Optimism: Do you see the doughnut or the hole?

Let Your Thinking Change Your Life…

One of the classic definitions of optimism and pessimism is that the pessimist sees the glass as half-empty, while the optimist sees it as half-full. Many argue that this distinction is important because it affects the way we see life and the meaning we find in it.

One of my favorite examples of optimism came when my twin godchildren were young. It was the Christmas season and there was much talk of Santa Claus. My godson said to his sister, “Don’t you think it’s strange that one person can come down all the chimneys in the world in one night?”  Without hesitation she said, “No, I don’t think it’s strange.  I think it’s amazing!”  Now an adult, she continues to maintain her optimism, in the face of several losses and disappointments.

Are optimism and positive thinking the same thing?  They are similar, but positive thinking has been described as optimism plus gratitude and happiness. Let’s look at some of the advantages of optimism as described by many researchers. Some see optimism as the key to success, helping us to gain confidence, to overcome problems, and to bring positive change to our lives. It can help us see failure as an opportunity for a new start.  Optimism does not mean that we always see puppies and rainbows, but it does help us see new opportunities.

By way of contrast, pessimism doesn’t achieve much and doesn’t have any known benefits. Pessimism can make us unusually hesitant and shy, reluctant to try new things, or seek new opportunities.

Interest in this concept is not new.  In 1952, Dr. Norman Vincent Peal wrote The Power of Positive Thinking, a kind of how-to manual for finding happiness and fulfillment through thinking and acting positively. His book has sold over 5 million copies to date.

More recently, psychologist Martin Seligman (the “Father of Positive Psychology”) says these two ways of looking at situations are habits of thinking that can lead to very different outcomes.  According to Seligman, pessimists tend to give up more easily, feel depressed more often, and have poorer health than optimists.

On the other hand, optimists tend to do better in school, work, and extra-curricular activities. They often perform better than predicted on aptitude tests, have better overall health, and may even live longer. For me, optimism is not just about feeling positive, it’s about being motivated to change.

Sherrie Bourg Carter writes about the mind-body benefits of optimism. Her suggestions include capitalizing on the power of positive thinking; daily recording of positive experiences; re-framing negative thoughts into positive ones and reducing negative language from your vocabulary; avoiding negative people and focusing on spending time with positive folks.

Your body will love you for your optimism!  Why? Because research (reported by Harvard Health Publishers) shows optimism is associated with lower blood pressure, lower risk of heart disease, and can increase your chances of living longer.  DeSylva and Kern tell us in song that a heart full of joy and gladness can banish trouble and strife.  Now, scientists tell us that such an attitude can help the heart itself.  We now know that optimism helps the heart and circulation.  It contributes positively to overall health.  Such is the power of optimism!

Some say that we are hard-wired for optimism and a sunny outlook.  Others see the influence of environment as the major contributor (nature vs. nurture).  I believe that heredity can play a part, but that changing our attitudes, our beliefs, and our outlook on life rests largely in our hands; on our early life experiences; on our willingness to let go of pessimism and embrace a positive outlook, an optimistic view of our world and our position in it.

In my years of clinical practice, I have found that optimism is one of the best predictors of successful therapy. Recently, a colleague referred a middle-aged woman to me.  After speaking with me on the phone and offering several reasons why she couldn’t commit to therapy she ended the conversation by saying, “You sound like a very nice person, but my problems can’t be fixed.”  This pessimistic attitude has kept her from finding out that her problems might well be ‘fixable’.

I doubt that McLandburgh Wilson pondered such weighty questions when he explained optimism in 1915:

“Twixt the optimist and pessimist

The difference is droll:

The optimist sees the doughnut

But the pessimist sees the hole.”

Each of us has the power to change how we view our experiences.  Rather than seeing yourself as a helpless observer in your journey, see yourself as an active participant.  You can begin flexing your optimism ‘muscle’ by being consciously aware of your current prevailing attitude. Is it negative or positive?  Each of us needs an ‘attitude adjustment’ from time to time. You can practice positive ‘self-talk’ and cutting down on negative thoughts and comments.  You can hang out with optimistic people.  Optimism is contagious!  You can practice looking for blue skies; seeing the glass half-full; and always seeing the doughnut rather than the hole. It takes some work but I am optimistic that you can do it!

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