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June 13, 2014
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Guest column: Does optimism play a role in health and happiness?

Is there a negative side to positive thinking? When I was a child my mother bought Norman Vincent Peale’s book, “The Power of Positive Thinking.” That she even came up with the money to buy it was surprising, considering how poor we were. It was the first published work on that subject, and my mother carried it around like a bible. Maybe that partially explains my lifelong proclivity toward optimism.

But lately I’ve run across a lot of opinions that run counter to my positive bent. Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D., wrote, “Those who believe if you smile in the face of tragedies, if you keep on chanting that everything will turn out wonderfully, often end up with even bigger problems.”

And Barbara Ehrenreich in her book, “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America,” contends that the “large-scale enemy — a sort of positivity-industrial complex composed of big corporations (who want optimistic, obedient workers), motivational speakers and coaches (who want to sell materials on how to be more positive), and even medical researchers (who feel pressure to support the “sexy” idea of mind over matter)” are to blame. These forces combine,” she argues, “to enforce a deliberate self-deception that not only masks real unhappiness but has led our country into danger.”

I can actually buy into part of this, as I have been frustrated at times by people who put on their rose-tinted glasses and adopt a “Pollyannaish” attitude to serious problems that could be addressed more effectively by ways other than blithely expecting that “everything will be all right.”

It has been my experience, however, that positive thinking can in all actuality lead to a more hopeful and helpful view of reality. That word “reality” is interesting, because different people have different realities, and all of them consider their version as being the only realistic one. So what is reality? Truth be told, we each make up our own and that becomes sacrosanct to us.

If my “reality” is that few people can be trusted, that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, and that peace is not possible given our human propensity for fighting, then I’m apt to become cynical and intolerant of opinions that counter my own.

If on the other hand my “reality” is that there are many trustworthy people in the world, I’m apt to communicate more with others and listen peaceably to opinions different from my own.

This is not to say that one “reality” is right or the other wrong, because each side could substantiate their views with facts. The most essential difference between the two is the resulting attitude, and how it determines the way we see ourselves, each other and ultimately the world around us.

In searching the Internet, I have found many more researchers who counter the statement of Lazarus and side instead with the notion that optimism has many positive effects.

Psychologist Michael F. Scheier did some groundbreaking research in 1985 about the positive effects of optimism. He spoke in 2012 about it, saying that “In just the last year hundreds of academic papers have been published studying the health effects of expecting good things to happen which researchers call ‘dispositional optimism.’”

Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has found that pessimists tend to see their failures as personal deficits that will last a lifetime. Optimists however, tend to see those same failures simply as mistakes from which they can learn,

Working with Seligman, psychiatrist George Valliant of Dartmouth Medical School and psychologist Christopher Peterson of the University of Michigan studied 99 men in the Harvard graduating classes of 1939 to 1944. These men had interviews and physical exams every five years since their return from World War II. They found that men who had been optimistic at age 25 were much healthier than the pessimists, whose health started declining at age 45.

In addition, Seligman found that optimistic insurance agents sold 37 percent more than the pessimists in the first two years. Pessimists usually resigned in those same two years.

I once explained to a home-schooling friend of mine how my daughter maintained an atmosphere of happiness in her classroom and that during the past 30 years her first- and second-grade students have consistently achieved above average grades. “Of course,” he said, “because when kids are happy, they learn better.”

His holiness, the Dalai Lama was once asked how he could be so optimistic considering all the tragedies he and his people had endured. He said, “Because optimism makes me happy.”

I believe that happiness can have profound and far-reaching positive implications.

Judy Lasswell has been an active member of the Roseburg community for 50 years. She is a retired Umpqua Community College instructor. She earned a master’s degree in counseling in 1990. She can be reached at julass@charter.net.

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The News-Review Updated Jun 13, 2014 01:58PM Published Jun 13, 2014 01:58PM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.