Many years ago, while I lived in India, I discovered that misery—and the difference between an optimist and a pessimist is quite often a relative issue. It pained me to see the poor women with babies begging at the traffic lights in New Delhi. There were just too many of them. You could help one, a few, but never all. In my frustration I used to think that The Netherlands was a great country because it had a social security system that would prevent such painful begging.
An important driver for a lifestyle of optimism is a sense of purpose. There’s much truth in Nietzche’s “if you know the why, you can live any how.”
Ultimately, what creates purpose is the experience that one is able to make a meaningful contribution to someone else’s life. We are social beings and we need each other to find meaning and fulfillment. There’s a clear relationship between purpose and connection.
I worked for many years in the newsroom of a newspaper. I had a great and exciting time. Newsrooms are pretty much the places you see in movies or television shows. There’s always action and it’s a great experience to create a new and different product every day.
Psychologists have been using a simple test—the Life Orientation Test—for years to find out. The same test has been featured in most of the research done on the relationship between optimism and pessimism and (mental) health. You can take the revised version of the test here. Be as honest as you can throughout and try not to let your response to one statement influence your response to other statements. There are no right or wrong answers.
The life of an optimist begins with the answer to a very common question: Why did this happen to me?
Sometimes the answer to that question is pretty simple and straightforward: “I lost my job because the company went out of business;” “I failed the test because I didn’t prepare myself.”
Psychiatrists and therapists tend to advise people to “face reality” and accept whatever problems the world presents to them. According to this view, denial reflects repression. And repression can lead to neuroses and a whole lot of other bad things. However, the research about optimism challenges this perspective. In fact an unrealistic approach to life is associated with good health and more happiness.
All that most people know about Pollyanna is that calling someone that name is not a good thing. It is an effective way to discourage someone from undertaking something overly optimistic. The reference dismisses optimism as a way to support health and happiness and build success. But few people know the full story and I suggest that Pollyanna was not an optimist at all.
In high school, my week revolved around the field hockey game on Saturday. Back then, we still played on regular grass. Hence, as the week progressed, a striking parallel arose between my mood and darkening skies. Too much rain would force the game to be cancelled, which routinely happened in the fall and winter. My grumbling started well in advance. If it were raining cats and dogs on a Friday afternoon, my dear mother would try to cheer me up by looking out the window and pointing at a random piece of sky. “Look,” she’d exclaim, “it’s already clearing up over there!”