Happiness – the role of optimism

Happiness – the role of optimism

Psychology: Optimism produces positive results


By SCOTT SMITH, For The Capital

I remember someone telling me he had a parent who could look out on a sunny day and see the one cloud in the sky and pronounce, “A storm might be coming.” This pervasive negativism wore on the individual throughout his childhood and contributed heavily to the burden of pessimism which he carried as an adult. It is hard to be happy when everything is viewed through a gloomy lens.

Within recent years, it would seem that much the same thing could be said about the media’s and society’s penchant for focusing on the bad news in almost complete exclusion to the good. Of course, this one-dimensional, negative perspective is demoralizing and may lead many of us to feel that we are immersed in a deeply troubled world, even when the facts show otherwise.

A recently circulated e-mail I received from a friend drove this point home. The e-mail, which you also might have received, points out the changes that have occurred in the United States within the past 100 years. While I haven’t had a chance to research the accuracy of the statements, they seem to match other data which clearly show that the human condition has actually improved and continues to improve dramatically over time.

It is difficult to comprehend the number of significant changes that have occurred within our country in the past 100 years. For example, in 1907 the United States was made up of only 45 states, as Arizona, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Hawaii and Alaska had not yet been admitted to the union. At that time the population of Las Vegas was listed as 30, and Alabama, Mississippi, Iowa and Tennessee were each more heavily populated than California, which was the 21st most populated state at the time.

With regard to health and longevity, the average life expectancy for an adult in the United States 100 years ago was less than 50 years. The top causes of death were listed as pneumonia and influenza; tuberculosis; diarrhea (most likely from unsafe food and water); heart disease; and stroke. At that time, more than 95 percent of births took place at home, and the infant and child mortality rates were astronomically higher than they are now. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that physicians at that time rarely attended college, but went only to so-called “medical schools,” which in those years were uncredentialed, considered substandard and believed to teach “quackery.”

Education did not fare much better. Back in 1907, only 6 percent of the population had graduated from high school. In fact, most people considered school something that was only available to the wealthy. People were generally too busy trying to stay alive and find basic food and shelter to worry about the abstract world of ideas.

The average wage in the United States at that time was 22 cents an hour, and the average blue-collar worker made between $200 and $400 a year. A veterinarian could make about $1,500 and a mechanical engineer could earn a staggering $5,000 per year. According to the e-mail I receive, in 1907 at least 20 percent of the population couldn’t read or write English.

In terms of the quality of life, most homes at that time did not yet have indoor plumbing or toilets, and only 14 percent of homes had a bathtub. That might explain why women in 1907 typically washed their hair only once a month, usually using borax or raw egg yolks for shampoo. Also, only 8 percent of homes had a telephone and there were only 8,000 cars in the entire country to travel on approximately 150 miles of paved roadway. So much for that road trip to the beach back in 1907! With groundbreaking positive advances in energy, transportation and the advent of computers, we live in an entirely different world than that of 10 decades ago.

This reminder of how life was just 100 years ago brings into focus the tremendous advances that we have made in health care, longevity, education, technology and overall quality of living. Important advances for the individual also have flourished throughout the world, including breakthroughs in women’s and minority rights, the establishment of legal/judicial systems and the sprouting of democratic forms of government, In short, people are living longer and healthier lives with a greater degree of access to education and political freedom than ever before.

Knowing the truth about human progress and our standing in a world of unparalleled health and prosperity, aren’t we in a good position to be happy, satisfied and grateful people? Imagine the difference between going through life each day believing that the world is a bad place and things are going poorly, compared to believing that we live in a special world and that things are improving every year. The first stance is self-defeating and demoralizing, while the second belief would seem to empower us to celebrate and continue contributing to growth in these important areas.

Cognitive psychology has long demonstrated the substantial influence that positive thinking and optimism have upon mood, perspective and, ultimately, our behavior. People who view themselves and others positively are more inclined to be happy and productive individuals. What’s more, optimism and a belief that a positive outcome is attainable are perhaps the most powerful predictors of success. They energize us to action and allow our creative energy to flow. Pessimistic views, on the other hand, paralyze us and eventually turn us into victims of the cruel world we perceive around us.

In light of this, consider taking a few moments to contemplate and list the aspects of your life for which you are grateful. It might be your health, a working air conditioner in July, a good friend or the awesome beauty of nature around you. It might be your sense of accomplishment in achieving what you have or your comfort in having a feeling of purpose in this world. Whatever it might be, it is important for all of us to focus on our sense of gratitude and joy for life in order to continue moving forward.

After all, given the changes that have occurred over the past 100 years, won’t it be exciting to see what the future has in store for us? Maybe it will be unlimited inexpensive energy for all, an abundance of food worldwide, space exploration with colonies on other planets or the development of cures for major illnesses like cancer and heart disease. Whatever it will be, optimism is the fuel that will help continue to move us in the right direction.