Breaking Murphy's Law
How Optimists Get What They Want from Life-and Pessimists can too
By Suzanne C. Segerstrom
Guilford Press Copyright © 2006 The Guilford Press
All rights reserved.
Glass Half Full, Glass Half Empty, or Glass That Needs to Be Washed?
The Optimistic Character
If a reporter asked you if you were optimistic, what would you say? The bathroom-scale problem aside, it might be a difficult question to answer because different people define optimism in different ways. Like my friend in New Orleans, people sometimes equate optimism with happiness, or they use it to mean a general positivity about life or hopefulness about the future. Psychologists, on the other hand, use a more restricted definition of optimism that refers only to beliefs and not to emotions. Those who study risk estimates (are you more or less likely than the average person to get in an auto accident?) refer to an optimistic bias, those who study causal beliefs (what caused that accident?) refer to optimistic and pessimistic attributions, and, last but not least, those who study personality refer to dispositional optimism. It is this last formulation — optimism as a personality trait — that is the focus of this book.
Everyone has a personality, of course, but how do you know that you have a certain kind of personality, like being an optimist? If you went to a party last Friday night, do you have an outgoing personality? If you cleaned your cabinets last Friday night, do you have an obsessive-compulsive personality? If you got in a bar fight last Friday night, do you have an aggressive personality? Most people would say no, because the concept of personality implies something more than a specific way that you spent a single night. First, personality has to arise from inside the person. If you ordinarily hate parties but went to one last Friday because someone coerced you, then that behavior isn't personality. Second, personality implies a pattern of behavior, not just a specific instance. Maybe you are usually a slob but cleaned your cabinets because your mother was coming to visit on Saturday. We wouldn't call this behavior personality either. On the other hand, if you're cleaning your cabinets three times a day, the possibility of an obsessive-compulsive personality comes to mind. Third, personality implies some influence across a number of situations. If you have a history of picking fights in bars, gesturing and swearing at other drivers, kicking the cat, and arguing with your boss, most people would agree that you have an aggressive personality.
What does it take to have an optimistic personality? First, it takes positive beliefs about what will happen in the future — what psychologists call "positive outcome expectancies." However, you can't just have positive beliefs about the potential outcome of one bar fight next Friday night ("I'm going to kick a**!") to have an optimistic personality, because personality implies a pattern. You have to have optimistic beliefs about several kinds of situations; that is, those "positive outcome expectancies" have to be "generalized" across several domains of life. Finally, to qualify as a personality trait, your optimistic beliefs have to be stable over time. If you're dispositionally optimistic, you're almost certain to have the same generalized optimistic beliefs on Friday that you had on Monday, and your beliefs will probably change very little over weeks, months, or even years.
In fact, on the 10th anniversary of my first major research study of optimism, I decided to try to find out how stable "dispositional" optimism really is by contacting the participants from that study to see whether and how much their optimism had changed. With half of the sample responding so far, the degree of stability is remarkable. The optimism scale used in the study has respectable reliability, a statistic that tells how much overlap you would find between two administrations of the scale if the person didn't change. In this case, if you gave the optimism scale twice and underlying optimism didn't change at all, you could expect the scale to overlap with itself about 72%. The actual overlap between my study participants' optimism scale scores in 1994 and their scores in 2005: 36%. That means that half of the potential overlap was actually maintained over a decade. Looking at these data another way, if we define stability as change of 10% or less on the optimism scale, nearly two-thirds of the sample had stable optimism. If your college roommate was one of those people who envision a future full of accomplishments and successes, she is likely to be doing the same thing at the 10-year reunion. If you had the misfortune to room with an Eeyore, who saw nothing but gray skies ahead (and see Chapter 4 for why this was an unfortunate pairing for you), don't be surprised if he is still forecasting doom and gloom a decade later.
ARE YOU POLLYANNA OR EEYORE (OR BOTH)?
Given the durability of dispositional optimism, you may be encouraged to know you are probably optimistic. When I give people questionnaires that measure their levels of dispositional optimism, around 80% of them could be classified as having optimistic personalities. Very few people are actually pessimistic, and I have seen only one score — in over 1,700 questionnaires — that corresponded to absolute pessimism, meaning the person agreed strongly with all the pessimistic statements (Nothing good will ever happen to me? Of course.) and strongly rejected all the optimistic statements (I usually expect the best? Not at all.). In contrast, I often see scores that correspond to absolute optimism, in which people strongly disagree with all the pessimistic statements and strongly agree with all the optimistic ones. Most people are optimists, just to varying degrees. When you look at the chart on this page, you can see how optimists occupy the biggest piece of the pie.
