Monday, October 24, 2016

The Eternal Optimist

November 28, 2009 by  
Filed under Wellness

I was a sophomore in college, mending a broken heart and pretty bummed about the state of my life at the moment when, during a dorm-room chat, a (very blunt) friend looked at me point-blank and said, “Oh, Meliss, you’ll be fine. You’d be happy in a pile of mud.”

A pile of mud!? Really?! Ouch.

My first instinct was to be insulted, and to be honest, I was for a few minutes.

I mean, I’d been lovingly teased by friends for being a glass-half-full person, someone who was perpetually happy (it’s not a big surprise that I spent half my life cheerleading) … and while I (like everyone) had my moments … for the most part, I was happy most of the time.

But having never been told anything that cut like this, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that her comment stung.

It stung because it not only dismissed my feelings at the time (I was, as I noted, heart-broken and feeling uncharacteristically down), but it seemed like she was making a broader statement — that I was the kind of person who would settle for anything; that it was expected I would just put up with any unpleasant situation naively, blissfully unaware.

And those things didn’t ring true.

Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized the underlying truth in what she was saying — and that it was, in actuality, a backhanded compliment — whether she realized it or not. I brushed her words off, never forgetting them, but vowing not to dwell on them, either.

The truth is, she was right — I do tend to make the best out of situations. Sure, some situations are easier than others to tackle, but I still try to make the best of them.

Experience has taught me that negativity gets you nowhere; it might be hard to find silver lining, but I can usually find something. (Case in point–getting over the aforementioned heart-ache gave way to meeting my now-husband two years later!)

And so while her comment stung, it didn’t leave a real scar on this optimist. No — instead, all these years later, that comment — and my emotional tie to it — is still is emblazoned in my mind as one of those “defining moments” where you realize who you are, and accept yourself for who you are.

The truth is, I am an optimist, and I’m not ashamed of it. I was raised to see the good in life and to try to find the bright side even when one doesn’t exist. My parents aren’t pessimists, and, not surprisingly, neither are my siblings and I.

And over the years I’ve come to really embrace my positive, optimistic attitude toward life. Necessity taught me that at an early age.

If I (or my family) had gotten bitter when I was 8 years old and our house burned down, where would I/we be today? We couldn’t wallow in our shared agony after that icy January day in 1988 that profoundly changed life as we knew it.

No, we had to literally pick ourselves up, deal with the tragedy of losing our home and all our possessions and our sense of security … and move on. There simply was no other option.

And even today, we say we think our house burning down brought our already-close family even closer together: a blessing in disguise, if you will.

And here’s another example — when my husband and I were dating long-distance internationally for five years after college, people called us crazy, pinning all our hopes and dreams to one another.

But we loved each other, and he’s as much an optimist as I am (perhaps even moreso?!) … so while it wasn’t always easy (and I’m ridiculously, notoriously impatient), we clung to faith in each other that somehow, someday, we’d find a way to be together.

And sure enough, our positive outlook (and patience) paid off– in the same week, we got engaged in Italy and came back to D.C. where we discovered he had a job offer waiting for him (the job that ended up bringing us here to Michigan).

Those are just two examples of many, where a positive outlook helped me through a challenging situation. I believe that having a positive outlook — or being able to re-frame a negative situation (thank you, therapy!) — is one of the keys to a happy life.

I also know having a positive outlook helped me get where I am today with respect to my disordered eating recovery. I had to truly believe I could stop the unhealthy behaviors — and I did. I needed a positive frame of mind, though, to get there.

Along these lines, we’ve heard of lots of studies that have proven the emotional/mental benefits to positive thinking, but a recent study from the University of Pittsburgh featured in the December issue of SELF magazine also seems to show physical benefits to thinking positive. This was news to me!

(Note: though I vowed to never again read SELF magazine after the Kelly Clarkson cover debacle, my subscription hasn’t run out and I can’t have a magazine sitting here unread so … forgive me for going back on my word).

