A story in verse (titled, “Keep Swimming”; poet unknown) is told about two frogs:
Two frogs fell into a deep cream bowl.
One was a truly optimistic soul.
But the other took the gloomy view.
“We’ll drown,” he lamented without much ado.
And with a last despairing cry,
he flung up his legs and said "Goodbye."
Quoth the other frog with a steadfast grin,
"I can’t get out but I won’t give in,
I’ll just swim around till my strength is spent,
then I can die the more content."
Bravely he swam to work his scheme,
and his struggles began to churn the cream.
The more he swam, his legs a-flutter,
the more the cream turned into butter.
On top of the butter at last he stopped,
and out of the bowl he gaily hopped.
What is the moral? It’s easily found...
If you can’t hop out, keep swimming around!
It’s an approach that is also put to work by some human beings when they find themselves in adverse circumstances – we call them the optimists. In everyday parlance, they are defined as the guys who always “expect the best”. And, in the opposite corner – the pessimists, the ones who believe the worst is yet to come.
We generally know (and others know, too) whether we are ourselves optimists or pessimists. But it’s not just a matter of seeing the glass as half full or half empty. There are more practical implications of being an optimist or a pessimist. Research spanning several decades finds that optimists, overall, enjoy better health and also more success in their undertakings (including job success) than pessimists do. Some of the most striking contrasts have shown up in long-term studies of optimists and pessimists, research that followed people as long as 35 years. These long-term studies have found that optimists are less likely than pessimists to:
» develop heart disease or high blood pressure. Those who did have a heart attack were far less likely than pessimists to have a second heart attack.
» show better recovery rates after surgery and better cancer survival rates
» have better immune systems
» live longer
Optimists also accrue more emotional-health payoffs than pessimists do:
» Optimism is the most important predictor of resilience – that is, how quickly a person will recover from adversity. The research shows that optimists are better able to regulate their emotions; they view difficult situations as challenges rather than as threats.
» Optimists who have undergone extremely stressful experiences (such as torture or being kept in extended solitary confinement as prisoners-of-war) have been found to be far less likely than pessimists to develop depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The precise physiological link between optimism and health has not yet been determined. But it has been suggested that optimists may have better ways of coping with stress, and that this could translate into a lower likelihood of high blood pressure, stress hormones and elevated heart rate.
From Pessimism to Optimism
With optimists toting up so many lifelong benefits, who wouldn’t want to be one? But is it possible for a pessimist to make the shift to an optimistic bias? Or, are optimists natural-born? Is there an optimism gene, or some lucky quirk of brain chemistry at work? The current consensus among research scientists is that there does seem to be a small contribution coming from genetic inheritance. But, they emphasize, optimism can also be learned. Martin Seligman, who has earned himself the moniker of “the father of positive psychology”, has spent a lifetime researching optimism. He is the author of “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life”, a book that describes how even a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist can “learn” optimism. Seligman’s approach has long since been accepted and successfully used by therapists to train pessimistic people to make the shift to a more optimistic outlook.
At the heart of Seligman’s approach is the premise that what distinguishes the optimists from the pessimists is what he terms their “explanatory style”. That is, faced with an adverse event, optimists and pessimists habitually “explain” it differently. The optimist sees adversities as being caused by temporary, external factors that are changeable (“I didn’t prepare well for that exam – I’ll do better on my next paper” / “When life knocks you to your knees, well, just get up and start walking again”). The pessimist sees things happening because of his own fault or because of unchangeable, global factors. (“I’m always so stupid” / “Murphy was right: If anything can go wrong, it will”).
In therapy, a counsellor can train a pessimist to make optimal use of a skill that all of us already have but don’t deploy in the right place at the right time. This skill is called “Disputing”. Or, alternatively, “Challenging your Assumptions”. Or “Re-framing”. But, can you learn to deploy this skill to change your outlook on your own, without going to a therapist? Can you create the stuff of hope within yourself? The answer is yes, but you will not be able to do it overnight. It takes about two weeks of practising the skills of optimism. While it is not possible to convey all the skills of what Seligman calls “Learned Optimism” in a few paragraphs, here is the essence of how they are put to work.
Let’s say you walk into a cocktail party, and looking around, you say to yourself: “There are a lot of high-powered people here. I’ll come across to them as such a lightweight.”
Strangely, when such a low self-esteem view emanates from within you, you just accept it. You believe it. You treat your self-criticisms as if they were gospel truth.
Well, they are not. As Seligman says, “The accusations that pessimists launch at themselves several times a day are no more rational or well-founded than the ravings of a drunk on the street. ..” Sometimes, they are vestiges of the voice of a stern mother during your childhood years (”You’re always making foolish mistakes” ) or the voice of your carping teacher (“Stop being such a timid little mouse”). Instead of accepting your negative thoughts, dispute them. Marshall all the evidence against them, and challenge the faulty assumptions you may be making. Here’s one example of how to do this:
Adverse Event. I borrowed a pair of expensive earrings from my friend, Aditi, and I lost one of them while I was at a wedding.
Pessimistic Belief: Aditi is going to be furious with me. And I deserve it – I’m always so irresponsible. It’s unbelievable what a klutz I can be.
Disputation: It’s a shame I lost the earring. They were Aditi’s favourite pair, and she’ll feel sad and disappointed. But she’ll see that it was an accident, and I’ll make good by buying her another pair. I’m really not an irresponsible person – this is the first time in a long while that I’ve lost anything.
Once you begin to use this skill, you can also employ it in disputing the negative assumptions and assertions that other people make about you. For instance, at the office a rival jokes about the late hours you’re putting in: “Are you overworked or just disorganized?” Instead of buying into the implication that you must be either one or the other, you can keep your mood unruffled and your self-esteem unshaken by replying: “Sometimes, the only way to get a project in early is to stay late.” Or, a catty colleague riles you about the devil’s food cake you’ve just ordered for a coffee-break splurge, and you say, “That’s the well-deserved treat I’d promised myself for going to the gym every day last week.”
Disputing your automatic negative thoughts (and other people’s attempts to needle you) is at the heart of optimism. Once you get good at it (and that happens with consciously and regularly practising the skill), you can actually watch your mood change from anxious to calm, from down to up, in just a few seconds.
And before you know it, you’ll be wearing a smile on your face far more often than you used to.
(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)