A study in the US has concluded that optimists can live up to 15% longer than pessimists. As one newspaper noted this gives pessimists yet another reason to be grumpy.
The study suggests an optimist could have more than 10 years extra life. Whether this means we should strive to be optimistic is a matter of personal choice. Do we want those extra years? What would we be able to do with them given the possibility of the various challenges of aging? However, we could take the view that being optimistic is its own reward as it almost unquestionably improves our quality of life.
Optimism can be defined as “the quality of being full of hope and emphasising the good parts of a situation, or a belief that something good will happen” (online dictionary). It is about both hoping for something in the future, appreciating the present and remembering good things from the past; i.e., being positive about the past, present and future.
Winston Churchill offered us a quotable definition of the difference between an optimist and a pessimist; “a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”.
This makes it sound as if the world could be divided into optimists and pessimists; that each of us is one or the other. If we think of it like this, we might be tempted to work out which one we are. More importantly we might conclude that this is just the way we are and that we could do little about it.
However, it’s unrealistic to think anyone could be optimistic all the time, just as it’s unlikely anyone could be always grumpy. In reality, all of us are both at times. Rather than seeing ourselves as fixed by whatever personality we think we have been gifted we could see ourselves as active agents who are constantly juggling with our hopes and fears. So, another way of looking at optimism is to drill down into the detail of what we are doing when we are being optimistic or pessimistic.
What do optimistic thoughts and actions look like? What can we do to increase how optimistic we are? We might live longer as a result although we’d never know for certain. However, we can be sure it would improve our quality of life in the meantime.
Where to begin? Well the example of The Decorated Room (thinkingasaction.com) reminds us that the starting point of any bit of thinking is what we choose to focus on. We are rarely aware of these choices, but this is where any act of optimism must begin.
We could become more aware of these choices be simply asking ourselves;
“What am I focusing on?”
“What thoughts will this lead to?”
“Why this, why now?”
“What else could I be thinking about?”
These simple questions will soon show most of us that grumpiness can easily creep unnoticed into our thoughts. Many of us will have things in our life that we could see as not ideal. A busy daily life full of routine things that we have to do offers many such possibilities. It is all too easy to resent these and be frustrated that they stop us doing the things we really want to do. A more optimistic attitude would be to aim to enjoy what we do rather than doing only what we enjoy; after all many of the routine things we have to do are the foundation of the more obviously pleasurable parts of our lives; we work partly to earn money to pay for the things we want.
Another time when grumpiness can steal into our lives is through procrastination. This is not only usually driven by negative thoughts but also leads to jobs piling up and us feeling overwhelmed. Most of us will have times when we put things off and let things slide whether its daily chores or things we have determined will be good for us like exercise, studying, or trying to make new friends. Putting these things off is driven by bits of thinking; micro decisions that we won’t notice unless we are looking for them.
Plenty of thoughts that sound reasonable are available for us to choose from;
“not now”; “I can’t be bothered”; “it’s too difficult”; “it won’t work”; “there’s no point”; “I’m too tired”; “I’ll do it tomorrow”.
At times like these our motivation hangs by a tiny thread of indecision. If we find ourselves doing this too often, we need to find our motivation button. This is really only a different set of micro decisions;
“just do it”; “I’ll feel better when it’s done”; “it won’t be that bad”; “it won’t take long”; “I’ll give it a try”; “there’s nothing to lose”; “nothing ventured nothing gained”. These more positive optimistic thoughts are motivation; they create energy even when we think we’re tired.
Another aspect of optimism is predicting good things will happen in the future. However, since hope can be the mother of disappointment, we should try to keep our expectations in check. As Rudyard Kipling in his wisest of poems told us “To dream but not make dreams our master.” This reminds us that dreaming is good but when things turn out to be different, disappointment is not the only choice we have; we can move on and accept things haven’t turned out as we wanted.
One very modern example where our expectations can become unrealistic is on social media. With our privacy guard down many of us portray only a positive image of ourselves and our glamourous lives. We can then be surprised when others don’t agree with us or criticise us for something. Anonymous trolling can indeed be vicious, but we should know and accept that envy and jealousy are near universal reactions. Recently a member of Little Mix has been talking about her experience of being trolled. The media coverage blames the trolls for her unhappiness. However, behind her unhappiness lies an expectation or hope that everyone would celebrate her success with her and not be critical; “you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time” (Abraham Lincoln).
Just as optimism is partly about predicting that good things might come our way it is also about appreciating and remembering. When we look at the past we will have an almost infinite choice of memories we could call up. Most of us have some regrets and disappointments from the past that we could keep returning to. These lie in wait for the unwary. We can beat our heads against the wall of fate and go over these as many times as we like. We may not recognise we’re choosing to do so, but we are. To be optimistic is to let these go, to have “the serenity to accept those things we cannot change” (Reinhold Niebuhr) and to shift our focus onto happier memories or something else. Since no life is perfect acceptance is a cornerstone of optimism.
Perhaps, you are already mostly optimistic; or, perhaps, you can tame your habits of thought and become more so. Whatever the case, if we achieve extra years towards the end of life we know we are likely to face the challenges of old age. Aches and pains, less good hearing and sight, decreased mobility, particular health issues. Some of these will impose limitations on what we can do. We could lament the passing years and what we can no longer do. We could be frustrated by our limitations. If we follow this path our quality of life will not be great. Better to take a more positive attitude. Better to accept that we can no longer run half-marathons, host parties, wear that little red dress. We can’t rely on what we used to be able to do to carry us through right to the end.
Whatever our limitations we should try to find something we can still do, something to be interested in. Wanting is key.
The title of Arthur Schopenauer’s book, The World as Will and Representation, reminds us of this and offers us the idea that life is about two things; the way we look at the world and our will to live. He talked of the will as blind and insatiable, what some might call the life force.
We have recently seen an unbelievable example of this will. Endurance swimmer Sarah Thomas has swum across the English Channel four times without stopping; 130 miles in 54 hours. This would not be possible without massive preparation and is out of the reach of most mere mortals. However, we should all be inspired by what the power of will can achieve; this is something we all have and can develop further.
Many tasks require determined will and endurance. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus uses the Greek story of Sisyphus who has to repeat forever the same task of pushing a boulder up a mountain only to see it roll down again. At first sight this might appear to be a meaningless life. Camus uses it to explore our humble existence and the meaning of life in an unintelligible world without absolute truths and values. (John Mortimer described life as “our brief existence suspended between two vast eternities”)
Camus concludes the book with the words; “The struggle itself …….is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”
One moral of the story is that meaning is not something we simply find or stumble upon, though it might feel like it. Rather it is only and always within our power and responsibility to create it.
Incidentally, if you are tempted by The World as Will and Representation be prepared for some endurance reading.
As Eric Idle sang in The Life of Brian “always look on the bright side of life”.