Interview on Optimism

The following interview is a conversation between Elissa Sonnenberg, a writer for, and Adam Khan, author of Self-Help Stuff That Works.

Elissa: What do you think separates an optimistic person from a pessimistic person?

Adam: I don't see those two as necessarily opposed. It is more like a sliding scale from very optimistic to very unoptimistic.

I don't really like to use the word pessimistic because most people would never consider themselves pessimistic, so when they hear that word, they know that's not what they are, so they don't want to listen anymore. But many people are willing to admit they aren't optimistic.

To answer the question, though, the main difference between them is their usual way of explaining events. Any two people will explain the same setback differently. If a person fails to exercise this week and really wanted to, that's a setback. An optimist might explain it by thinking, "I didn't plan my time very well this week." That is changeable. It's fixable. With a little action, the setback will be temporary. The explanation gives hope. The person is motivated to take action.

A nonoptimist might explain the same setback by thinking, "I have no self-discipline." That is a more fixed, unchangeable explanation. And it has a greater degree of generalization in it - it isn't localized to this one week; it is spread into the future. That kind of explanation makes you feel defeated, which keeps you from even trying next week, which makes your own explanation about yourself come true.
Both optimism and pessimism tend to become self-fulfilling prophesies.

Elissa: How can people determine whether they are optimistic or pessimistic?

Adam: In the book, Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman, is an optimism test. The greatest value of the test is that it tells you specifically what areas you are pessimistic in. That makes it easier to change: You can hone in on the one thought-mistake you're making. It can really make a difference.

For example, I measured very optimistic in all areas but one, and in that one I measured very pessimistic. It was the area of not taking credit for good things I was doing. I had never thought of that as a fault, but when I worked to correct it, my level of enthusiasm went up, and I'm much more motivated and productive than I used to be. That one thought-mistake was holding me back.

Other than taking that questionnaire, I don't know how someone would determine their own level of optimism. I think whatever area you are pessimistic, you will have a blind spot: You won't be able to see it as pessimistic. That's the way you think and so it seems right and natural to you.

I've been looking for an online version of that questionnaire, but I haven't yet found one. It's too bad, too.

Elissa: Why do you think studies have shown that pessimistic people are less healthy and more likely to die prematurely?

Adam: That's a great question. I have several good answers for that. First of all, pessimism affects your immune system. Here's how: Pessimism leads to depression, and depression changes certain brain hormones. That creates a chain of biochemical events that make your immune system less active and less effective.

But it's worse than that. You don't even have to be depressed. Pessimism, even in the absence of depression, can weaken your immune system.

For example, part of your immune system is T cells. They recognized invaders (like viruses) and make more copies of themselves to kill off the invaders. Pessimists' T cells don't multiply as quickly as optimists', allowing the invaders to get the upper hand.

Another part of your immune system, NK cells, circulate in the blood and kill whatever they come across that they identify as foreign (like cancer cells). Pessimists' NK cells can identify foreign entities, but they don't destroy them as well as the optimists' NK cells.

So that is one very direct way optimism impacts your health. There is also an indirect way: Optimists are more active in improving their health because they see potential health problems as fixable rather than feeling hopeless and giving up right away.

Lisa Aspinwall, PhD, at the University of Maryland, did an interesting study. She told subjects to read health-related information on cancer and other topics. She discovered that optimists spent MORE time than pessimists reading the severe risk material and they remembered MORE of it.

"These are people," says Aspinwall, "who aren't sitting around wishing things were different. They believe in a better outcome, and that whatever measures they take will help them to heal."

In other words, instead of having their heads in the clouds, optimistic people look. They do more than look. They SEEK. They aren't afraid to look BECAUSE they are optimistic.

And because they get more information, and they don't make themselves feel defeated, optimistic people are more likely to take ACTION, like eating better, exercising, and getting checkups at the doctor's office.

A nonoptimist is less inclined to take those kinds of actions because they feel it won't make much difference. They feel that way because of the way they explain events to themselves. And their lack of positive action makes them statistically more likely to die prematurely.

An optimist might say, "I can quit smoking." And if they try and fail, they would explain it as a changeable, fixable, specific setback. So they'll try again.

A nonoptimist would be less likely to try in the first place because the way they explain it is permanent and general and hopeless: "I can't help myself. The nicotine has me." But if they try anyway and fail, their explanation will not motivate them to try again: "I guess I just can't do it." They will accept their fate and die prematurely.

Elissa: Can people who are pessimistic turn their way of thinking around? How?