Per the article, “Women who focus on the bright side may experience less stress, which makes them less likely to become sick. Silver lining seekers have a 9 percent lower risk of developing heart disease and a 14 percent lower risk of dying–from any cause–than do pessimists.”

Wow–I have to say, I loved seeing that in print (and I hope my friend who said I’d be happy in a pile of mud sees it, too!) But it’s not really too surprising when you think about it. Knowing there are physical benefits makes having a positive attitude even more of an asset.

After all, to quote my high school cheerleading coach, “Your attitude and your aptitude determine your altitude.”

And if all else fails, I’m going to keep in mind that mud — in a pile or otherwise — makes for a great facial.

How about you? Are you a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty person? How has positive thinking helped you in your life??


20 Responses to “The Eternal Optimist”
  1. Geri says:

    Great post lissa!

    I suppose that I am an optimist in someways as I always try to see the silver lining or the good in people. I like to think the best of people, even when my more cynical (some may say realist) side of me tells me that what I might like to see is unlikely. Sometimes my optimism is a bit of a reach.

    Unlike you, I don’t come from an optimistic family. I always got the feeling that my parents were not only unhappy but bitter with their lot in life. So I’m not sure why or how I learned to be optimistic in my outlook on life. But I see the value in being optimistic. It’s important to keep your heart open, not to become bitter and twisted. If I didn’t keep my heart open, if I didn’t try to see the good, the potential in life, then there is no way that I could have kept a long distance relationship alive for years when I was a teenager (I am still with that person, 10 years later and planning our wedding).

    I recently read a great book, called The Flipside by Adam Jackson, which was a good reminder for me to stay optimistic and it even though my optimism is sometimes a struggle, that optimism can be learned.

    • lissa10279 says:

      Thanks Geri!! I agree with you that optimism can be learned; sometimes it’s a necessity. Congrats on optimism working in your favor re: your upcoming wedding 🙂 I’ll need to check out that book–sounds interesting for sure!

  2. NewMe says:

    I always felt I was an optimist until I had major surgery and found myself in the 5% of people who had a negative outcome. 95% of people came out of this surgery thrilled to bits, but not me. Then, people kept telling me that I was just recovering more slowly than most, but that I would be fine. The thing was, despite all the “I am recovering” post-its that I sprinkled liberally around my home, I did NOT get better. Positive thinking got me nowhere.

    After about 6 months, it became clear that they would have to re-operate to correct the problem. I had the second Iand came out much better–it still wasn’t miracle surgery for me, but I am doing much better. I have lost optimism, but what has kept me going is an iron will to do as well as I can. I exercise faithfully (yoga is about the only thing I can do, but I do it) and have been able to lose and keep off about half the weight I would like to lose.

    I don’t give up, but I’m not very good at optimism any more. I would like to be more optimistic, but I realize that there’s something I get out of fearing the worst. Not great, but that’s the way it is, at least for now.

    • lissa10279 says:

      NewMe, I’m sorry to hear about your experience–yours is one of those where medical intervention trumped positive thinking–but you didn’t give up, and that is what is important. As you noted, you possess an iron will to do the best you can do — and that is admirable! We all have our own ways of dealing with things, and sometimes fearing the worst is healthy and keeps us grounded; sometimes being optimistic is akin to having rose-colored glasses … and that isn’t good, either. But healthy optimism — or cautious optimism — seems like a middle-ground way to go if you’re not feeling totally gung-ho positive about something.

    • mamaV says:

      Hi New Me: I found myself in a similar situation, stuck with an inoperative injury that basically limited me to nothing, not even walking. At the time I was in college, I can couldn’t even sit through classes, I stood in the back of the room. When my kids were younger, I was told by drs “don’t lift them or hold them while standing,” which still brings tears to my eyes when I think about it. How the heck is a mom going to not hold their kids???

