Optimism gives life, pessimism demise

he story of mankind is a tale of extraordinary progress. The life of a chimpanzee –the animal closest to us—is largely the same compared to the life of its ancestor that lived 20,000 years ago. In contrast, the lives of humans have completely changed in that period of time. The difference is that humans trade and cooperate. Chimpanzees still need to provide their own food and shelter. Twenty thousand years ago, we spent our days the same way. Today, however, all of us contribute a small part to the overall well-being of everybody. We cannot underestimate the power of the human genius. That is why optimists are right and pessimists wrong.

 

Secretly you think optimistic people are just annoying—their constant smiling; the way they are always looking on the ‘bright side’ and reciting cheerful aphorisms. When optimists veer off into wishful thinking, called blind optimism, you suspect they are delusional, even dangerous. Is optimism really a characteristic we want to instill in ourselves and our children Actually yes. Optimism can protect against depression and anxiety disorders and promote emotional resilience. Optimists are physically healthier than pessimists, and they recover faster from conditions like heart disease. Optimism can help us cope more effectively with stress, and affects the immune system in ways that are largely beneficial. Most people prefer the company of optimists. Compared to pessimists, they have more friends and are more likely to have wide social networks, which confer additional health benefits.

 

That may be why we are hardwired for optimism. According to Tali Sharot, a researcher at University College London, some 80 percent of people meet the psychological criteria for optimism, regardless of age, race, gender or culture. But these days, given all the crises—economic and ecological; and disasters –natural and man-made—we face, it is easy, rather tempting to opt for pessimism. The good news is, optimism can be learned. All it takes a little practice and healthy doses of grit, determination, self-criticism and argumentativeness. Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, differentiates optimists and pessimists, not by their moods at any given moment but by their beliefs about what happens to them. According to Seligman, people with pessimistic dispositions think bad events are their fault and that the outcomes of these events will persist—maybe for ever. Permanence tinges their arguments with their spouses, bad test grades or automobile accidents. In contrast, according to Saligman, optimists replace the pessimistic script with statements like “I’m exhausted tonight, it’s hard to lose weight while you’re on vacation; I wish you talked to me more.”

 

Even when a pessimist has a good day, a dark cloud hovers nearby, as demonstrated by comments like “It’s one of my rare lucky days and I somehow lost weight but I must have a tapeworm.” In contrast, an optimist tends to talk about happy or successful events in ways that suggest a more permanent effect. “Luck follows me and sticking to my diet was difficult, but it paid off.” In short, when something bad happens, a pessimist explains it using words like ‘always and never’, while an optimist uses words like ‘lately and sometimes’ .Pessimism is now recognized as a strong risk factor for depression. In the event of setbacks, pessimism brings personal, creative or professional endeavors to a halt. These kinds of people don’t persist and they just feel worse. In contrast, hard work in the face of difficulties—even failure—is a hallmark of optimism. Optimists may be hard-working, persistent employees but that is not the most important reason for their ‘optimistic outlook’. Optimism protects against depression, and pessimism is a strong risk factor for it. Depression is the leading cause of disability for Americans affecting nearly 7 percent of the youth. Depression takes a similar toll among Europeans. While in 2006, 33,000 Americans killed themselves, in the UK, the depression took a 10 percent toll in the 20 to 44 age group.

 

Pessimism is indeed strongly related to depression. People with severe depression have a pessimism bias. On the contrary, optimism is a powerful tonic for depression, but its benefits extend to cardiovascular health, too. A Dutch study reveals that the risk of death from the cardiovascular disease was slashed by nearly 80 percent among optimists. High optimism has also been linked to better recovery from heart transplants and high bypass surgery, protection from stroke and early onset of dementia. One can find the insight in the words of the Serenity Prayer which is recited at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous & Self –Help Programs: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The following quotations will do full justice to the writeup. “Optimist: Person who travels on nothing from nowhere to happiness. ---Mark Twain. “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”---Winston Churchill.

*Dr. Tej K. Munshi, is Ex. Professor, Deptt. of Applied Sciences, NIT (J&K)
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