Thursday, August 9, 2007

Learn Optimism

Did you know that optimism increases resiliency and longevity? Check out for some interesting bits on the mind-body connection.

Optimism is one of those things we think we have, or don't have. We all believe that certain personality traits or characteristics are inborn. How often do we hear people say, I'm just an introvert, or I'm just a pessimist?

Martin Seligman talks about it in his books "Authentic Happiness" and "Learned Optimism." He suggests arguing with yourself against pessimistic thoughts. Looking at the evidence, seeing alternative ways of thinking, examining the implications of our beliefs and even questioning the utility of our beliefs are some of his methods.

An example might be my son's frequent concern that he's lost his game, i.e., he suddenly can no longer be a soccer star.
  • What's the evidence? Usually the evidence is that he's played primo soccer during his last game but for a variety of reasons the team didn't win, didn't win as big as he though they should or his missed a shot or two.
  • What's an alternative? Maybe he just was a little off on that shot or he's not perfect but still playing a great game. Maybe he's not playing his game because he's distracted. None of these suggest he's "lost" it.
  • What are the implications? Maybe he's not perfect, but he's still a great player. Next time he can do something differently, depending on his analysis of the problem.
  • What's the usefulness of the belief? Obviously, it's not very useful to think you've completely lost it. It's not particularly helpful to think in such catastrophic terms. Maybe he could consider that he'll try his best next time and see how it goes before quitting the game.

Ergo, trying to make these kinds of changes in thinking can actually create a more optimistic outlook. Bingo, no fixed personality trait. Rather, we have beliefs and characteristic ways of thinking (that's why they call it character I suppose) that are sometimes useful and helpful, and sometimes useless and downright harmful.

The trick is to work on the ways we think about things and try to come up with more positive and useful ideas. Like a new haircut, it sometimes takes a while to feel comfortable in it, but if you believe it looks good, you live with it until you're sure. Of course you don't have much choice with a haircut, but you do have a lot of choice in how you think about the world.

So live long and prosper, otpimistically.

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