"We Need Optimists." That's the title of a front page Sunday Review essay in the New York Times this week by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and author of the new book, The Conservative Heart. He starts off with a quick story. His son had made a really bad grade on a test. After a parent-teacher conference about it, Arthur's wife broke the silence in the car by saying, "At lease we know he didn't cheat." That glass is always half full for the optimist, and ready to be topped off.
Brooks reports recent psychological studies that indicate optimists are generally healthier than pessimists, and more resilient in the face of setbacks. Optimists also self-report greatest levels of perceived happiness. In my own analyses of human performance, I've learned that optimists tend to have a more complete form of access to all their resources, inner and outer, than pessimists.
If optimists are, generally, healthier, happier, more resilient, and more resourceful, then why wouldn't everyone seek to be one?
Well, first, there's The Cautionary Tale of the Irrational Optimist - the many examples that almost any of us can produce of people whose enthusiasm for life and their own ideas makes them oblivious to problems, obstacles, and the real probabilities of a situation. This is the mindset so thoroughly critiqued by Barbara Ehrenreich in her scathing book, Bright-Sided. But to be an optimist, you don't have to be a simpleminded idiot or a stubborn fool. In fact, it helps greatly not to be either. You can be a realistic optimist - and that turns out to be, not surprisingly, the best kind there is.
A realistic optimist moves forward with eyes wide open, seeing obstacles, understanding challenges, and yet maintaining a determination to be creative in solving all problems. The realistic optimist never just hopes for the best, or blithely assumes the best, but works hard to make the best happen, in full realization that it may take longer than it should, and be harder to accomplish than anyone could have imagined. But it's precisely the element of optimism that fuels a hopeful and persistent struggle forward. Optimists don't prematurely give up, or surrender, in their efforts to create good things. And optimists like me promote the optimistic mindset, just like I'm doing now. Why? We really believe it works and that it can work for you.
Of course, pessimists want to convert us all to their alternative way of thinking. And I've always wondered why they even try. Don't they have to believe they're unlikely to succeed? They are pessimists, after all.
Martin Seligman, in his classic study, Learned Optimism, argues that you don't have to be born sunny side up. You can become an optimist. And you can benefit greatly from adopting this pervasive attitude. Plus, if you're already moderately optimistic, you can enhance that proclivity.
I just know you can.
I really do.