Great people have always been associated with indefatigable spirits and die-hard optimism. We can try and follow their footsteps.
Long after one has put down Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, one can’t help but remember how perfectly some words reveal what made the man a legend, an example of imperishable human spirit. He writes, “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”
Optimism is a remarkable trait. It is that which allows the owner of it to see the proverbial glass as half full at all times. When dark clouds gather, they can see a silver lining to at least one of them. When travails of life take them through the tunnel of existence, they notice a light at the end of it. For optimists, there is hope and confidence about the future or the success of something ahead. They are sure that their troubles are specific to a situation and can be controlled. These are people who manage to keep their sunny side up when darkness descends on their lives. From Burmese Nobel laureate Aung San Su Kyi who refused to give up her struggle for democracy to Sudha Chandran, who danced with her Jaipur Foot, optimism, along with grit, has made these lives examples to others.
Optimists don’t give up when failure strikes. They look at the situation as a temporary setback and push through. Research shows that optimism in a person starts early. Martin Seligman, a pioneering psychologist and the author of Learned Optimism and co-author of The Optimistic Child writes, “The basis of optimism does not lie in positive phrases or images of victory, but in the way you think about causes.”
He explains that each one of us has an explanation of why things happen to us the way they do in life. This develops in childhood and unless deliberate efforts are made to change it, the attitude will last for lifetime. According to him, pessimists assume that when something goes wrong, it will always go wrong henceforth, while optimists believe that things will become better the next time.
Optimism is considered an important characteristic, one of the strengths of your personality. Science has already proved that your mental state affects your immunity. It is more of your perception of a situation than the actual situation that affects you. Unknown to us, we carry on a conversation with ourselves in the mind, interpreting circumstances, judging situations and people. This self-talk can be either positive or negative.
A pessimist burdens his body with unrelenting stress. Psychologists say that every time we expect the worst our flight or flight instincts are called into action. Adrenalin flows, pulse quickens and when one dwells on negative thoughts for long, one exhausts oneself. Seligman’s research has shown that optimistic people surpass pessimists in three areas:
- They are better able to resist depression [clinical and general].
- They are better achievers [demonstrated in work, school and athletic performance].
- They are more physically healthy.
A study conducted by a team of researchers led by Elizabeth Phelps, professor at the New York University, has explained how the brain generates human tendency for optimism. The researchers have identified a neural network that may generate optimism. They used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging [fMRI] to examine brain function while participants thought of possible future life events, both positive and negative. When they imagined positive future events, there was an enhanced activation in the brain areas that seem to malfunction in depression. More optimistic participants showed greater activity in that region when imagining positive events.
The team found that participants were more likely to expect positive events to happen closer in the future than negative events, and to imagine them with greater vividness.
Unlike pessimists, optimists are not easily prone to stress-related physical ailments. One of the reasons why optimists tend to be healthier is that depression weakens certain hormones in the brain, sparking off a chain reaction that suppresses the immune system. Positive thinking is known to reduce tension, enhance emotional wellbeing, and cardiovascular health. Research has shown that optimists cope better with disease and surgery. Psychologist Charles Carver found in a study of women with breast cancer that those who were optimistic displayed far less trauma a couple of months after surgery. They had accepted their illness but had tried to move on with their lives.
Optimists are more resilient in the face of difficulties and cope with stress better. What is remarkable about them is that they are not in denial of the negativity in their lives. Studies show that they are more able to perceive and integrate negative information, modify their behaviour to avoid danger, problems and risks. Their proactive approach to life and ability to see the possible in the impossible makes them bounce back better from setbacks.
Although the levels of optimism are the same for men and women, apparently, there are crucial gender differences when it comes to things they are optimistic or pessimistic about. According to Seligman, “Men are optimistic about work, attributing failure to temporary, local and external causes; they are pessimistic about interpersonal failures, invoking permanent, pervasive and personal causes. Women are just the reverse: They are optimistic about social setbacks but pessimistic about achievement.”
Is there something as being too optimistic? Psychologists answer in the affirmative. Research has revealed that while optimism can be a protective factor against stress, it can actually suppress the immune system in cases where the stressor is serious and complex. Pessimists, at such times, are better prepared.
Optimism or the lack of it, then, seems to be born out of an interaction between psychology, physical science and day-to-day existence. A quote by Nobel laureate Dr Albert Schweitzer sums up what the ideal attitude to life could be. He says, “An optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere, while a pessimist sees only the red stoplight… the truly wise person is colour blind.”
Drive Away Negative Thoughts
To be able to counter negative thinking psychologists suggest that you:
- Become aware of your thoughts and feelings
- Strip away everything except the plain, simple facts
- Tune into your negative self-talk
- Drill your negative thoughts. Is there a truth in them?
- Slowly open yourself to a more realistic, constructive view
- Take action to break out of your self-imposed trap of pessimism
- Compare them with rational thoughts.