      But you know what? I believe that injury was Gods way if saying to me “Stop taking your body for granted. You are abusing yourself with exercise, and this time you went too far.” When I was faced with the fact that I had to quit working out – cold turkey – it scared the living crap out of me. I was sure I would soon be 300 pounds….which never happened. Turns out I actually lost weight because I got my head screwed on straight. I stopped making exercise the center of my self esteem, and low and behold I gained confidence. Beautiful.

      My point for you is, that although you can’t see I now, I believe there is a reason that this outcome occured in your life and someday it will be readily apparent to you.

      But then again, maybe that’s my optimistic voice talking…or maybe not. 🙂

  3. meerkat says:

    “The truth is, I am an optimist, and I’m not ashamed of it. ”

    It must be so hard for you being part of a group that is lauded with praise all the time instead of a group that is constantly blamed for everything that is not perfect in their lives.

    • lissa10279 says:

      I don’t appreciate sarcasm, Meerkat. If you didn’t like the topic or tone of the post, fine … you’re entitled to your opinion. But there’s no need for sarcasm.

    • mamaV says:

      Hey Meerkrat: What group is it that is “constantly blamed for everything and is not perfect in their lives? And then who is a member of the group that is lauded with praise all the time and can I join it?!)

      Comments like yours are a load of crap and I will not let individuals such as yourself start ranking your life against the life of another, in this case Lissa. The victim role tends to be typical response to a post such as this, its easy to say “that may work for you — but for me its SOOOOO much harder, and you could NEVER understand”

      Bullshit Meerkratt. Total frickin B.S. –and if you don’t see this you are not ready for this community.

      Look at yourself in the mirror. Find your good qualities, work at seeing that glass half full, and STOP imagining that others have a perfect life — PERFECT does not exist.

      C’mon- you’ve sunk your ship before you’ve even pulled out of the harbor! You can do better than that.

  4. Sue says:

    Meerkat…….really?????? What’s wrong with being an optimist? Is your negativity doing you or those around you any good? Seems to me that you’d benefit from a little of Lissa’s positive outlook. And you’ll be pleased to hear, no doubt, that things were not always easy for Lissa and she has worked hard to get where she is today.

  5. lissa10279 says:

    Thank you, Sue — greatly appreciated. I realize you can’t please everyone, so you might as well please someone. If that person is yourself, so be it. And if others can benefit, all the better! No use trying to win over the nay-sayers …

  6. cggirl says:

    Great post Lissa. I think it’s wonderful that you’re an optimist! Duh. Though I can understand why it can feel somewhat negative when someone puts it to you like that – it could make you doubt your choices and standards, but I’m glad you realized that it’s a good thing about yourself. After all, it’s that attitude that helped you achieve important things in life, as you’ve described.

    I’m reading this at an interesting time. You see, part of me is that optimist, that silver-lining seeking person. But another part of me tends to get anxious and depressed. And those parts kind of fight it out a lot…

    I think something I should remind myself to do is accept myself, that’s why I like that you mentioned that. Because at times when I’m anxious/depressed, I have a lot of self doubt – about myself, my choices, my future, take your pick. It’s a weird sort of downward spiral, and I hate getting caught in it. I get down about myself FOR being down, and worried ABOUT being worried, especially when there are so many people in the world less fortunate so what do I have to complain about – and that self judgement makes things even worse. (I was just blogging about this sort of thing.)

    I will say that exercise can help a lot with that, as can meditation, so I try to do those things a lot. That helps me get back to optimism, and back to glass-half-full thinking.

    I like to tell myself, if I lost out on a job, I think about other jobs that came along instead. Or if I missed out on some experience, I tell myself that even if I can’t exactly see it now, there are other experiences that will come instead of that. My mother always says regret or thinking abotu what might have been is pointless because you never know what would have happened had things been different. So, barring true tragedies, I figure I might as well assume things are for the best, because there is no hard evidence to the contrary. 🙂

    • lissa10279 says:

      Cggirl–thanks, it seems like you’re human, in that the two sides duke it out. I totally agree exercise can help (not into meditation personally–but I do keep a journal and that helps). I like your mom’s advice!

