negative emotions they experience
upon learning that they are HIV+, often propels them into increased hopelessness
and self-destructive behavior. The negative spiral occurs when an individual
continues to experience and accumulate negative feelings. This downward
spiral causes the individual to create yet more troubles for him/herself,
and, therefore, continues to plunge lower and lower into that potentially
futile abyss of depression. With some HIV+ patients, it is not uncommon
to see some individuals engage in the type of self-destructive behavior
that would include unprotected sex and abusive alcohol and drug use.
McAndrew states that the negative spiral is particularly self-defeating
for the AIDS patient. By taking care of oneself through proper diet, continuous
intake of prescribed medications, and the practice of stress management
techniques, there is always the possibility of living longer in order
to experience a cure in connection with the rapid rate of medical advances.
She states that those who become entangled in the 'negative spiral' syndrome
are often deceased within a shockingly short period of time, while optimistic
patients who follow prescribed treatment programs are likely to live longer.
Studies confirm that optimistic patients diagnosed with HIV+ report less
stress than pessimistic patients with the same diagnosis.
Carver and Schier, in their studies of coronary bypass surgery, reflect
that optimists who were diagnosed prior to surgery correlated with a faster
rate of physical recovery, a faster rate of return to normal life activities,
and an overall better quality of life six months after surgery. A five
year follow-up study revealed that the optimistic coronary patients were
taking their vitamins on a more regular basis; eating healthier foods;
were committed to a high rate of exercise; and were enrolled in cardiac
rehabilitation programs. Another study of optimistic cardiac patients,
actually enrolled in a rehabilitation program, revealed that these individuals
had greater success in lowering their levels of saturated fat, body fat
and coronary risk. Optimists, in situations that have little chance of
changing, enjoy the advantage of accepting the situation, placing the
situation in the best possible light, and growing personally from the
Furthermore, research shows that through the use of different coping strategies,
challenged individuals not only think differently, but also act differently.
The optimist tends to focus on, and plan for the 'problem' at hand. The
optimist uses 'positive reinterpretation.' In other words, the individual
is most likely to reinterpret a negative experience in a way that helps
s/he learn and grow. This individual is more like to accept a situation
that offers little or no control to the individual, and, therefore, the
person will often seek support from others. The pessimist is more likely
to engage in denial, through the suppression of feelings and disengagement
from set goals.
We must be aware of psychological pitfalls and irrational beliefs that
contribute to pessimism and self-image. Many cognitive psychologists have
warned against the following stumblingblocks that can easily contribute
to pessimism: (Dana:'Positive Thinking'):
All or nothing thinking views things in black or white categories;
situations are all good or all bad.
Perfectionism suggests that if something is not perfect, then it
is a complete failure.
Overgeneralization views a single incident as a never-ending pattern
Mental filtering highlights the negative aspect, and discounts
Catastrophizing blows negative instances way out of proportion.
Comparing entails comparing oneself to others. This is considered
to be an extremely destructive behavior.
Unquestioning acceptance of criticism involves the acceptance of
Mind reading encourages jumping to conclusions, and involves interpreting
other people's actions incorrectly.
Personalization applies to individuals who take affront to something
that has nothing at all to do with them.
Fortune-telling is jumping to conclusions, and assuming that things
will turn out badly.
Emotional reasoning assumes that negative feelings reflect reality.
("I feel like a failure, so I must be a failure").
"Should" statements entail punishing oneself for mistakes of the
Labeling involves the individual labeling himself or herself a
loser as the result of one small failure.
When the individual exhibits any of these very common, yet irrational
behaviors, it is best to confront them with optimistic thinking. (Dana:
Some experts on biological/cultural evolution suggest that hope is a survival
trait. It ensures a continuous effort by the individual to achieve goals,
even under adverse conditions. According to Walter Common in his book
Power of Mind, some researchers indicate that pleasure from sexual
intercourse has guaranteed the reproduction of the species. So it is that
thinking pleasurable thoughts is, likewise, necessary for human evolution.
Science appears to have validated what mystics and spiritual traditions
have been saying for centuries.
The road to optimism starts at different places for different people.
For those experiencing a disability or chronic illness, a sense of loss
is initially experienced by the individual. These feelings might include
what life might have been like had the individual not experienced the
situation and lost potentialities. According to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross,
unless the individual has truly faced the situation, and has accepted
the change in his or her life, various stages of grief will be experienced:
denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. Moreover,
Mills states that in addition to experiencing feelings of happiness, it
is essential to learn to recognize and understand feelings of sadness.
This is a means to avoiding prolonged depression (1997, Harry L. Mills,
Experts have alluded to the fact that there are ways for the individual
to work towards reinterpreting and viewing a non-negotiable situation
in a unique light. Some of these methods might include individual therapy,
group therapy, support groups, discussions with others with similar experiences,
reading, spirituality and prayer, and organizations that encourage people
to connect and network. Let's highlight group therapy as an example of
reinterpretation. The individual's awareness of the illness/ disability
may manifest through the eyes of the group. He or she may also develop
a new appreciation of what is important in life. This new recognition
and appreciation can lead to the following: personal growth, a kinder
and more understanding attitude towards life and humankind, the ability
to live with the here and now, and the evolving of a stronger,
more independent individual. Although an individual may be on the road
to understanding loss, he or she might find professional help a useful
regimen. Through this type of help, the individual may be more compliant
to the concept of reinterpretation, which would allow he or she to see
the situation in a new light. Then the person might find new meaning in
the immediate situation, and could, therefore, achieve new growth through
When is the appropriate time for optimistic thinking? Martin Seligman
cites the following examples as appropriate conditions for optimistic
thinking: use optimism in 1) achievement situations; 2) if you are concerned
about how you are feeling; 3) if a situation is apt to be prolonged and
physical health is an issue; 4) if you want to lead and inspire others.
Although Dr. Seligman is obviously a tremendous advocate of optimism,
he does reveal that there are times when optimism is not appropriate.
He states that' if the cost of failure is high, optimism is the wrong
strategy. If you are planning for a risky and uncertain future, optimism
will not pay. The pilot deciding whether or not to de-ice the plane one
more time, or the partygoers deciding whether or not to drive home after
drinking, should not use optimism. The risks are too high.
As we swiftly move into the twenty-first century, it becomes evident that
increasing credence is being given to the study of optimism. Society is
now, more than ever, willing to recognize and accept other ways of 'knowing'
our world. Globally, humanity no longer depends on scientific validation
as the omniscient authority. Humankind has always been drawn to other
methods of perceiving the world: religious, philosophical, mystical, psychic,
etc.. Many now view the scientific approach as displaying many limitations.
They have established that the scientific world has tried to devalue the
spiritual and psychic abilities of humankind. As we near the end of the
20th century, it has been acknowledged that alternative approaches could
prove to be viable methods of learning. Society is viewing them more pensively,
and in a more systematic way. Many will agree that, globally, we are moving
into a new era of awareness. Humankind may very well be ready to take
conscious control of life through mind development. Subsequently, 'optimizing
optimismí via an enthusiastic and hopeful demeanor, greatly diminishes
the opportunity for despair and pessimism to manifest. This discussion
of optimism can be summed up in a simple thought:
"Two men look out through the same bars: One sees the mud, and one
sees the stars."
----Frederick Langbridge, A Cluster of Quiet Thoughts
Gale Alexander Kamen and Alice E. McAndrew are educators
and doctoral candidates at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Virginia
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