Your attitude strongly reflects your outlook on life. Take a closer look at that connection. Are you a pessimist—or an optimist? Can you see how your way of looking actually does color your attitude? And remember: change your outlook and you change your attitude.
The father is looking down into the crib at his sleeping newborn daughter, just home from the hospital. His heart is overflowing with awe and gratitude for the beauty of her, the perfection.
The baby opens her eyes and stares straight up.
The father calls her name, expecting that she will turn her head and look at him. Her eyes don’t move. 4 He picks up a furry little toy attached to the rail of the crib and shakes it, ringing the bell it contains. The baby’s eyes don’t move.
His heart has begun to beat rapidly. He finds his wife in their bedroom and tells her what just happened. “She doesn’t seem to respond to noise at all,” he says. “It’s as if she can’t hear.”
“I’m sure she’s all right,” the wife says, pulling her dressing gown around her. Together they go into the baby’s room.
She calls the baby’s name, jingles the bell, claps her hands. Then she picks up the baby, who immediately becomes lively and makes happy sounds.
“My God,” the father says. “She’s deaf.”
“No, she’s not,” the mother says. “I mean, it’s too soon to say a thing like that. Look, she’s brand-new. Her eyes don’t even focus yet.”
“But there wasn’t the slightest movement, even when you clapped as hard as you could.”
The mother takes a book from the shelf. “Let’s read what’s in the baby book,” she says. She looks up “hearing” and reads out loud: “‘Don’t be alarmed if your newborn fails to be startled by loud noises or fails to turn toward sound. Reactions to sound often take some time to develop. Your pediatrician can test your child’s hearing neurologically.
“There,” the mother says. “Doesn’t that make you feel better?”
“Not much,” the father says. “It doesn’t even mention the other possibility, that the baby is deaf. And all I know is that my baby doesn’t hear a thing. I’ve got the worst feeling about this. Maybe it’s because my grandfather was deaf. If that beautiful baby is deaf and it’s my fault, I’ll never forgive myself.”
“Hey, wait a minute,” says the wife. “You’re worrying too much. We’ll call the pediatrician first thing Monday. In the meantime, cheer up. Here, hold the baby while I fix her blanket. It’s all pulled out.”
The father takes the baby but gives her back to his wife as soon as he can. All weekend he finds himself unable to prepare for next week’s work. He follows his wife around the house, thinking about the baby’s hearing and about the way deafness would ruin her life. He imagines only the worst: no hearing, no development of language, his beautiful child cut off from society, locked in a soundless world. By Sunday night he has sunk into despair.
The mother leaves a message with the pediatrician’s answering service asking for an early appointment Monday. She spends the weekend doing her exercises, reading, and trying to calm her husband.
The pediatrician’s tests are reassuring, but the father’s spirits remain low. Not until a week later, when the baby shows her first startle to the loud sound of a passing truck, does he begin to recover and enjoy his new daughter again.
This father and mother have two different ways of looking at the world. Whenever something bad happens to him—a call from the bank manager, a disagreement with his wife, even a frown from his employer—he imagines the worst: bankruptcy, jail, divorce,
and dismissal. He is prone to depression; he often feels extremely tired; his health suffers. She, on the other hand, sees bad events in their least threatening light. To her, they are temporary challenges to be overcome. After a reversal, she bounces back quickly, and finds all her energy again. Her health is excellent.
The optimists and the pessimists: I have been studying them for the past twenty-five years. The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are not bothered by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.
These two habits of thinking about causes have consequences. Literally hundreds of studies show that pessimists give up more easily and get depressed more often. These experiments also show that optimists do much better in school and at work. They regularly exceed the predictions of aptitude tests. When optimists run for office, they are more apt to be elected than pessimists are. Their health is unusually good. Evidence suggests they may even live longer.
Twenty-five years of study has convinced me that if we habitually believe, as does the pessimist, that misfortune is our fault, is enduring, and will undermine everything we do, more of it will happen to us than if we believe otherwise. I am also convinced that if we are in the grip of this view, we will get depressed easily, we will accomplish less than our potential, and we will even get physically sick more often. Pessimistic prophecies are self-fulfilling.