Adam: Yes. By changing their habits of thinking. The way you explain setbacks to yourself is as much a habit as the way you tie your shoes. And it is no harder or easier to change a thought habit as it is to change a physical habit.

The best way to change your thinking is with writing. Your thoughts are more airy than a physical habit. That's the only thing that makes them seem harder to change. But when you put your thoughts down on paper, it makes your thoughts real, physical, and available to look at.

When you hit a small setback, write down how you explain it to yourself. Then look at it. Have you overgeneralized? Are you sure? Have you seen the setback in its most unchangeable, permanent aspect?

Don't try to think positive. Don't try to look on the bright side, at least not immediately after a setback. It's too much of a jump. First find out what's wrong with your pessimistic thinking. Most pessimistic thoughts are wrong. An extreme example is what people will say when they are shipwrecked or in a horrible situation: "We're not going to make it." The thought is wrong. How do I know? Because there is still hope, there is still uncertainty, but the statement "We're not going to make it" is final and certain. That's wrong. It's even more of a mistake when you realize that you are less likely to survive thinking that way.

If you would like to be more optimistic, practice arguing with your less optimistic thoughts. You are most likely to think them right after you hit a setback. When you feel defeated, or when something doesn't turn out the way you hope or expect, write down what you're thinking, and then look at it and see if anything is wrong with what you're thinking. Then write down what seems a more reasonable way to think about it.

Keep doing this, and do it often. Think of this as TRAINING. You are training your mind to think differently. Try to do it every day. You hit small setbacks every day. Practice on them. Over a period of time, your habitual way of thinking will change, and as it does, your level of success and health will improve.

One of my favorite studies Seligman did was on the Berkeley swim team (the one that did so well at the Seoul Olympics). First he tested them all for optimism. Then he gave each one a setback.

The coach had the swimmers do some timed heats. That is, they swim up and back, and the coach gives them their time. They swim up and back again, and the coach gives them their time again, and so on.

These are highly trained, experienced athletes. They know what their time SHOULD be. For this experiment, the coach gave them all a time slower than their real time. That was a setback, a little failure.

Here's the interesting part: The optimists swam their next heat FASTER. The nonoptimists swam their next heat SLOWER.

Imagine that difference in response to setbacks extended over a lifetime of daily hurdles. That's why optimistic people are more successful. Researchers have found that optimistic politicians win more elections, optimistic students get better grades, optimistic athletes win more contests, optimistic salespeople make more sales.

Of course they do. If every little setback is responded to with fighting spirit, you'll succeed a lot more than if every little setback makes you give up.

Elissa: What practical steps can people take to increase their positive thinking?

Adam: Take one thing and work on it diligently every day for several months. This will form new habits that will last a lifetime. Once a habit is formed, it has a certain momentum of its own. But forming the habit, especially when you already have a different habit, takes some regularity.

If you try to change any habit by only practicing it once a month, it might never change. There are too many opportunities during the month to keep doing it the old way.

The first place to start is anti-negative thinking rather than jumping into positive thinking. It is extremely hard to think positively when you FEEL negative. But you can find out what's wrong with your negative thinking when you feel negative. You're already in an invalidating frame of mind.

Get in the habit of tearing apart your negative thoughts when you're in a bad mood or hit a setback. Practice on paper. Practice every day. Practice driving in your car. Practice practice practice until the new way of thinking is ingrained and habitual.

They only way to do that is to take ONE thing and focus on it for a period of time. If you keep trying new things, no habits will form and so no lasting change will take place.

That's the bad news: It takes work, discipline, and focus. But if you don't think you have these things, those are the first nonoptimistic thoughts to tear apart.

Elissa: Is there any concern of being too optimistic? What do you think is the healthiest balance between optimism and pessimism?

Adam: In certain instances, optimism should be used very carefully. Mainly when you're planning for the future and the outcome is dangerous. You don't want your tax accountant to be too optimistic. If you're planning a long sailing trip, you don't want to be overly optimistic. You want to think NOW of EVERYTHING that might go wrong, so you can prepare for it.

But when explaining past events, optimism is better. But it needs to be real optimism, not trying to believe things that you know aren't true. Some things in life ARE permanent. When someone you love dies, for example. No amount of arguing with your thoughts will talk you out of it. It is permanent. I think some people go overboard and try to force themselves to see everything as good. There's nothing wrong with the attempt at being positive. The effort will often give you a different perspective on the situation that will help you. But I don't think it's a good idea to try to make yourself believe something you know isn't true.

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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