Updated: Aug 14
Choose Optimism & Well-being
Hold up, pessimists. If you find the words optimistic and hopeful somewhat of a turnoff, keep on reading, anyway. The research findings I present in this blog may surprise you. You may also find it interesting, perhaps even helpful, to learn about the foundations of my hopefulness. And how I handle my bouts of fear and negativity.
Today I choose optimism even though I am aware that many people are increasingly pessimistic about the future of the world. And personally, they feel more negative about their own well-being than ever before. Still, I continue to be hopeful despite the ongoing river of truly bad news and despite recent weeks having been an anxious time for me as my partner, Peter slowly recovers from a nasty infection.
In 2001, psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania presented findings that human beings pay significantly more attention to negative events than positive events. We remember insults we got years ago. Mistakes and small blunders stick in our minds. The behavior and attitudes of people of all ages and living in all cultures are shaped more by bad news and bad experiences rather than by positive news and positive experiences. And they coined the phrase negativity bias for this tendency.
Other research studies confirmed the negativity bias. John Cacioppo, Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, found that negative images create many more electrical responses in the brain than positive images.
Evolutionary psychologists suggested that the negativity bias is baked right into human nature. In primitive cultures, those who paid attention to negative threats were the ones who survived over the millennia. Hence, we all have genes from those wary survivors.
Politicians and the media know that good news doesn’t sell as many papers or attract as big of an audience as bad news does. Negative stories are in demand, so even good news is presented with a negative twist so as not to seem naive.
It’s also easy to lose sight of the big picture according to Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, whose data-driven optimism has raised controversy. “Rates of war have been roller-coastering downward since 1946, rates of American homicide have plunged since 1992, and rates of disease, starvation, extreme poverty, illiteracy, and dictatorship, when they are measured by a constant yardstick, have all decreased — not to zero, but by a lot.”
Psychologists have long known that both good and bad emotions are contagious. When we are surrounded by negative people, we become more negative and pessimistic ourselves.
I often observe a negativity bias in my own reactions. For example, I facilitated hundreds of Diversity Workshops in the 1980s and 1990s. Usually, 95% of the evaluations would be positive about both the workshop and my facilitation. But there would always be several people who would have negative things to say like “The workshop was boring.” Or, “Katharine talks too fast.” It was always painful to hear criticisms and I spent years trying to develop a thicker skin. But what is interesting is that I paid almost no attention to the hundreds of positive comments I received while the negative ones became permanent fixtures.
1. I urge you to take the negativity bias seriously. Make a concerted effort not to fall victim to it. All of us need to remind ourselves of this bias on a daily basis to achieve a more accurate, realistic perspective.
Instead of being certain that everything is falling apart, we elders do need to remind ourselves of progress over the millennia. People are living longer than at any time in all history. And for us over age 70 in the U.S. today we are not only living longer but most of us can live active pain-free lives thanks to modern medicine.
But you are probably thinking, “Katharine, what I really care about is dealing with my own fears and despair.” You may feel like the woman I met with yesterday who told me, “When I wake up I am afraid of what the day will bring to my family and loved ones who already have so many problems. And I am scared because I am almost paralyzed by my anxiety and despair.”
I don’t have easy answers of course. What I can do is tell you about how I handle my own very real fears and worries.
When I face my demons, I often think about Ivan in the 1962 book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Ivan was a long-term prisoner in the Gulag in Russia under the control of harsh and cruel prison guards facing many years of exhausting labor and near starvation. Even here, in the direst of circumstances, Ivan realized he had choices on how he responded to his predicament. For example, he was able to steal a small amount of extra food and he had to decide whether he would share it with his buddy or eat it all himself. By making a conscious choice, he enabled himself to take some control of his life and retain his sense of self.
His story helped me understand I always have choices even when I feel imprisoned by my circumstances. I have never forgotten the message of this book and it is the starting point of my optimism.
2. And a second foundation is my own bias for action. When I feel out of control or maybe depressed, or even terrified, I have learned that a very small action can change my attitude. Something like going outside for a breath of fresh air or going to a store and running into someone I know and merely saying “Hi.” and “Isn’t it a nice day.” And suddenly it is a nice day and a rush of well-being flows through me. Joan Baez put it this way. “Action is the antidote to despair.”
3. We all tend to procrastinate in our self-care. The secret here is in the small as well as the action. It is getting going that is hard. I usually give myself a tiny goal like writing, exercise, or meditating for just 5 minutes and it works for me. A short call to a friend or a person in need also works to put me back on the pathway to well-being.
I’ll end with two of my favorite quotes that seem on point here and a poem to read when you just need to soothe yourself.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. ~ Lao Tzu
You must be the change you wish to see in the world. ~ Gandhi
The Peace of Wild Things
By Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.