What Makes Someone Optimistic?

March 12, 2012 · 12 comments

When I meet someone new, I tend to group them in one of two categories: those who are generally optimistic about life, and those who aren’t.

It’s a strange way to categorize people, I suppose, since there are so many other less-subjective ways to classify. But the reason I judge people this way is probably because it’s what matters to me.

I’ll potentially like you whether or not you’re into Texas politics, eat healthy or speak a foreign language. But I often don’t really want to spend time with people who aren’t excited about life.

beautiful day

Is it a beautiful day? Or are you bummed it might rain tomorrow?

Sometimes I wonder, though: is it fair for me not to bother with people who don’t have positive attitudes? We talk about positivity like it’s something we control, like we choose whether to look at the glass half-full. But do we really have control over whether we can take life’s challenges in stride?

While I’m a big believer in looking at the bright side, it seems like living optimistically comes easier to some people than others. Even some folks who have been dealt relatively bad hands in life manage to wade through those obstacles with a smile on their face — while others who have it good constantly emphasize what’s going wrong, even if nearly everything is going right.

What I’m getting at is this: Are some people intrinsically optimistic? Is this a born-with or a learned quality? Is being happy a habit you can teach yourself?

What do you think? Why do some people find it easier than others to be optimistic?

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Ami March 12, 2012 at 8:43 am

Like most qualities, I think we’re born with a tendency toward optimism or pessimism. But I believe that with training we can certainly adjust those outlooks. I used to always expect the worst possible outcome in a situation, presumably because I felt like I was protecting myself from disappointment. If I expected the worst, then I could be prepared for a poor outcome and would be pleasantly surprised when a better outcome arrived. Eventually, I decided to try expecting the best outcome I could imagine and, with some practice, found life was less stressful and that I enjoyed the positive outcomes more when I wasn’t anticipating the worst. Instead of just feeling relief, I felt real joy and accomplishment.

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Louis Burklow March 12, 2012 at 12:43 pm

Lexi, I believe that a lot of this comes from our early experiences. If you grew up around people who are always negative you take on that same outlook. My background taught me to try to find solutions or a good side to something bad (after a snide remark or two, I admit). Whenever possible I see if I can talk people out of being so negative (my usual weapon is sarcasm that shows just how they sound). If it works you feel like you’ve won both for the other person and yourself; if not, I’m like you and try to minimize my contact with that person.

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Alexis Grant March 12, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Interesting… So wonder if we’re born positive and learned negative?

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Elise Daly Parker March 12, 2012 at 1:36 pm

I think there’s something to coming by positive and negative attitudes/perspectives naturally…but I also think we can cultivate the habit of looking at life more positively. One of the most influential books I ever read was The Importance of Forgiveness by John Arnott (http://amzn.to/xYzKDO). In it the author suggests that 80% of the time our minds are yielded toward negative thoughts. Like John when he first heard this, I thought this may be true for others, but not me. So I took the challenge to really observe my thoughts for a few days. I couldn’t believe how negative my thinking could be. It was a powerful exercise; one I’ve never forgotten. And one I often return to. I am mindful of my thinking and have developed the habit of checking my thoughts…and being intentionally more positive.

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Alexis Grant March 12, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Interesting that you’d link forgiveness to positivity! I like that.

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TC Avey March 12, 2012 at 2:55 pm

I think people are born with a tendency towards one outlook or another, that doesn’t mean one can’t learn to be the other.

It is sad when someone with a normally bright and optimistic personality encounters tragedy and they are turned sour. It is awesome when someone who is usually negative is touched by love and begins to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
In both cases I think God is the key- either missing or blessing.

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Ruth A. Douthitt March 12, 2012 at 3:20 pm

Well, we have to remember that you may be meeting someone at a time when they are going through something very difficult: death of a loved one, sick child, bad diagnosis, etc.

Although they may be trying to look at the bright side of things, they may be having a “down” day when you meet them.

Give them a break.

Try and find out a little more about them before making a judgment call so quickly.

The next time you meet, they may be having a good day and may surprise you with their optimism!

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Alexis Grant March 12, 2012 at 4:17 pm

That’s a good point! To be honest, I originally wrote this post about “people I know” — but then I was getting notes from friends asking which category they fell into! So I tweaked it to save myself the grief :)

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Ruth Douthitt March 12, 2012 at 10:58 pm

Lol! Oh, I see what you mean. Yes, I have had to excuse myself from negative people in my life as well.

I found it made a HUGE difference in how I think!

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Kurt Swann March 12, 2012 at 7:28 pm

Alexis,

Good question! Martin Seligman, PhD, professor of psychology, University of Pennsylvania, has spent most of his career studying optimism. His view, which is backed up by research, is that we can change our level of optimism by changing our “explanatory style,” which is how people explain what happens in life, both good and bad. Here’s a link to one of his books http://www.amazon.com/Learned-Optimism-Change-Your-Mind/dp/0671019112

I read the book sometime ago and don’t have all the details fresh in my mind but I remember it to be an easy read for a non-psychologist/researcher like myself :) I don’t remember if he believes there is a hereditary component but he definitely thinks we can improve our level of optimism.

Kurt

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LK Watts March 17, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Hi Alexis,

I think I’m a realist. I’m not optimistic all the time because I think disappointment is such a negative emotion to feel. And if you constantly look on the bright side, you’re bound to be disappointed more often than not. Having just read this back to myself, I think I sound more like a pessimist!!!
Oh well, at least I’m hardly disappointed ;).

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Tina August 17, 2012 at 8:05 pm

I personally think negativity is a learned attribute rather than one that we are born with however I am completely open to be wrong on that statement for we have to be born with the potential & possibility if we are ever to exercise that ability. Such as we have to be born with the number of preset smell adaptors within our nose in order for us to even be able to smell; no receptor, no smell. The reason I say this is because most children are very happy and seemingly optimistic. (the truth is hidden until they learn to talk) So while we are born in one pretense we can learn & aquire negitivity. With that in mind some may be more acceptiable to taking in more negativity than others.

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