A is for Attitudes

Brickey studied vital centenarians, people 100+ years old who dance, sculpt, do well in sports, conduct symphony orchestras, run for Congress, write best sellers, do math in their heads, and even fly airplanes. They had little in common physically. They almost all shared four attitudes: optimism, gratitude, dealing with it, and embracing lifelong learning and change. You might call these the ‘BeAttitudes.’ Let’s consider optimism.

Imagine a football coach getting the team ready for a game. The coach tells the team the opponent outweighs them and is a 15 point favorite. His chances of winning are slim–but let’s play ball. Being brutally objective makes for good science but is not the most effective way to play sports or to live your life. There is a wealth of research that indicates optimists live longer, healthier, happier lives. For example:

● When West Point studied why nearly 10 per cent of their 1,200 member freshman classes dropped out within the first month, they found most of the drop outs were pessimists.
● Pennsylvania State University freshmen who were optimists were more likely to have better first semester grades than their high school grades and SAT aptitude tests suggested. Pessimistic freshmen were more likely to have lower grades than expected and more likely to drop-out.
● When Metropolitan Life Insurance Company included optimism in their selection process for life insurance agents; the agents they chose sold more insurance and stayed with the company longer.
● A long-term study of male Harvard graduates found most were in reasonably good health until age 45 when the men who were pessimistic at 25 began having significantly more health problems than the men who were optimistic at 25. The difference became even more pronounced at 60. While the Harvard research looked at many factors, optimism was the strongest predictor of health after 45.
● Athletes and teams that made optimistic statements to the press were more likely to increase their winning percentage and or beat the point spreads.
● Politicians who were more optimistic than their opponents were more likely to win elections.
● Optimists who developed cancer or had heart attacks had better survival rates than patients who are not optimistic.

Many people think of optimism in terms of positive thinking and affirmations, e.g., Emile Coue’s “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better.” or thinking of a glass as half full rather than half empty. Brickey finds these global approaches do not work for most people.

The seminal researcher in optimism, Martin Seligman, described optimism as how you think about the causes of good things and bad things that happen to us, your “explanatory style.” Optimists bias their interpretations of events in a way that protects their egos and gives them hope to keep on trying. Pessimists have a neutral posture or a negative bias.


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