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Optimism, Pessimism, and Your Life

Researchers have found that optimists benefit in many ways from their positive outlook. They tend to perform better in school, at work, and even on the athletic field. For example, a study was made of a womens track team. The coaches provided a thorough assessment of the womens pure athletic abilities. At the same time, the women themselves were surveyed and their level of hope carefully assessed. As it turned out, the womens measure of hope was a far more accurate predictor of their performance than were all the statistics evaluated by their coaches. Why does hope have such a powerful influence? Much has been learned by studying the opposite of optimism pessimism. During the 1960s, experiments yielded an unexpected finding regarding animal behavior, leading researchers to coin the phrase learned helplessness. They found that humans too can suffer from a form of this syndrome. For example, human test subjects were exposed to an unpleasant noise and told that they could learn to stop it by pressing a sequence of buttons. They succeeded in stopping the noise. A second group was told the same thingbut pressing the buttons had no effect. As you can imagine, many among that second group developed feelings of helplessness. In later tests, they were hesitant to take any action at all. They were convinced that nothing they did would make any difference. Even in that second group, though, the optimists refused to give in to such a helpless frame of mind. Dr. Martin Seligman, who helped to design some of those early experiments, was moved to make a career of studying optimism and pessimism. He delved into the kind of thinking exhibited by people who were prone to view themselves as helpless. Such pessimistic thinking, he concluded, hampers people in many of lifes endeavors or even paralyzes them into inaction. Seligman summarizes pessimistic

thinking and its effects this way: Twenty-five years of study has convinced me that if we habitually believe, as does the pessimist, that misfortune is our fault, is enduring, and will undermine everything we do, more of it will befall us than if we believe otherwise. Again, such conclusions may seem new to some today, but they have a ring of familiarity to students of the Bible. Note this proverb: Have you shown yourself discouraged in the day of distress? Your power will be scanty. (Proverbs 24:10) Yes, the Bible clearly explains that discouragement, with its negative thoughts, will sap you of power to act. What, though, can you do to fight pessimism and bring more optimism and hope into your life?

Awake, 2004/04/22, page 6