I wonder if having an optimistic outlook on life is mostly inborn or learned. Our personalities are complicated. Psychologists are not precisely sure whether optimism can be successfully learned or if a sunny disposition is part of some people’s general make up. An optimistic attitude can be partially learned by pessimists, but it seems like pessimists have pessimism as a template for their personalities.
Anecdotal observation of infants shows some babies smile and seem more cheery than others. This personality feature apparently remains with the child as she or he grows through childhood on into adulthood.
From childhood onwards, we’re urged to look on the bright side of life and search for the silver lining in clouds. This marketing of optimism seems to work well for some people and not at all for others.
Many years ago, I lived with a pessimistic roommate, not only did he look on the dark side of life, he was accident prone, too. I sometimes wondered if being pessimistic and having numerous mishaps goes hand in hand. The roommate also consulted doctors very frequently. The physicians could never find anything wrong with him, in fact my roommate feared that he might be a hypochondriac. He was a person who could sit in a room full of uplifting, positive literature and complain that there was nothing good to read.
His brother was the polar opposite. He was quite upbeat, successful, and physically robust. If anybody wanted to conduct a case study of pessimism vs. optimism among siblings, these two brothers might have been good subjects.
On the surface, it appears that people who have hopeful attitudes and expect the best possible outcomes enjoy good overall health. Again, anecdotal evidence seems to point to improved heart health and other forms of physical well-being are more prevalent in optimistic individuals than in those who are pessimistic. This is not ironclad proof. We all probably know one or two people who suffer from a serious physical disability or endures chronic illnesses who have upbeat, optimistic personalities.
It’s easy to spot a person with inate optimism and a person who is trying to force herself into adopting an optimistic attitude. The “natural” optimist just radiates hopefulness and positivity. The “wannabe” optimist frequently spouts platitudes and tries almost too hard to be cheerful. They don’t realize that it might be better to accept themselves for who they are. Acceptance of oneself provides more peace of mind, than pithy sayings ever will.
I don’t think there is a clear division between optimism and pessimism. There is also a group of us who are realists. We’re not classic optimists and we’re not naysaying pessimists. We’ve been exposed to both extremes yet neither of them “took”. We see the inherent weaknesses of both types. Realists tend to view life more objectively. Realists borrow from optimists, the motivation to move forward, and from pessimists, the ability to understand obstacles to progress. Realists enjoy a healthy share of pragmatism.
Personally, I prefer an occasional nudge of optimism so as to not get caught up in the overwhelming pessimism of the culture at large. I tend to only wear rose-colored glasses on holidays and other celebrations. I know I’m being optimistic when I ask myself, “How can I do it?” rather than “Am I able to do it?”
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes the English poet and playwright, John Heywood. “If you will call your troubles experiences, and remember that every experience develops some latent force within you, you will grow vigorous and happy, however adverse your circumstances.”