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Why you want to choose the optimist way of life


Numerous scientific studies have shown that an optimistic lifestyle is healthy for you. An optimistic perspective is also good for your mental wellbeing. But I don’t want to convince you with science. I want to tell you three little stories.

Some years ago I was in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, working on a story about microfinance. I was traveling with one of our daughters and one evening after we had had dinner we were walking in a small street in the heart of La Paz on the way to our hotel. It must have been around 10 pm. The evening was pitch dark except for an occasional lamppost. Suddenly we heard someone whistling. It was a happy tune. The sound came closer and we were curious who this happy messenger would be. Then a little boy turned a corner. He must have been about 7 years old. When he saw us he stopped whistling and gave us a beaming smile. His white teeth sparkled in the dim lit street.

“Shoeshine?”, he asked.

That was about the last thing we needed this late in the evening. We were ready for our beds—and by our reckoning so should he be. Yet, something in his joyful experience made it impossible to say “no”.

He polished our shoes. But, more importantly, he taught us a lesson. His inspired us with his happiness and his optimism. This boy knew there would always be many shoes to shine. He saw possibility. I’m sure he’s no longer shining shoes today. He has moved on to his next enterprise. He may have been born in poverty but he will never be poor. When you live the life of possibility and optimism, success will follow and poverty is ultimately impossible.

Recently in Mexico I met Gloria, the waitress. Mexico is, of course, very much part of the manana world where laziness is often celebrated. The heat of the sun has convinced most people that their lives are better lived at a slower pace. And most agree that if something can be done tomorrow, there’s no need to do it today. But that’s not Gloria. She may be about 25 years old. She has lived her life in that same culture of tranquility and passiveness as her family and friends, but from an early age she must have been different. She almost runs while she serves her tables. She has smiles and friendly words for her guests and she enlightens her co-workers with her laughter in the kitchen. Gloria is a joy for everyone to be around. She is a natural intelligent optimist. She always has been. Life may challenge her but she will always overcome and succeed.

Then there is my Dutch friend Peter. Peter has reached his mid-life and he still has not been able to embrace possibility. He talks about the things he wants to do. He shares his dreams. But he always has reasons why it is not yet the right time to follow his passion; why he first needs to do a few more things he doesn’t like before he can finally commit himself to doing what he loves. He keeps postponing and he has told me many times that a life of optimism is naïve and that he is a realist. A while back he gave me a book written by a brain scientist who argues that humans are mere machines destined to fulfilling duties to serve their needs rather then following their dreams. I’m sure Peter wanted to make the point about his “realism” with the gift of his book, but to me such realism is really pessimism. It stands in the way of life.

Gloria has probably never read a book by a brain scientist. My shoeshine boy in La Paz may not have read any book at all. But both of them are natural life artists, intelligent optimists and pioneers of possibility.

My friend Peter is not alone. I see many friends in the fast western world hesitating to embrace their passions while they keep telling themselves that today is not yet the day to do what they love to do. I know that struggle myself despite the fact that I may call myself a founder of The Intelligent Optimist.

But here’s the message: There’s no excuse. We only have today—we can just hope for tomorrow—and we better make this day the best we can have. And for that intelligent optimism is surely the best way of life. An Indian guru once advised me: “Keep good company”. Gloria is good company. So is the shoeshine boy. But as much as I love him, Peter is not.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. You have initiated a wonderful service that is sorely needed in these times of great political polarization and national despair over gridlock.

    The concept of a negative or positive lifestyle can be easily discerned as you correctly point out and in fact has been quantified by Maurice Farber in his book, Theory of Suicide. Farber has postulated an inverse relationship between hope and the threat of suicide where S=1/HOPE. In this formula, S represents the threat of suicide and even a rudimentary knowledge of mathematics will allow one to see that an abundance of hope creates various fractional threats (1/10, 1/100, 1,000 etc. while a paucity of hope can raise the threat of suicide to danger levels of 10-1, 100-1, 1,000-1, etc.

    The same process of negative and positive forces operates in group behavior as well and typically manifests itself as high or low morale. The work of Harvard psychologist, David McClelland, has underscored the importance of self-regulation and positive self-concept among workers to high productivity. McClelland has carried the concept even further by analyzing the recurring themes of optimism or despair in the literature of earlier civilizations.

    October 20, 2013

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