Optimists don't let the weather get them down
Monday, April 22, 2013 3:25 AM
One day while running errands, I ran into an acquaintance. I greeted her with "Wow, it's going to be a beautiful day, isn't it?"
Her response: "Don't count on it."
Then we had some conversation about something else. We'd had enough bad weather that a good day was almost something to celebrate, and so when leaving, I finished with "Enjoy the day!"
Her response to me was "As long as it lasts."
As I got into my car, I thought to myself that this little exchange was another one to remember. It was like the answer to the question, "Is the glass half empty or half full?" It was a clear indicator of whether a person is basically optimistic or pessimistic.
Optimism is a pretty important trait to have. It definitely affects our behavior choices, as the woman who just couldn't - or wouldn't - see the beauty in the day. She was pessimistic, looking not for the best but for the worst. It's not fun, and it's even difficult, to be around people like that for very long.
Optimism results in so many positive outcomes in everyday life. Optimism leads to trust, and trusting behavior. If someone expects the best out of others - is basically optimistic - that person is more likely to trust others.
Twenty-five years ago I read studies which found that people who trust others, like optimists, are less anxious and suffer less psychological distress than mistrustful people. Trustful people are liked by nearly everyone, while mistrustful people aren't. Trustful people are sought out as friends more often than mistrustful people. And, trustful people tend to be in better health than mistrustful ones.
One researcher, Julian Rotter, then at the University of Connecticut, explained, "If low trusters believe that other people cannot be trusted, they feel less moral pressure themselves to tell the truth. They may feel that lying, cheating and similar behaviors are necessary for defensive reasons - because everybody else is doing it to them."
Perhaps the person who has low trust of others also has low trust of him/herself. And that can include trust of one's own ability to do well in this life.
Not long ago, I heard some people referring to their own childhood: "My family was very poor."
I jumped in with my often-used line: "No, your family was broke, not poor."
Being poor is chronic: it's a mindset that both creates and results from the culture of poverty. Poor people have no optimism about the future.
Being broke, however, is seen by the "broke" person and/or family as a temporary situation: next week, or next year, or within five years, it will be not just different, but better. Our families who lived through the Depression did not lose their optimism, and they went on to create an incredible economic and social structure that has never been seen anywhere else; they made sure that things were better for us than they had been for them. It's a good thing our ancestors did not think they were poor.
A long time before I read those studies, I was convinced that a test for optimism would be the best way to select people for customer contact positions in any industry. I had learned that people who were unable to give good service to every customer in front of them was suffering from the "image of limited good." They really felt if they gave outstanding interpersonal service for this person, they wouldn't have time, or energy, or something, left for the rest of the people in line. Instead, the optimistic person sees good things, such as smiles, friendliness, and cheerfulness, existing in unlimited supply: they had as much as they would ever need. So, giving some away did not deplete their "bucket" of good customer service tools.
One time I even tried, not very successfully, to convince fellow professors that using a curve as the basis for assigning grades was self-defeating. It was assigning the "image of limited good" to the grading system, with only so many As to give out. I suggested that the alternative was to set very challenging but attainable standards - just like we had done in business - and then reward everyone (no matter how many) who made it. Everyone would have a chance to "win," and the responsibility for doing so would be theirs. The key is having high standards and sticking to them.
One problem with optimists is that they can be irritating to pessimists because of their determination. They set high standards for themselves and expect others to do the same. They can be tiring in their attempts to make things better!
Back then I also was collecting items to use in that potential test for optimism. Besides the question about whether the glass is half-full or half-empty, I had items such as "are traffic lights 'stop lights' or 'go lights'?" "If you miss the 8 a.m. bus by one minute, were you one minute late for that one or 19 minutes early for the 8:20 bus?" "Is the day partly cloudy or partly sunny?" "When the week (or the day or year or...) starts out bad, can it only get worse or only get better?"
It's known that trust creates trust, and fear escalates fear. In the same way, optimism begets optimism, and pessimism escalates fear. I think it is obvious that it is easier and more fun to be around an optimistic person than a pessimistic one. And while the weather lately may seem like good reason to be pessimistic, we do know that no matter how bad it is, or how long we have to wait, it is going to get better.
It really helps to be an optimist if you are going to live in Minnesota!