Optimism helps you live longer. It was all over the news this week. A study from the Boston University School of Medicine links optimism to prolonged life, and better chances of achieving “exceptional longevity,” defined in the study as age 85 or older. But wait, there’s more! Optimism can be learned.
Lily (who, like any inner fourteen-year-old, can be dramatically despondent at times) is an optimist. She expects her future to be bright and to meet the goals she sets. I’m like that, too. Not only is my glass half full, it’s a really big glass!
That is, most of the time. Sometimes my natural outlook is overtaken by the pessimism of another person. This is probably a side-effect from decades of creating characters on stage and in stories. To make characters real, I approach them with empathy. I’ve written psychos and school marms, and portrayed everything from prostitutes to the ghost of a long-dead grandmother. Training and technique bleeds over into my real life relationships. I can get absorbed into another person if I’m not careful, becoming who they are or who they want me to be.
Kind of cool, in a creepy sort of way.
True, but it can be disturbing to hear myself talking with someone else’s voice when I don’t intend to. I’m better at recognizing and controlling this than I used to be, which is handy when the personality I unintentionally absorb is pessimistic.
So now we only hang out with positive people, right?
Sure, when we have the choice. But there’s always someone (or ones) in everyone’s life who sees the glass as half-empty, and what there is has a fly doing the backstroke in it. Nothing they try is going to work out so why keep trying? Why even start?
I know, but even Eeyore has his happy moments.
Right again. Every optimistic life has its ups and downs; every pessimistic life has them, too. How not, as people usually can’t control the outcomes of events, unless they’re cheating (a topic for another day)? The difference between an optimist and a pessimist, I believe, is in perception, not just of the outcomes but how the individual feels about the outcomes. When life hurls disappointments your way, if you truly believe “We’ll get ‘em next time!” as opposed to “The whole world is against me so why bother?” chances are you’ll bounce back more quickly, take a look at what went wrong and try again. Adversity can teach resilience if you’re open to learning from let-downs and your own mistakes. According to the results of the current research, you might live longer, too.
The key, I think, is training yourself to look forward. If you feel discouraged about something that didn’t work out, recognize that the feeling and circumstances are temporary. Expecting better outcomes has its own magic. It changes how you approach life, which, somehow, makes things work out more often than not.
You sound like a pop-psychologist.
Oh yeah? Well you sound like a fourteen-year-old.
Fortunately for Lily (and for you) I’m hopping down from my soap box to explain why I’m thinking so much about optimism and pessimism. I believe that pessimism kills. Two decades of living with someone I dearly love- -watching him dread that, one day, the other metaphorical shoe would drop, that we’d all end up in the poor house, and regularly acknowledging that his own outlook would kill him one day- -I think he was right about that last one. Pessimism, stress, worry. All of them compromise the quality of human life and, if untreated, have the power to make us physically ill. Our bodies deal with what our minds can’t absorb.
The best approach? Change the way your mind deals with outcomes, especially projected outcomes. To quote Mark Twain, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
Does this mean the next time we shop for tennis shoes you might actually buy some?
You can always trust a fourteen-year-old to spot hypocrisy. I’ll admit, when it comes to buying shoes I’m a pessimist. I have clear, unwavering ideas about what I want in style and quality, and if I can’t find it, I won’t buy anything. This explains why I’m woefully short on shoes, especially after I threw out my falling apart second-hand red Keds last week. It’s not just about style and quality, either- -I have a really high arch and about as much luck finding shoes that fit as Cinderella’s step sisters did in their ruthless attempts to cram their oversized boats into the dainty glass slipper. I always forget that these women had shoes of their own, probably very nice custom-made shoes because they were rich and into status.
Interesting, but where are you going with this?
I’ll never, ever find new tennis shoes because the world is against me, against my feet, anyway. Why should I even try?
You only looked at one store, the day after school started. Of course they were out of the coolest shoes! Why don’t you look again in a couple of weeks when new stock is in, and try more than one store? Isn’t there a local Big 5 Sporting Goods place? What about that Internet thing people are always talking about? Gheez, use your imagination!
But Lily, if I use my imagination and try all those different approaches, I can’t fail.
Oh. Got it.