Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Why I Decided to Become an Optimist

I used to think that optimists were overly positive, putting a spin on reality to make it conform to their sunny dispositions. That used to frustrate me. At times, it still does.

For example, when the boss tells you to improve your attitude and be a positive person at meetings rather than pointing out the flaws in management’s positions, I get annoyed. That’s not real optimism. That’s being a “yes man” or a sycophant or going along to get along – and it’s not healthy.

When I was in the corporate world, nodding my head at the latest irrelevancy or idiocy propounded by my superiors, I would seethe inside. I wanted to say, “You people are morons and your plan won’t work.” And sometimes I did say that in a subtle and less confrontational way, though all it ever did was get me labeled as a Negative Nelly.

Or consider something far worse: the death of a loved one or being stricken by a terrible disease (like Alzheimer’s or ALS). When people say that you need to look at the positives in the situation (they didn’t suffer or they’re in a better place or you still have lots of good years ahead of you to appreciate the little things), I imagine you want to punch them in the face and tell them to shut their mouths.

Yet, despite these terrible things happening, there are in fact positives to come out of them. Every situation, no matter how terrible, carries the potential for something better to arise. Sometimes that positive is nothing more than our attitude toward the terrible because the terrible itself contains nothing good to build upon.

But attitude is important. Happy thoughts make a difference. Studies have shown that optimists generally have better cardiovascular health than pessimists. We can live longer and better by being optimistic. Does that mean we should be Pollyannas all the time, only seeing the good in any given situation and never assessing a negative value to something that reason tells us is bad?

Of course not. All optimism must be tempered by occasional flashes of realism or even pessimism. Too much optimism makes us less resilient, less able to deal with certain stresses and less able to achieve our goals. We become convinced we can succeed despite all the facts out there against us and we enter into the world of delusion.

Here’s one: For a brief time, I wanted to become an Olympic swimmer despite being short. Sorry, but that was never going to happen. My body type isn’t geared toward success as an Olympic swimmer. By practicing hard, I could become a very good swimmer, but I could never be an Olympic swimmer. Nor could I have been a linebacker in the NFL.

Delusions aside, optimism is vital. It is a skill we can acquire, but we must practice it to make it strong. If we believe we can succeed, but fail in one area, optimism allows us to pursue another area of success. I can’t be an Olympic swimmer, but I can be a great teacher or writer or businessperson or musician or …. You get the drift.

But it takes diligence to be a good optimist. At least for many of us that’s true. Some of us are blessed with natural optimism and to those people I say, “Well, goody for you.” But for the rest of us, it takes work. It takes sitting down after failure or loss – and after the period of natural grief we feel for that failure or loss – and telling ourselves that this is not the end.

We have to focus on the positive elements in our lives. We have to force them on ourselves if they won’t cooperate, make them listen to our considered arguments. We ARE still alive. We DO still have our health or family or friends. We CAN still create special things.

If we can do that, we can live better lives, be better friends, provide better support to others and maybe be a little happier along the way. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to be an optimist from this point forward (at least, most of the time).

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