Emotional Health

Hope for A New Year

Seligman writes that optimistic people are happier, healthier, and more productive. He views a positive outlook not as a mood or stable characteristic but as a way of thinking. We have explanatory ideas about why things happen, and ideas can be changed.

Here are some of the ways that our way of explaining events influences their thinking:

  • Optimists see problems as temporary, pessimists as permanent. The pessimist says to himself, “I am such a loser!” while the optimist says, “I lost this round, but maybe next time I’ll win.”
  • Optimists see problems as specific to a situation; pessimists make them a general case. When a pessimist spills something, she might think, “I am such a klutz,” whereas the optimist might think, “I’ll have to be more careful next time.”
  • Optimists see problems as externally caused; pessimists blame themselves.  Both of the above examples describe this, but I would add something here. People who attribute events to things outside their control are not always happier. Seligman himself proved this when he showed that once his lab animals were able to escape a trap, and thus gain control over the situation, signs of depression lifted.

Feeling that you have the power to change things is, I think, the essence of remaining hopeful. While you can wish for a miracle, most of us know that we must do something to nudge it along. There is an old joke about a lady who prays fervently to God to help her win the lottery. Finally God says he is willing to help her, but adds, “Do me a favor? Buy a ticket.”

Often, taking action even if you don’t feel hopeful can enhance your optimism. Any step toward a goal, no matter how small, can feel like progress, and is important for people to stop and appreciate the baby steps if they are going to continue in the right direction.

There are some situations, such as Viktor Frankl’s concentration-camp experience, when to lose hope is to die. He wrote that he could tell when a fellow prisoner had given up hope—and inevitably he died soon thereafter. It has also been noted that people who are gravely ill fare better and live longer when they are able to hold onto some hope. It is something a tricky thing for doctors to give them honest information while at the same time leaving room for optimism.

The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (1998), by Joan Jacobs Brumberg, is a fascinating book about the cultural changes that have led to women’s obsessions with their bodies and eating disorders. While today, vowing to lose weight is our number one New Year’s resolution, examination of girls’ diaries from the 19th century show that theirs focused on virtues, “inner beauty,” not looks. Girls vowed to be more charitable, more faithful, more forgiving in the coming year.

It would be a welcome change if we could follow the example of our Victorian forebears, at least in this one respect. What if, instead of vowing to get thinner, or to exercise more, we set our minds to being more hopeful? According to Seligman, this would lead to all kinds of positive changes that would make us more effective at whatever we choose to do. And, as in the story of Pandora and her box, this positive mind-set might give us the power to fight the world’s evils too.

Looking back, we can see many signs that can encourage us to be optimistic. While race relations have been strained, the fact that Barack Obama was our president for eight years can never be erased. And in Britain, Prince Harry has just announced his engagement to Meghan Markle, a divorced American who is half black. It was only a few decades ago that his father, Prince Charles, wed, unhappily, Princess Diana, forbidden from marrying his long-time love because she had a first husband.

When these kinds of barriers are broken, there is no going back. Some would argue that it is because they have been broken that we are currently experiencing backlash. It helps to remember Martin Luther King’s words:  The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. We can and should make it a priority to stay hopeful.

Finally, here are some words to inspire us:

“I know optimism isn’t always fashionable. Certainly not when we’re fed a steady stream of cynicism on television and through social media. We face some extraordinary challenges, but consider the long view. If you think about it, by almost every measure, America and the world are better than they were fifty, twenty, even ten years ago . . . .

More than anything, that’s what’s needed now – the engagement of everyone who wants to see a better future for our children. The kind of collective action that has always driven human progress. And even in the face of cynicism and division, it’s those kinds of stories from 2017 that I’ll remember.

So go keep changing the world in 2018.” —Former President Barack Obama, in an email to supporters of the Obama Foundation


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  • Jen McCandless January 4, 2018 at 1:06 pm

    Thank You.You’ve no idea how much hope you’ve stirred in me with this.