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The Surprising Power of Optimism by Ann Hancock

The Surprising Power of Optimism
by Ann Hancock

"I can hardly imagine living without hope. As for the future of the world, there is a colorful spectrum of possibilities, from the worst to the best. What will happen, I do not know. Hope forces me to believe that those better alternatives will prevail, and above all it forces me to do something to make them happen."
--Vaclav Havel, dissident playwright, political prisoner, President of Czechoslovakia

Forget doom and gloom. Not only depressing and often repellent, doom and gloom can also be self-fulfilling. Optimism -- expecting good things to happen even in defiance of reality -- can be also self-fulfilling. Inspiring discoveries about optimism's effects on individual performance suggest potent applications on a broader scale.

Studies reveal that optimists tend to be healthier both mentally and physically, living two years longer than pessimists on average. Among people with AIDS, optimists remain symptom free longer than pessimists. Similarly for those with cancer, the attitude with which a person receives the diagnosis largely determines how the disease will progress. A sunny outlook and a fighting spirit modulate the nervous system in a way that bolsters immune system defenses and raise the level of disease-fighting cells.

Psychologist Martin Seligman, author of "Learned Optimism," categorizes people according to the explanations they offer of their own successes and failures. Optimists view failure as something changeable that can be overcome next time around, while pessimists take the blame for failure, attributing it to some lasting characteristic they feel helpless to change.

Downplaying the bad and internalizing the good, optimists maintain an abiding belief in their own ability to handle what life presents them. Rebounding from losses with optimism enables one to more successfully negotiate a world of constant change. Seligman states that persistence serves as the fundamental link between optimism and performance. Additionally, optimists take more risks and try more new things; they buoyantly deal with problems head on rather than withdrawing in assumed defeat.

Please note that being optimistic does not guard against pain and despair. To the contrary, such feelings are essential for evoking empathy and responsive action. Life challenges us to exercise optimism while fully experiencing our circumstances -- whatever they may be.

Seligman's research has shown that optimists perform better than pessimists in almost all fields -- including education, business, sports, and politics. Among college students, optimism was a more reliable predictor of academic success than SAT scores. In another study, optimistic insurance salesmen sold 57% more insurance than pessimists.

In studies aimed at predicting election outcomes, evaluators scored candidates' speeches for optimism. Using only these scores for criteria, Seligman predicted that Bush would face Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign long before the crowded field of contenders was narrowed. Again using only these criteria, Seligman also correctly predicted the outcomes of 25 of 29 U.S. Senate races in 1988.

I believe these findings about optimism have direct translation to encouraging worldwide sustainable behavior. Shifting people's perceptions is the biggest challenge for creating a positive future. Increasingly, people are aware that we MUST change course to avoid a worldwide ecological disaster. The next required shift in perception centers on generating belief that we CAN change course.

To do so, we must overcome masses of pessimism, cynicism, fatalism, apathy, and helplessness: "What can one person do? The problem is just too big. Who cares? It's too far gone, anyway." Such insidious beliefs are self-reinforcing and self-sabotaging. Were we to cling to them, we would cultivate our own demise.

Jerry Mander appeals for optimism in his book, In the Absence of the Sacred. Mander begins this passage -- one that has fortified me for years -- by describing Native Americans' positive outlook despite their history of unimaginable suffering.

"Their strength is fed by the knowledge that what they are doing is rooted in the earth and deserves to succeed. But aside from that, they fight their battles without real thought of failure. They do it on behalf of their values as well as their children and grandchildren. They also do it with a humor and kindliness that is itself inspiring.

"So, in that context, I feel that talk of failure is very short-sighted, unwise (since it is debilitating), indulgent, inaccurate, but most of all useless."

Let us purposefully and optimistically reframe the way we view our current global ecological crisis: "We are problem-solvers with enormous resources and abilities. We love a challenge and accept this one whole-heartedly. Future generations will remember us with gratitude because of our incredible willingness and success in embracing this challenge, and our dedication to them in doing so. We are thrilled and honored to be alive now, and participate in the largest transformation ever in human history."

Ann Hancock, the founding director of Sustainable Sonoma County has dedicated herself to forging a sustainable economy to preserve our irreplaceable rural heritage.

eco.logic, her monthly column, is published monthly in Sonoma West Times and News; reprinted with permission.

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