Your own degree of dispositional optimism comes from two beliefs:
1. How strongly do you believe that good things will happen in your future?
2. How strongly do you believe that bad things will happen in your future?
If you strongly believe good things are going to happen to you and strongly believe bad things are not going to happen to you, you are very optimistic. If you strongly believe bad things are going to happen to you and strongly believe good things are not going to happen to you, you are very pessimistic. Where does your personality fall? If you want, you can assign your answer to each of these questions a number to figure it out. For question #1, give yourself a 1 for "not at all," 3 for "somewhat," and 5 for "extremely." Use the even numbers if you want (2 for somewhere between "not at all" and "somewhat," for example). For question #2, give yourself a 1 for "extremely," 3 for "somewhat," and 5 for "not at all," again using the even numbers if you want. Now take the average of the two numbers. If your average falls between 1 and 2, you are probably very pessimistic. If your average falls between 2 and 3, you are probably somewhat pessimistic. If your average falls between 3 and 4, you are probably somewhat optimistic. If your average falls between 4 and 5, congratulations. You are very optimistic, and probably irritating the heck out of the pessimists around you.
In concrete terms, being very optimistic means that when you think about your life's work, your relationships, your hobbies, and even your goals (like being healthier or more tolerant), you can easily envision yourself accomplishing what you want and, although you can recognize the possibility that not everything will turn out well, you think the odds are in your favor. A woman who scored very high in dispositional optimism perfectly expressed her personality when she wrote to me after moving to a new city, "I'm going to love it here. I miss my friends, but I know I will meet new people here; it's just going to take time. I'm really looking forward to my new job, too."
Conversely, being very pessimistic means that when you think about those important things, you have a hard time envisioning yourself accomplishing the things you want. You can't see how things will go well for you. Compare the previous woman with one who told me, "Everything seems to be going okay, but I can't shake the feeling that things are going to fall apart. It seems like something is bound to come along to screw things up." She couldn't even believe that things were going all right in her present, much less that they could improve in the future.
Not knowing anything else about you, I will predict that you fall into the "somewhat optimistic" group, only because that's where most people are. A "somewhat optimistic" personality is made up of some greater degree of optimism (good things will happen) and some lesser degree of pessimism (bad things will happen). Most people do recognize that their future holds both good and bad things. However, the relationship between these two kinds of beliefs about the future gets complicated by the fact that the degree to which you expect good things doesn't have to be the opposite of the degree to which you expect bad things. You can have what are essentially unrelated levels of optimism and pessimism, because your answer to question #1 doesn't necessarily dictate your answer to question #2. A small number of people are actually both very optimistic and very pessimistic. These people believe they will both buy a winning lottery ticket at the grocery store and get run over by a tractor trailer on their way home. If you answered both question #1 and question #2 with something like "very" or "extremely" strongly, you are that kind of person.
A few other people are simultaneously not very optimistic or very pessimistic. These people apparently believe nothing very interesting will ever happen to them, either positive or negative. They believe they will not get run over by a tractor trailer, but on the other hand, they won't win the lottery either. If you answered both question #1 and question #2 with something like "not very" or "not at all" strongly, you are that kind of person.
Most people have a predominantly lottery-expecting personality (more optimism than pessimism) or a predominantly tractor-trailer-expecting personality (more pessimism than optimism), so these exceptions are intriguing. It's particularly interesting to contemplate whether a person who expects both to win the lottery and to be flattened by a tractor trailer is really, down deep, where it counts, an optimist or a pessimist. Because we associate the benefits of optimism with expecting positive events, a lottery-and-tractor-trailer person might expect to reap some of those benefits because he does expect positive events. If you think your kids will make the honor roll, does it matter that you also think they'll probably wreck the car? Perhaps the positive expectation is more important than the negative expectation. If the expectation of positive events overrides that of negative events, then it is important to be optimistic, regardless of your level of pessimism.
Likewise, the nothing-much person might expect to reap benefits by not expecting negative events. If you don't expect your kids to wreck the car, does it matter that you don't expect them to make the honor roll? If you avoid the cost of expecting negative events, do you even need the benefit of expecting positive events? If the expectation of negative events overrides that of positive events, then it is more important to avoid pessimism, regardless of your level of optimism.