You Are What You Think
Do you see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty? Do you keep your eye upon the doughnut, not upon the hole? Suddenly these clich é s are scientific questions, as researchers scrutinize the power of positive thinking.
A fast-growing body of research —104 studies so far, involving some 15,000 people —is proving that optimism can help you to be happier, healthier and more successful. Pessimism leads, by contrast, to hopelessness, sickness and failure, and is linked to depression, loneliness and painful shyness. “If we could teach people to think more positively,” says psychologist Craig A. Anderson of Rice University in Houston, “it would be like inoculating them against these mental ills.”
“Your abilities count,” explains psychologist Michael F. Scheier of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, “but the belief that you can succeed affects whether or not you will.” In part, that’s because optimists and pessimists deal with the same challenges and disappointments in very different ways.
Take, for example, your job. In a major study, psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman of
the University of Pennsylvania and colleague Peter Schulman surveyed sales representatives at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. They found that the positive thinkers among long-time representatives sold 37 percent more insurance than did the negative thinkers. Of newly hired representatives, optimists sold 20 percent more.
Impressed, the company hired 100 people who had failed the standard industry test but had scored high on optimism. These people, who might never have been hired, sold 10 percent more insurance than did the average representative.
How did they do it? The secret to an optimist’s success, according to Seligman, is in his “explanatory style”. When things go wrong the pessimist tends to blame himself. “I’m no good at this,” he says. “I always fail.” The optimist looks for other explanations. He blames the weather, the phone connection, even the other person. That customer was in a bad mood, he thinks. When things go right, the optimist takes credit while the pessimist thinks success is due to luck.
Negative or positive, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. “If people feel hopeless,” says Anderson, “they don’t bother to acquire the skills they need to succeed.”
A sense of control, according to Anderson, is the real test for success. The optimist feels in control of his own life. If things are going badly, he acts quickly, looking for solutions, forming a new plan of action, and reaching out for advice. The pessimist feels like a toy of fate and moves slowly. He doesn’t seek advice, since he assumes nothing can be done.
Optimists may think they are better than the facts would justify —and sometimes that’s what keeps them from getting sick. In a long-term study, researchers examined the health histories of a group of Harvard graduates, all of whom were in the top half of their class and in fine physical condition. Yet some were positive thinkers, and some negative. Twenty years later, there were more middle-age diseases among the pessimists than the optimists.
Many studies suggest that the pessimist’s feeling of helplessness undermines the body’s natural defenses, the immune system. Dr Christopher Peterson of the University of Michigan has found that the pessimist doesn’t take good care of himself. Feeling passive and unable to dodge life’s blows, he expects ill health and other misfortunes, no matter what he does. He eats unhealthy food, avoids exercise, ignores the doctor, has another drink.
Most people are a mix of optimism and pessimism, but are inclined in one direction or the other. It is a pattern of thinking learned from early childhood, says Seligman. It grows out of thousands of cautions or encouragements, negative statements or positive ones. Too many “don’ts” and warnings of danger can make a child feel incompetent, fearful —and pessimistic.
As they grow, children experience small triumphs, such as learning to tie shoelaces. Parents can help turn these successes into a sense of control, and that breeds optimism.
Pessimism is a hard habit to break —but it can be done. In a series of studies, Dr Carol Dweck of the University of Illinois has been working with children in the early grades of school. As she helps students to change the explanations for their failures —from “I must be dumb” to “I didn’t study hard enough” —their academic performance improves.
So, if you’ re a pessimist, there’s reason for optimism. You can change. Here’s how, says Steve Hollon, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University:
1. Pay careful attention to your thoughts when bad things happen. Write down the first thing that comes to mind, without any changes or corrections.
2. Now try an experiment. Do something that’s contrary to any negative reactions. Let’s say something has gone wrong at work. Do you think, I hate my job, but I could never get a better one? Act as if that weren’t so. Send out r é sum é s. Go to interviews. Look into training and check job information.
3. Keep track of what happens. Were your first thoughts right or wrong? “If your thoughts are holding you back, change them,” says Hollon. “It’s trial and error, no guarantees, but give yourself a chance.”
Positive thinking leads to positive action—and reaction. What you expect from the world, the evidence suggests, is what you’re likely to get.