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True Optimists Are Realists

A recent article by Alina Tugend in the New York Times, Lean Toward the Sunny Side, but Don’t Overdo It, prompted a Linked In discussion on whether “moderate optimism” is better than “extreme optimism.”

You don’t need to moderate optimism to make it work for you in the good and the bad times. When I wrote The Optimism Advantage, I was already sold on Martin Seligman’s work on learned optimism, but in writing my book, I found other research that indicated that optimists are realists.

It makes sense. If earned optimism comes from a track record of overcoming obstacles, than optimists have had numerous experiences of facing, analyzing and overcoming problems. To do that well, optimists have to really understand and accept the problem. They are realists because they believe that by understanding a problem, they can cope more effectively.

I want to include in this post, some references that point to the research to support this perspective.

“The myth: Optimists are amiable (probably IQ-challenged) Pollyannas who shield themselves from bad signs and aren’t prepared when trouble strikes. Lisa Aspinwall, a University of Maryland psychologist, got $50,000 for work showing just the reverse. She found that happy, optimistic people are more willing than pessimists to read bad news about their health habits and more willing to learn about their failures on tests. They also remember bad news longer than pessimists do. Far from being unrealistic Pollyannas, optimists give up sooner than pessimists when presented with unsolvable problems, Aspinwall discovered. ‘Pessimists may not want to know bad news about themselves because, unlike optimists, they don’t think there’s anything they can do about it,’ she says. Optimists may want to know where they’ve erred ‘so they can improve later—of course, they think they can improve.’ And their open approach promotes better relationships. Optimistic couples are more likely than pessimists to bring up what’s bothering them so it can be resolved. ‘They may be more confident that they can solve things,’ Aspinwall says, ‘but when something can’t be solved, they seem to recognize that earlier.’” Marilyn Elias (USA Today, 5-16-2000)

Optimists are problem solvers, not problem evaders. If one approach doesn’t work, they are quick to try other approaches. They also know when to give up and move on to other challenges.

“Numerous studies show that optimists, far from protecting their fragile vision of the world, confront trouble head-on, while it is pessimists who bury their heads in the sand of denial. In a 1993 study of women newly diagnosed with breast cancer, the women with an optimistic disposition were more likely to acknowledge the seriousness of the disease, experienced less distress and took more active steps to cope with it. ‘Pessimism was associated with denial and a giving up response.’ Said Charles Carver of the University of Miami, who conducted the study with Micahel Scheier of Carnegie Mellon University. ‘Optimism was associated with positively reframing the situation, with women believing, ‘This is not going to go away, so let me make the best of it I can.’’Carver said.” Terence Monmaney (Los Angeles Times, 1-5-2000, pp. A1, 15)

Optimists are patient active. They want to know what they are facing so they can get busy making the best of a tough situation. If only 5% survive this cancer; what can I do to be in that group?

“A study of 78 men with AIDS provided evidence that optimists live longer. Those who indicated that they had a realistic view of their disease’s course died an average of nine months sooner than those who were optimistic about postponing the end…. The central paradox of positive thinking is clear—Clinging to the belief in a positive future against reasonable odds sometimes makes it happen.” Shelley Taylor, Positive Illusions” (January 8, 2000, 4A, Sun-Sentinel, South Florida)

Optimism doesn’t ensure success or that one will be healed or effective in overcoming any given obstacle, but it makes it more likely they will have a focus that keeps them active in making that possible.

As a result, bet on optimism as an attitude that is worth developing in your life.

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