The subtitle of a research article published a few years ago summed up the conundrum with this question: "Is it more important to be optimistic or not to be pessimistic?" The research followed a group of caregivers for patients with Alzheimer's disease. Although many people with Alzheimer's disease end up in professional care facilities when their disease becomes severe, much informal care over the course of the illness is provided by family members and other nonprofessional caregivers. These caregivers save the formal health care system tens of billions of dollars, but at a personal cost. The stress associated with caring for a person with progressive dementia, especially one who has behavioral problems like wandering off and getting lost or getting hostile and agitated, can lead to serious problems such as depression for the caregiver. In this study, lack of pessimism characterized the caregivers who experienced the least anxiety, stress, and depression. Abundant optimism didn't help unless it also paired with lack of pessimism, which was not always the case. It was better to be a nothing-very-interesting-at-all person than a lottery-and-tractor-trailer person.
It seems obvious that this would be true for these caregivers. After all, the progressive nature of their loved ones' illness means their main concern would be the potential for bad things like disease progression to happen. The potential for good things like recovery just isn't that relevant, because Alzheimer's disease is progressive — it gets worse over time. Treatments can only slow the progression of the disease. On the other hand, these researchers also studied a bunch of people who were not caring for Alzheimer's patients and therefore were probably not facing a future of irreversible decline for their loved ones. The same results held true: pessimism predicted more anxiety, depression, and stress for people who were not caregivers. More optimism didn't do anything unless it was accompanied by less pessimism.
So, what is the point of even asking question #1? Why do we call it optimism? Why not just ask question #2, call it pessimism, and be done for the day?
Anxiety, stress, and depression are only one side of emotional life. Like optimism and pessimism, positive and negative moods can be independent of each other. How much joy, happiness, and elation you experience in a week isn't necessarily related to how much dejection, anxiety, and anger you experience during the same period. Although it seems that a joyful week should also be a nonanxious week, in fact a joyful week can be either anxious or nonanxious, because anxiety and joy arise from different kinds of events. Positive accomplishments and surprises (e.g., buying a winning lottery ticket) create joy, but they may not have anything to do with the worries and threats (e.g., getting run over by a tractor trailer) that create stress and anxiety. Complex emotions over the course of a week are to be expected from the complex series of events and situations that we encounter. Even if you're depressed by your father's struggle with Alzheimer's disease, you can feel joy, contentment, and happiness about your family's gathering around the dinner table or about being praised at work for that project you've been working on.
We can't judge the relative virtue of optimism merely by considering anxiety, stress, and depression, because doing so paints an incomplete picture of emotional life. Negative moods such as these reveal only the influence of pessimism and other negative personality traits such as neuroticism, one of pessimism's closest neighbors on the street of personality. People with a lot of neuroticism have feelings that are easily hurt, have a low tolerance for frustration, and feel incapable of dealing with difficult situations. Not surprisingly, given their vulnerabilities, they also experience a lot more negative mood, including anxiety, depression, and hostility. If you know someone who seems so emotionally fragile that you hate to deliver any bad news, that person likely has a lot of neuroticism. The predisposition to experience negative moods is so characteristic of neuroticism that neuroticism might effectively be called the "unhappy personality." Pessimism and neuroticism live close to each other because of their common friend, negative mood. Pessimism should be the better predictor of negative emotions like depression and anxiety because pessimism means expecting negative events, which are linked to negative moods, which are characteristic of neurotic people.
If you want to know about someone's vulnerability to anxiety, depression, and stress, then knowing how pessimistic and neurotic she is should tell you a great deal. If you want to know about a person's probability of experiencing the other side of emotional life — joy, contentment, and happiness — you would rather know how optimistic the person is. Optimism lives in a different neighborhood from pessimism and neuroticism, next door to a different personality variable called extraversion. Extraverts are warm and affectionate, energetic, and outgoing, and they are typically high-spirited, cheerful, and, yes, optimistic. That person you know who is always laughing and ready to go out and have a good time is loaded with extraversion. If neuroticism is the "unhappy personality," then extraversion is the "happy personality." Optimistic people expect positive events, which are associated with positive emotions, which are characteristic of extraverted people.
If optimism predicts the happy half of our emotional lives, why does research seem to indicate that pessimism is more important than optimism when it comes to emotional health? It may be only because psychology has deemed negative moods more important than positive moods. Since psychology started to specialize in reactions to trauma during the world wars, the field has become heavily focused on dysfunction, distress, and disease. Positive aspects of life like happiness, although currently making a comeback, have been somewhat neglected. When you look only at threats to mental health — anxiety and stress, for example — it seems that pessimism is more important than optimism. Positive aspects of well-being were not included in the study described above, and they are not included in most psychological studies, which have been aimed at revealing why people feel as bad as they do. Yet "optimism might ... have been a more significant predictor [of well-being]," the authors of the Alzheimer's caregiver study speculated, "had we examined positive outcomes." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Breaking Murphy's Law by Suzanne C. Segerstrom. Copyright © 2006 The Guilford Press. Excerpted by permission of Guilford Press.
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