Are you an optimist or a pessimist? The answer to this question can have a dramatic influence on your health! Most folks don’t know if they’re one or the other or a little bit of both. I didn’t even know where I stood until I did the research for this article. I’ll go ahead and give it away – turns out I’m an optimist (phew…sigh of relief)! Let’s figure out where you stand and how we can help you optimize your outlook for your health.
Do some people seem to breeze through life? Do they ‘roll with the punches’ better than you? Must be that they’re luckier, blessed, etc. Maybe. Maybe not. Their outlook on life could have a major impact on how they deal with adversity. In Martin Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism, he discussed what he calls explanatory style, which is how we explain life events (good and bad) to ourselves. Turns out optimists and pessimists tend to have very distinct and opposite approaches to these events. This can also be true of groups. We see it in sports, on business teams, even in our social circles. Explanatory style is learned and can be changed.
Pessimists tend to see adverse life events as permanent whereas optimists tend to see them as temporary. For example, if it rained, a pessimist (picture Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh) might say, ‘it always rains’ whereas an optimist (picture Pooh) might say, ‘it rained today’. See the difference?
Here’s another difference: pessimists tend to generalize and optimists don’t. If a pessimist had a bad experience at leaving a kid at daycare, they may say, ‘daycares are bad’ whereas an optimist might say, ‘that particular worker at that particular daycare is not the best’. Read on, because we’re going to help you see how you can figure out where your tendencies are.
Here’s a big difference – optimists tend to think of negative events as externally caused and positive events as internally caused. Vice versa for pessimists. Great example: I was taking one of my (many) children to baseball practice the other day and he said, ‘uh-oh. I forgot my…you didn’t remind me to get my bat bag’. To which I replied, ‘It’s not my job to remind you. That’s your responsibility.’ See the beauty of the point-counterpoint?! We both externalized adversity! He almost internalized it but corrected himself mid-sentence, and I wasn’t about to take the blame myself!
Our individualized explanatory style comes from learned reactions. What does a young child do immediately after a fall? They look directly at an adult (usually a parent or teacher) to judge their reaction. The child then usually emulates that reaction and that’s how explanatory styles are formed. They are learned. And the good news is that if they’re learned, they can be learned a different way at any point in life! (This is the part where the pessimist rolls his eyes at me.)
Seriously though, how many times have you heard someone say, ‘girls aren’t as good at math’ or ‘boys aren’t as good as girls in the Arts’? I’d say some of the presumptions we grow up accepting are just flat out malarkey. You have the power to change how you influence yourself as well as those around you.
Studies have shown that optimists tend to have stronger immune systems. A feeling of helplessness (seen more often in pessimists) tends to cause more depression and lower immunity leading to more sickness and disease. The general ‘can do’ attitude of optimists helps them embrace a more active lifestyle which improves overall health. Given the same circumstances, optimists tend to get less worked up. Less stress equals improved overall immunity. Optimists tend to sustain friendships better than pessimists, and relationships have been shown in several studies to have a positive influence on overall health.
You want the players on your favorite sports team to be optimists. Studies have shown optimism in groups improves success. Take Lou Holtz at South Carolina for example. Anyone remember what his record was in 1999, the first year he coached there?! 0-11. Yes, that’s right. They didn’t win a single game. Now, Lou Holtz is known in the sports world for his ability to motivate. He took a team that lost every single game in 1999 to then go 8-4 in 2000 and go on to win the Outback Bowl!
How about if you’re an interviewer? Try to think of scenarios to test someone’s optimism. The more optimistic and motivated they are, the better chance you’ll have a great long-term happy and productive hire. Before writing this article, being a business owner, I thought of this characteristic in an employee as tenacity. I think now that they are one in the same. You want these people on your team.
Ok, so how do you know if you’re a pessimist? Albert Ellis coined the ABC technique – Adversity, Belief, Consequence. Here’s an example: A – everyone starts laughing when you come in the room. B – you believe they’re laughing at you. C – you feel insecure and don’t trust these so-called friends. Now let’s look at it a different way…A – everyone starts laughing when you come in the room. B – you believe someone just told a funny joke. C – you’re happy with these so-called friends and want to know what they’re laughing about. See how these approaches are different? The ‘A’ is the same but the ‘B’ and ‘C’ solely depend on you. So, here’s what I want you to do: try to reflect on this past week and come up with one situation you faced and your ‘B’ and ‘C’ from that. Now, think about how you could have improved on that. Was the Belief actually true? Was there an alternative explanation? Does the Consequence of your Belief help or hurt you?
Stop thinking like Eeyore and start thinking like Pooh. It’ll change your outlook on life and in turn change your overall health!
Dr. Thomas is a board-certified physician who operates Complete Health Integrative Wellness Clinic and Thomas Urology Clinic in Starkville, Mississippi.
This blog post is for informational purposes only and is, under no circumstances, intended to constitute medical advice or to create or continue a physician-patient relationship. If you have a medical emergency, you should immediately seek care from your nearest emergency room, and if you have specific health questions, you should consult your own physician.