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A recent column by Jane Brody in the New York Times “Well” blog, A Richer Life by Seeing the Glass Half Full, asserts that although part of optimistic behavior has a genetic basis, as mediated by neuro-transmitters, the trait can also be enhanced through learning.

Brody humorously defines an “optimist” as “[s]omeone, like me, who plans to get more done than time permits.” She also cites a more orthodox definition, from the Mayo Clinic: “Optimism is the belief that good things will happen to you and that negative events are temporary setbacks to be overcome.”

The Mayo researchers offer some practical tips for maintaining an optimistic, can-do attitude (as summarized by Brody in her own words):

>Taking a few minutes at the end of each day to write down three positive things that happened that day, ending the day on an upbeat note.

>Avoid negative self-talk. Instead of focusing on prospects of failure, dwell on the positive aspects of a situation.

>Regardless of the nature of your work, identify some aspect of it that is personally fulfilling. If your job is scrubbing floors, stand back and admire how shiny and clean they look.

>Surround yourself with positive, upbeat people. But be aware that if you are chronically negative and always see only the dark side of things, the optimists in your life may eventually give up on you.

>Focus on situations that you can control, and forget those you can’t. I would also suggest using voting power, money or communication skills to forward a goal that is beyond your personal control.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found, as an aspect of the ongoing Women’s Health Initiative (as characterized by Julie Steenhuysen of Reuters), that “Women who were optimistic — those who expect good rather than bad things to happen — were 14 percent less likely to die from any cause than pessimists and 30 percent less likely to die from heart disease after eight years of follow up in the study.Optimists also were also less likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes or smoke cigarettes.”

I often think that what is characterized as optimism or positive thinking could be better called a sense of effectiveness: that one can act to improve ones situation. It’s really what we aim at in training people (for example, in sales) as well.

And there are many ways to increase ones personal effectiveness. An increase in a sense of effectiveness enhances a sense of well-being, which can lead to further effectiveness, a virtuous circle.

“In 1957, Dr. C.P Richter of the Psychobiological Labaoratory of Johns Hopkins Medical School carried out an experiment that attempted to measure the motivational effect of hope. The experiment involved placing rats into cylinders of water thirty inches deep and eight inches wide. After a short time, half of the rats were momentarily rescued – lifted out the cylinder for a few seconds, then put back into the water. The other half were not. The group that was given hope swam for more than three days. The other rats drowned almost immediately.”  From a book by Daniel Coyle about Lance Armstrong called Tour de Force (2005).

There are those who have disagreed with Richter’s interpretation, saying that there is no way to assess the psychological state of hopelessness in non-verbal beings such as rats.  See “Sudden swimming deaths: No longer hopelessness in rats?” a review article by Carroll W Hughes and  James J. Lynch (American Psychologist, Vol 34(3), Mar 1979, 273-274). Hypothetically, some untrained rats may have died from what is called a “Vagus effect” or “Voodoo Death”: a shocking over-stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system, with extreme release of stress hormones.  However, I find Dr. Richter’s original inference plausible if not provable. (The strictness of behaviorist interpretations reminds me of a somewhat dry joke.  A behaviorist says to his wife after making love: “That was good for you.  Was it good for me?”)

Let me give an example of why the distinction between optimism and effectiveness matters to people who depend upon you.  Suppose you are the captain of a jumbo  jet.  There is an unrecoverable failure (explosion) of one of two jet engines.  As the passengers recoil in fear, you have the flight attendants prepare them for an emergency landing. What the passengers are looking for from you as pilot is not mere “optimism”–a cheery la-di-da, things will be OK, folks!… No, what they surely hope for is your effectiveness: to use know-how and experience and any needed help from other crew to stabilize the plane and land it safely.

Brody cites the work of psychologist Martin Seligman, who has written a book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (rev. ed., 2006).  I intend to read Seligman’s work and will review it in a future blog.

The great thing about increasing personal effectiveness (subjectively and objectively) is that progress doesn’t have to come in great leaps.  ”Rome wasn’t built in a day”; neither is commanding self-confidence. Incremental steps can be encouraging.I like the idea of the Mayo group to review accomplishments of the day–even better to keep them in a diary,  whether of the old-fashioned kind or digital

About the author: Andrew Szabo is founder of  Copyright 2012  To respond, please hyperlink below right at “Read/comment on Full Post.”

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One Response

  1. Thanks for your comment, Lisa. As an optimist, you may live longer, and I hope so, though there is also the risks everyone faces that we just can’t foresee. Statistically, you’re right, but you have to keep in mind the famous example of the statistician who drowned in a pool with an average depth of three feet–nor was he a midget. :) It’s called the “ecological fallacy”–assuming the parts are similar to the whole. A car accident, the random carcinoma, a congenital defect–who knows? We make so many plans, big plans, long-term ambitions, including those involving families and children, not knowing if it will be our good fortune to carry them out. There’s that element of absurdity.

    So it’s worth savoring the moment. Do you remember that song, “Live for Today,” by the Grassroots? In that live performance, Jimmy Durante, of all people, introduces them!

    Thanks for your reference to “Flourish.” I’ll pick that up. I’m also checking out and will bring that to the attention of my readers.