Do Optimists Really Live Better Lives?

…And did you know that you can learn to become an optimist?

03.14.17
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My husband, Alex, is an eternal optimist. You can tell just by looking at him that he’s a positive sort of guy. He has a permanent, huge, toothy grin and always looks like he just finished the heartiest of laughs. His demeanor sets even the most high-strung, anxious person at ease. People love him. I know, because they tell me all the time, sort of as if to say: How did a curmudgeon like you end up with the happiest person on Earth? To highlight and maybe slightly mock his relentless positivity, our group of friends has given him the nickname BOD Al, which stands for “Benefit of the Doubt Alex.”

As you’ve maybe picked up on, I am not BOD Helena. I prefer to look at myself as a measured pragmatist, but if you catch me on a bad day, that pendulum swings a little closer to weighed pessimist. When something bad happens, I rest responsibility on the most obvious culprit. Alex, on the other hand, finds the most benign and unlikely source for the problem — a source which would cleanse said offender of any fault.

Alex never fails to highlight the positive arc behind everything. It’s not something he does purposefully; I think he’s always been that way. Some days, I envy him that. The way he glides through life, sniffing roses and grinning charmingly — who wouldn’t want that? When you don’t have that positive bug, having someone constantly remind you that everything is peachy can get sort of, well, annoying. But when you see people respond so well, it also makes you wonder: would it all be better if I were like that, too? Does a cheerful outlook determine our future opportunities? Are optimism and social success linked?

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Let’s talk first about the science of positivity. A 2003 study asked patients with a neuromuscular disease to write down five things for which they were grateful, every day, for three weeks. The goal was to measure whether gratitude and positivity has a positive effect on well-being. The study found that although patients’ symptoms did not improve, they slept better and reported overall improved mental well-being. Another study looked at people who were at risk of heart disease while they attempted to make key changes in health and lifestyle to avoid future illness. It found that the optimists within the group were much more successful at achieving their goals.

In fact, across the board, optimists seem to fare better than their pessimist friends. They’re more proactive when it comes to their health, more engaged in their lives, tend to have higher salaries later in life and fare better in relationships. According to Dr. Martin Seligman, pessimists only best optimists in one way: They’re better at realistically assessing situations. Oh, and pessimism is also a reliable predictor of depression. More on this later.

What studies have also found, however, is that optimism is a learned behavior. We learn it from our parents and teachers as children, primarily when we’re faced with adversity. Dr. Seligman pinpoints one thing in particular responsible for optimism, the explanatory style. In a nutshell, that’s your explanation for why something has gone awry.

Here’s how to quickly test your explanatory style. When something in your life goes wrong — you fail a test, or you don’t advance as quickly as you’d like in your career, or someone you really liked breaks up with you out of the blue — do you blame that on yourself, or some other, bigger cause that has nothing to do with you? Now, what about when you succeed? Are you likely to give yourself a pat on the back and bask in your glory, or do you chalk it up to a lucky fluke?

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In those situations, optimists are likely to chalk a bad thing up to something or someone external, and view adversity as fleeting. When something good happens, they happily take credit. Pessimists, on the other hand, internalize the blame. You’ve probably heard this before: Stop taking everything so personally. They also view the root of the problem as pervasive — I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I need to be better. Paradoxically, when something good happens, they’re loath to take credit.

Does that sound familiar? Now, here’s where optimism really starts to matter: Women are twice more likely to be diagnosed with depression than men. While some of the factors that contribute to this statistic are biological, some are also societal and related to circumstance. We routinely encounter setbacks that don’t exist for men. In some societies, we are still the less-valued sex, and much less is invested in our upbringing than that of our male counterparts. Even when we succeed beyond expectations, we often feel like imposters. Our confidence, self-esteem and yes, even our optimism, show signs of wear.

With some determination and mindfulness, though, one can learn to be an optimist. This doesn’t mean forcing yourself to seem happy when you’re actually miserable, or forcing a smile to be more likeable. In fact, the learning is almost entirely internal. According to Dr. Seligman, it comes down to changing the explanation you give yourself when something goes wrong and eradicating negative self-talk. In short, do not dwell on your failures or allow them to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Build up your resilience; downplay feelings of helplessness. And if you need proof that optimism is learnable, take it from me: living in close quarters with an eternal optimist, while often annoying, has definitely proven contagious.

Photo by NBC via Getty Images; illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt. 

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