  7. Bek says:

    Thanks Lissa for the inspiration I’ve been waiting for to post my 100th Blog post.

    I too am an eternal optimist and have come across many nay sayers who are waiting to see me become cynical.

    I would take the “happy in a pile of mud’ comment as a compliment., after all, happiness is the thing that people spend a long time chasing and pondering..and you’ve already found it!

  8. Marsha says:

    I can’t think when optimism ever hurt anyone. But I can think of many times when it helped. It’s not walking around with rose-colored glasses on, it’s just looking for the best in whatever is going on. Hard to always do but always bound to get us to a better place than focusing on the negative.

    Thanks for another great post, Lissa.

  9. mamaV says:

    For the record — I have you beat Lissa , my dad and I are called “optimists to a fault.” Once we get rolling, there is no stopping our enthusiasm that sends us way the heck out of reality. Hey, I’ll take that rather than sitting around thinking life sucks anyday!

  10. Adam Jackson says:

    Hi Lissa,

    I came across your post this evening and just wanted to congratulate you on a very thoughtful post on a very important subject of what it means to be optimistic and how it affects our lives.

    I am the author of the book The Flipside which was mentioned in one of the earlier comments. The Flipside explores how and why negative events in life – problems, setbacks and even traumas – are often catalysts for positive outcomes. I was interested to find out why some people go through major difficulties or suffer loss, but go on to flip it into a something hugely positive.

    My interest was triggered when I met two men who were paralyzed – one was quadriplegic, the other, paraplegic – but both said that they were happier and their lives were fuller and more enriched after their accidents than they had been before. In fact, they went so far as to say that their accidents were ‘the best things to have happened to them’.

    I interviewed people who had suffered unimaginable loss but were adamant that they wouldn’t trade their experiences because their adversity had brought such positive changes in their lives. In many cases, there was a spiritual transformation and feeling of personal growth, and in others there were more tangible benefits. In all cases, opportunities presented themselves, they discovered new paradigms and different ways of thinking that changed them as people and their place in the world. Many discovered life-changing opportunities that they acknowledge would never have been uncovered without their adversity.

    What I discovered through my research was that it is not the event or loss itself that is important. How our lives unfold is dependent more upon us as individuals than on anything that happens to us. The difference, it turns out, is the person NOT the event, and one of the common denominators shared by people who find a flip side (something positive) in adversity is a feeling of optimism.

    Some people confuse optimism with wishful thinking or hope. Optimism is defined by psychologists as the general expectation of good outcomes whereas hope relates to a specific outcome (e.g. hoping to do well in exams or hoping to survive an illness) and, of course, it is the opposite of pessimism which is the general expectation of bad outcomes.

    For those who are cynical about the value of optimism, I would suggest taking a look at the wealth of published research on the subject; optimists live on average 7.5 years longer than pessimists, they are more likely to survive serious illness than pessimists, they do better at school, they outperform pessimists by as much as 88% in the workplace, they tend to be more successful in business and achieve higher status in their chosen professions. And, as we might expect, optimists suffer less depression and live happier, more fulfilled lives.

    When looked at from a scientific viewpoint, optimism is more important than anything else in determining our future. It is the single, most significant characteristic we can acquire because it influences, more than anything else, the quality of virtually every aspect of our lives.

    Some argue that optimism is an innate, immutable characteristic. But this isn’t true and is often used as an excuse not to seek change. Researchers have discovered that a general expectation of good – having faith in life and a confidence that, no matter what, the future will turn out just fine – is largely influenced by our parents and our upbringing. However, there is also a wealth of scientific evidence demonstrating that optimism can be learned in the same way as helplessness is learned. As such, optimism is something we all need to learn (and instill in our children) if we want to get the most out of life.

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