Optimizing Optimism

Spirit of Optimism.The 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 with self-assurance.

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 normal routines.

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 issues.

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 of demoralization.

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 coping strategies.

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 experience.

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 of defeat.
Mental filtering highlights the negative aspect, and discounts the positive.
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 unwarranted criticism.
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 past.
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: Positive Thinking).

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, Ph.D.).

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 the experience.

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 State University.


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