What is it that allows some of us to be hopeful in a world full of tragedy and injustice, where time and chance have their way with everyone, and where we face defeat in the end? Apart from a comforting religious faith it requires some trick of the mind to be able to derive pleasure and significance from the moment. Not everyone can do it. The lifetime prevalence of depression in the population has been estimated at 15-20%, while at any given moment around 10% of us are so beset by sadness and loss of personal significance that we qualify for a formal diagnosis of depression

Given the state of the world it is hardly surprising that many people harbor doubts about the future. Pessimists, those most prone to depression, almost invariably consider themselves "realists," and watching the news it's hard to argue against the proposition that things are bad and getting worse. And yet our individual happiness in the present moment is largely dependent on what we anticipate. Our beliefs about the future constitute self-fulfilling prophesies: we get not what we deserve but what we expect. This truth can be seen most vividly in our interactions with other people. Those we approach with trust and openness tend to respond helpfully. Conversely, if we treat people with suspicion, they are likely to reciprocate.

To be hopeful is not unselfish. On the contrary it is in our self-interest to risk the occasional disappointment that optimism implies in order to benefit from the more frequent experience of realized hopes. The habitual mask of the pessimist is similar to that of the depressive: a fixed frown of discontent and unhappiness. In fact, the triad of perfectionism, pessimism, and discouragement is a familiar precursor to and accompaniment of clinical depression. The logic is unavoidable: those who demand too much of themselves and others are bound to be unhappy in an imperfect world. Like most emotions (anger, anxiety, love), unhappiness is contagious; it feeds on itself and demands to be shared. There is a story of two girls assigned to clean a stable. One focuses on the material she is shoveling, the other thinks that, "There must be a pony around here somewhere."

To some extent hope or the lack of it is, like many of our attitudes, a product of our experience. There is an area of psychology called "learned helplessness" that concerns itself with the consequences to people when they conclude that they have little choice in what happens to them. If we assume that our efforts are unrelated to the outcomes in our lives we develop an outlook of pessimism and passivity. Optimism requires that we believe that we can favorably influence our fates.

How we react to setbacks in our lives is a particularly good test of how hopeful we are. If we see some bad outcomes as being inevitable in a world in which our control is limited, we can nevertheless retain our confidence in our ability to change things for the better. If we react to adverse events by feeling discouraged and powerless and engage in a process of self-blame, we are unlikely to imagine that we can improve the situation. Eventually, our skepticism about changing things for the better hardens into an habitual attitude. Or as one bookstore visitor said, "I almost bought a book about how to think positively, but then I thought, ‘What good would that do?'"

It usually doesn't take long to find out whether you are in the presence of an optimist or pessimist. One of the best indicators of how someone else is feeling is the mood they evoke in us. If being around another person causes us to feel discouraged, it is a fair bet that this is, at least in part, a reflection of their outlook. Conversely, optimism is also transmittable. Sometimes this takes the form of a reinterpretation of events. Recently I was on a tour bus whose driver was the recipient of the truck driver's salute from an irritated motorist. Rather than express anger or insult, the driver suggested, "Look. That guy thinks I'm number one." As with all of life's adversities a working sense of humor is an invaluable defense. The situation may be critical but not serious.

Optimism is highly correlated with success. What do you suppose a major league hitter is telling himself before he bats? Even the best of them make an out two-thirds of the time. Do you suppose that this statistic is weighing on him as he approaches the plate? Or is he likely to be imagining a happier result. People who never developed a belief in themselves, no matter their intrinsic talent, are unlikely to appear on major league rosters; they have long since been encouraged to pursue other occupations. The same might be said of successful salespeople. There is also a role here for recognizing that, since our pasts are largely stories of our own creation, we have the power of selective recall. Optimists are more likely to remember good outcomes while pessimists are discouraged by memories of failure. Optimists are also skilled at using the psychological defense of "reinterpretation" of events.

On a hot day many years ago my then-middle school daughter Emily, one of the most optimistic people I know, was paddling with me in a cardboard boat race. As we began to take on water and the boat dissolved beneath us, I thought of the hours I had spent sealing and painting the fragile craft to prevent this outcome. Finally it sank and we became swimmers. Emily, seeing my disgust, said to me, "Oh Dad, doesn't that cool water feel good?"

The school of "positive psychology" has demonstrated that optimism, like helplessness, can be learned. Using cognitive techniques and stress management Martin Seligman and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania have shown conclusively that pessimists can be taught to be optimists with beneficial effects on school and occupational success, even health.

In one of the frequent examples of overlap between virtues, optimism is heavily dependent upon courage. Pessimism, like depression, is a "safe" position. Pessimists may be discouraged but they are seldom disappointed. If situations turn out badly, they expected as much. If things go better than predicted, they can only be pleasantly surprised. Optimists, on the other hand, risk disappointment, or worse yet, being taken advantage of and looking foolish. This is why we seek the middle ground, presumably occupied by true realists. Since we lack the power of foresight, however, we are all subject to surprise. So who would you rather spend your life with: those who brace themselves for the worst or those who anticipate the best?

About the Author

Gordon Livingston

Gordon Livingston, M.D., writes and practices psychiatry in Columbia, MD.

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