Why Are Optimists Smiling? Are They Blind to Reality?

Understanding a person's outlook on life through early recollections

Posted Aug 25, 2015

When first introduced to early recollections in a graduate counseling class, I was skeptical about the claim that the assesssment device could yield insights into an individual's deepest nature. Merely asking a person to recount a memory from a period before 8 years-of-age seemed unlikely to be of much value in understanding enduring personality patterns. Yet, after listening to thousands of people share their first remembrances, I can now fully appreciate the method developed by the Vienese psychiatrist, Alfred Adler, over 100 years ago. As a projective technique, early recollections provide glimpses into ingrained ways of being through a relatively brief personality measure.

Among various personality dimensions that emerge in early recollections, orientations towards optimism and pessimism have significant implications for the lives of individuals. Optimism relates to a person's expectations of favorable events, and pessimism involves expectations of unfavorable or negative events taking place. With an anticipation for success, optimists generally persist with challenges, while others with a pessimistic outlook tend to withdraw from adversities or have difficulties weathering hardships. Through an active coping approach when dealing with stressful conditions, optimistic persons typically pursue more adaptive behavior patterns. With the inevitable setbacks that occur to us all, an optimistic orientation enables individuals to bounce back relatively quickly from hurts and defeats.

As an example of an optimistic early recollection, Gary, a psychologist in middle adulthood, related the following early recollection: "I was in the bedroom of my house on the second floor looking out the window. I could see the river in the backyard, and the sun was sparking on the water. It was late and the sun was setting--a relaxing and contemplative time of day. My parents were swimming together in the river." The most vivid part of the memory for Gary was, "The sparkling shine on the water and my parents slowly splashing and kicking." At this point, Gary said, "I felt relaxed and at peace." The tranquil and serene remembrance relates to Gary's outlook on life. He has a zest for living and an expectation that good things will happen to him and his family. Gary's mood is generally upbeat and he exhibits a sense of well-being. He views the world (other people and events) as supportive and resourceful, and Gary typically confronts challenges and adversities in adaptive ways.

As an example of a pessimistic early recollection, David, a computer technician in middle adulthood, recounted the following: "We had just moved into a new house, and I was looking out the living room window. Some kids were playing out on the street kicking a ball around. My mother kept yelling a me to go outside, but I didn't feel like it. I didn't know any of the kids and some of them looked kind of unfriendly." David said that the most vivid part of the remembrance was, "Looking at the kids and feeling like they would ignore me if I went outside." David frequently anticipates that situations will not work out for him, and he assumes a more passive orientation in living. He tends to worry excessively and tries to avoid or disengage himself from stressful events. David seems to find that daily experiences are not particularly enjoyable, and he often blames other people for making matters worse. David frequently dwells on his failures and has difficulities rebounding from setbacks.

There is much to learn from people like Gary and David in terms of attempts to maintain psychological equilibrium. The active coping style and resiliency of optimististic people in the face of opportunites and challenges enables them to make the best of situations. At the same time, individuals with a pessimistic outlook remind us that there are many unpleasant, and at times, intractable problems that we all encounter in living. There is a reality to life that optimists must also be in touch with in in order to navigate the joys and sorrows of human existence. 

Although early recollections reflect ingrained personality patterns, purposeful and constructive movement is possible with an awareness and commitment to change. Deliberate and persistent attempts to develop more positive expectations disposes pessimistic persons to the possibility of more favorable events taking place. Visualizing the successful completion of challenging activities promotes tendencies towards optimism, and pursuing tasks in more active and engaging ways is another step towards fostering a less negative view of life. Although these strategies may be helpful, I do now want to minimize the challenges in seeking more optimistic ways of being. Further, chronic and debilitating pessimism is associated with the emotional disorders of anxiety and depression, and professional intervention may be necessary to address therapeutic issues.In these instances, more extensive procedures beyond early recollections are necessary in order to provide a more comprehensive assessment of an individual's personality.