The Power of Optimism: Finding Wonder in a World of Woe
Editors’ Note: This post is part of the Frosted Mini Spooners “12 Layers of Happiness” campaign and is from happiness expert Dan Baker, author of What Happy People Know. June is focused on optimism, and this is Dan’s take.
Is it possible to be happy in a troubled world? The media inundates us with one tragic, scary, negative story after another. Add to that personal challenges, and it’s a wonder that we get out of bed. Why is negativity so pervasive? Our brain is hard-wired for hard times. We automatically focus on what’s wrong – it’s easy, no thought required – just a knee-jerk reaction. Drive by an auto accident and our attention is compellingly drawn to the wreckage. Someone may have beautiful skin, but if there is one little blemish… you get the point.
Fortunately, the brain is also capable of consciously finding and focusing on what is right and good. The operative word is “consciously.” It requires effort, but the payoff is a better quality of life. What does it take to find wonder in the world? Scientists call it “flourishing.” Flourishing is defined as a life well lived, not to be confused with a trouble-free life. To flourish there needs to be a ratio of 4:1 positive to negative experiences. How does one flourish?
One way to flourish is optimism. Optimism is commonly defined as seeing the world through rose-colored glasses or “seeing the glass as half full.” But, what if optimism was much more than a perceptual slight-of-hand? The best definition of optimism is an ability to learn from all life experiences, both the good and bad.
Optimism has long been associated with longevity. Many vital older people understand that life is a series of events which offer one or more lessons. More importantly, they understand one of life’s greatest paradoxes, which come from hard-earned wisdom, that painful events offer the most profound of lessons. They do not ask “why” or “why me” when faced with adversity. Intuitively, they asked “what am I to learn,” “how do I grow,” “where is the wisdom” and “how do I bounce back?” There are several important things to note here. Even though they were on the receiving end of a metaphorical gut punch, they refused to be victimized. Live long enough and you will be touch by bad things; but it is entirely up to us as to become victimized or strengthened through wisdom. They avoid becoming victims by taking personal responsibility for navigating through adversity; there is no disempowering blaming.
Consider this: a recent issue of the Psychology Bulletin, a Harvard review of 200 research studies, concluded that optimism was associated with a 50% reduction in heart disease and stroke.
Homework assignment: Think about the little hurts and disappointments of everyday life. Then ask what you can learn from these experiences. Once you start to ponder the lesson you begin to consciously manage your life. It’s not that these events don’t hurt. Consequently, you will either be run over by hard knocks or you will grow in strength through wisdom: it’s up to you. If you’ve paid the tuition, why not get the lesson?
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