Dr. Susan Vaughan, the author of The Talking Cure and Viagra, has put hope in a box -- or, at least, she has put hope in a book. In her latest study, Half Empty, Half Full: Understanding the Psychological Roots of Optimism, Vaughan explains how we can train ourselves to be hopeful simply by developing emotion-management skills. She explains, "Optimism arises as the result of an internal sense of control over our own inner states, a kind of self-reliant sense that we can depend on our ability to regulate our moods." And through the chapters of Half Empty, Half Full, Vaughan further details the practice of mood regulation in terms both scientific and sensible. She explains how temporary moods can affect a person's long-term optimism, how infants acquire mood modulation, and how people of any age can learn to handle inner tumult. By learning how to control our feelings, Vaughan promises, we can all learn to hope.
Hope, Vaughan notes, is actually an illusion -- the illusion of control. She admits, "When we look at reality stripped bare of the illusions I consider crucial, what we are really seeing is our fundamental helplessness and lack of control in the face of an indifferent universe, our elemental aloneness, our failure to achieve successes that can change the basic parameters of our mortality." Nonetheless, she insists that we need the illusion of control in order to remain engaged, because without some sense that human efforts matter, we wilt. Vaughan doesn't prescribe lies, but she does suggest that we practice focusing on what we can control. By learning to enjoy happiness and accept grief, we can control the most important part of an experience: our emotional response. "It's actually the beasts within -- the inner emotions that sometimes threaten to overwhelm us -- that are the true threats to our capacity for optimism," Vaughan points out. "The real source of our pessimism is not our fear that the world around us is hairy, but rather the much bigger danger that our own beastly feelings are beyond our ability to control." When we don't fear our controllable emotions, that is, we have no reason to fear the uncontrollable events that provoke them.
Unfortunately, many folks never learn to control their emotions. That control is normally formed in the first two years of life, when new babies learn from their mothers how to get comfortable with their feelings. In learning this, babies form connections in the amygdala and the limbic system -- the neurological centers of mood control. Vaughan explains, "Over time and with practice, the intensity levels of positive feelings like happiness and elation that babies can tolerate grow gradually greater as their mothers continually stretch and expand the outer limits of positive feeling that the infant perceives as comfortable rather than disorganizing.... As all this positive amplification is occurring between mothers and their babies, a loop between cortex and limbic system is also developing, creating the neural circuitry that the baby will use to control and manage positive feelings." If all mothers encouraged their babies perfectly, infants might control their emotions with unerring grace. But mothers are only human. Thus, many of us lack internal habits of mood modulation; we feel overwhelmed by anger and sadness, or discomposed by elation. We fear drowning in passion.
Luckily, Vaughan explains, our cortico-limbic systems can still be developed in adulthood. By practicing certain strategies, we can actually train our minds to handle intense emotions. Vaughan insists, "The premise is simple but profound; train yourself to think like an optimist and you will gradually become one, with a resultant improvement in your moods and your view of yourself and others." Vaughan's optimist boot camp is a breeze: It's really just a list of suggestions that help us control mood swings. She suggests, for example, that we interpret successes as good news. She suggests that we compare ourselves favorably to others. And she suggests that we grin a lot, since physical experiences can jump-start emotional processes. Most important, Vaughan suggests working with a psychotherapist to isolate and understand emotional responses; she explains that "[when] the exploration of our inner states occurs in the context of the relationship with our therapist, psychotherapy actually gives us the chance for a new affective apprenticeship." Working at emotional management, then, can allow each person to develop a new sense of control -- and with that control, a new sense of optimism.
Half Empty, Half Full puts hope into practice. It enables readers to get optimistic by understanding why their feelings are hard to handle and by developing emotional control. Though we, like Vaughan's patients, may find real joy scary and raw anger unmanageable, we can learn how to accept all moods with confidence and humor, training us to manage feelings. And in doing so, it helps us look forward to the unknown.
Jesse Gale is a practicing optimist.