I sometimes come across people who are so negative and pessimistic that it seems as if a rain cloud follows them wherever they go. If I ask them why they are so cynical, they typically respond that they are not cynical but realistic. They then criticize my optimism as denial or naiveté, as if I were some type of Pollyanna wearing rose-colored glasses celebrating every misfortune that befell upon her. Optimism has often caused intelligent people to pause as it carries connotations of simple-mindedness. Writers as diverse as Sophocles and Nietzsche argued that optimism prolongs human suffering and it is better for us to face the facts. This negative view of positive thinking also lies at the heart of Freud’s essay, The Future of an Illusion, where he concludes that optimism is widespread but ultimately it is illusory.
Recently, I started to do some research into optimism. If found that before World War II, psychology had three basic objectives: cure mental illness, make lives more fulfilling, and identify and nurture talent. After the war, many soldiers returned home with shell shock, what we now refer to as post-traumatic stress. Psychiatrists and psychotherapists took note of this new market and psychology, with help from the Veterans Administration and grant money from the government, put an emphasis on mental illness. Most psychiatrists in America during the 1950s considered mental health to be the ego’s adaptation to social norms. Things began change in the 1960s with the introduction of humanistic psychologies led by Maslow and Rogers. Unfortunately, this psychology did not attract much empirical researcher as behaviorism dominated most research at the time, but it did spawn a myriad of therapeutic self-help movements.
Some contemporary psychology researchers now recognize that just as physical health is more then the absence of disease, mental health is more then the mere absence of mental illness. Positive psychology, a recent branch of psychology, focuses research on the prevention of mental illness by investigating human strengths such as courage, future mindedness, optimism, interpersonal skills, faith, hope, work ethic, honesty, perseverance, and the capacity for flow and insight.
What is optimism? Lionel Tiger defines optimism as a mood or attitude associated with an expectation about one’s social or material future. Optimism depends on what the individual subjectively regards as desirable, advantageous, or pleasurable. It is a positive belief concerning one’s future. Tiger locates optimism in our biology, argues that it is one of our most defining adaptive characteristics, and proposes that optimism is an integral part of our human nature.
Recent research consistently links optimism to desirable characteristics such as happiness, achievement, and health. Researchers soundly connect a positive mood to perseverance and effective problem solving. They associate optimism to academic, athletic, military, professional, and political success; to popularity; to good health; and even to long life and freedom from trauma. They have found pessimism, in contrast, foreshadows depression, passivity, failure, social estrangement, morbidity, and mortality. Psychologically healthy people show a definite positive bias.
Still, are my gloomy friends correct? Are optimistic people, even if the are psychologically healthier, living in denial of the true nature of reality? Well, I like to ask them the question, is it true that everything you ever planned turned out badly. I also like to ask them, as you look at your life is there absolutely nothing for which you are grateful even if it may be as small as the next breath you are about to take. Invariably they concede, sometimes things go well and there are things in their life for which they are grateful.
David Cooperrider’s work on Appreciative Inquiry has made a tremendous impression on me. One of the premises of Appreciative Inquiry is that the questions we ask determine the answers we uncover. Cooperrider believes that the questions we ask create our reality. If we ask negative biased questions, we find negativity. However, when we ask positive questions, we find our strengths and things we appreciate. We choose where to place our curiosity and direct our inquiry, so I challenge my morose friends, because if we find our strengths and apply them to the opportunities that lay before us, we have good reason to be optimistic. I believe however, that we need to use our optimism wisely and apply our energy and resources to the areas where we make a real difference. I also acknowledge that focusing on the positive does not make the negative go away, at least initially, for I contend that when we align our strengths, particularly in our relationships and communities, we can make a real difference in our lives and in our world. You may call me an eternal optimist, but in reality, good things do happen.
The services I provide my clients, both individually and organizationally, help them identify and act upon their strengths in a way that produces real positive change in their lives and organizations. To learn more about me and my service call (805) 637-4263 or email me.
For further reading on optimism
Learned Optimism: How to change your mind and your life by Martin Seligman
Optimism: The Biology of Hope by Lionel Tiger
The Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There by C.R. Snyder
If you wish to receive a copy of a journal article that details the studies on optimism to which I allude in this post, email me..