Cultivating Optimism

Lexington Herald-Leader
Lisa Gutierrez
February 29, 2000

In 96 years of living, Lela Allen never considered whether she was an optimist or a pessimist. She merely went about life 20-some years running an elevator in an eight-story office building and 60 years of marriage to a banker.

      Then, 12 years ago, her husband, Walter, had a heart attack and died after supper one night as he brushed his teeth. Shortly after she buried him, the Kansas City, Mo., woman spent six months in the hospital with a nasty infection in her right ankle that nearly cost her her leg. And then the senior citizen apartments she was living in burned to the ground, and she lost everything she owned.

      ``Now, haven't I gone through a lot?'' asks Allen, as matter-of-factly as if she'd just read off her grocery list. ``And I still have a good attitude.

      ``So what am I? A pessimist? You judge.''

      The jury wouldn't be out long on that one. Allen, who likes to do word puzzles and watch Jeopardy every day in her tidy studio apartment in Independence, Mo., could easily be a case study of optimism. A growing body of research strives to understand how the way we view life affects everything from our physical health to how well we perform at work and school.

      The most recently completed research, based on data collected the last eight decades, even suggests that optimists live longer than those who always see the glass half empty. A study of California schoolchildren found that those who had given optimistic answers to essay questions lived an average two years longer than their pessimistic classmates. The research suggests optimistic people seem to do a better job of avoiding dangerous situations.

      Other studies suggest optimists handle stress and depression better than pessimists, even outperform them at work and school. A 1996 study of 238 cancer patients, ``Pessimism, Age and Cancer Mortality,'' concluded that while optimism may not prolong their lives, pessimism may shorten it.

      The theories aren't as far-fetched as they may sound, says Leawood, Kan., psychologist Harriet Barrish. ``It's how you think about things that happen in your life, not the events per se,'' she says.

      Studies involving schoolchildren, cancer patients and people living with the AIDS virus suggest there is some merit to looking at life through those proverbial rose-colored glasses, as long as we take them off every now and then.

      ``The person who sees a silver lining everywhere is as impaired as the person who sees everything cloudy, because it's not true that everything is rosy,'' says Kansas City psychologist Marilyn Hutchinson.

      ``There are difficulties in the world. And if you think of everything positively, you tend not to take things seriously.''

      `Positive psychology'

      Two years ago Martin E.P. Seligman, then the president of the American Psychological Association, coined the phrase ``positive psychology,'' which describes how psychologists can emphasize building people's strengths as much as treating their weaknesses. A special issue of the association's journal, out this month, is devoted to the topic of optimism and positive psychology.

      Seligman, author of the best seller Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, and other psychologists say people can be taught to be optimistic. He touts ``disputing,'' a way to monitor and then argue against the negative things we say to ourselves.

      The study of California schoolchildren, concluded in 1998, followed the lives of some 1,800 California boys and girls. By the 1990s, about half of the men and a third of the women had died. The pessimists seemed more prone to accidents and violence, from car wrecks to homicide.

      ``Pessimistic people are often in bad moods, and you're more likely to do risky things because you're either distracted or reckless,'' says Christopher Peterson, a psychologist at the University of Michigan.

      But it's more than just playing it safe, says Nancy Russell, a Kansas City physician. ``What we're finding with our research is that our psyche, how we feel about things, affects our immune and central nervous systems, too,'' she says.

      Lela Allen doesn't know whether to credit her sunny disposition for her longevity. She also never drank, smoked or cussed.

      ``I really don't know what brought me here.''


1999, 2000 Kentucky Connect and the Lexington Herald-Leader

This news story is not produced by the American Psychological Association and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the association.