A few years ago her sister died from a brain tumor, and she separated from her

husband. With such misfortunes, you might expect that she’d be bummed out or, worse, resigned to her fate. Not my Elizabeth. “When bad things happen,” she says, they strike me as this huge aberration like, ‘What? How could that be?’ I get this charge out of thinking about how to work things out.”

A Reason to Smile

N OW LET ME tell you about myself.

 I come from a long line of people who hardly ever believe that things will work out. This perspective can be summed up in a joke my father told me: How do you make God laugh? (Answer: tell him your plans.) Anyone who believes differently—an optimist—is fluff-headed,Not Elizabeth, of course —she’s smart. But how do you learn to think like an optimist without turning into a ninny?

If anyone knows the answers, it should be Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of two classic books on positive thinking, Learned Optimism and The Optimistic Child. Seligman is the father of the burgeoning “positive psychology” movement, seen by some as the most important new mental-wellness trend in our lifetime.

Positive psychology is based on the notion that human behavior can best be under-stood by focusing on our strengths as well as our weaknesses— ‘healthy” emotions like love, hope and joy, as well as what’s wrong about ourselves. Why the profound shift in historically glum Shrink Land? Simple: The old paradigm isn’t working. In the past 30 years, diagnoses of depression have soared.

TO UNDERSTAND why someone becomes an optimist or a pessimist, it helps to understand what distinguishes them. Say you crash your car. Do you expect good things to happen after the accident—an easy recuperation, a fat check from your insurer? Or do you worry that your neck will hurt forever? “Optimistic people tend to feel that bad things won’t last long and won’t affect other parts of life,” Seligman says. Pessimists tend to believe one negative incident will last and undermine every-thing else in their lives.

Also important, researchers say, is the story you construct about why things happen —your explanatory style. Optimists believe that bad events have temporary causes —”The boss is in a bad mood.” Pessimists believe the cause is permanent—”The boss is a jerk.” This sense of control distinguishes the Little Engines That Could from the Woe Is Me types. Positive thinkers feel powerful. Negative thinkers, Seligman says, feel helpless because they have learned to believe they’re doomed, no matter what. A young wife who’s told she’s incapable of handling household finances might later become a divorced woman who can’t balance a checkbook.

Such learned helplessness takes a huge toll on health. Studies show that optimists are better at coping with the distress associated with everything from menopause to heart surgery. Furthermore, scientists at U.C.L.A. discovered that optimists have more disease-fighting T cells.   Pessimists also don’t believe in preventive care. Visit a doctor and you might find out you’re sick! My father was rushed to theemergency room for medical conditions that would have been easily treatable if he’d seen a doctor sooner.

Not surprisingly, positive thinkers live longer. Mayo Clinic researchers recently compared the scores of a personality test taken by 839 men and women three decades ago with their subsequent mortality rates. Those who had a pessimistic explanatory style in their younger years had a significantly higher risk of dying than their optimistic peers.

EXPERTS SAY THAT optimism is a habit of thinking. Practice, and it becomes as automatic as blinking. They suggest the following strategies.


Seligman favors a technique in which you learn to monitor and argue against the poisonous messages you give yourself. For example:

          Adversity: Your ideas are not well received at a meeting at work.

          Pessimistic Conclusion: “I’m an idiot.”

          Imagined Consequences: “I’m going to keep my mouth shut at the next meeting assuming I’m not fired first.”

          Disputation: “I’m blowing this out of proportion. Wasn’t I the star of the previous meeting?”           NewOutcome: “One mediocre meeting doesn’t destroy a career.


Psychologist Karen Shanor, author of The Emerging Mind, says try to find something positive in a sad situation—a job dismissal, say—by figuring out what you gained from the experience. Ask yourself, what does getting fired tell me about myself? Maybe you weren’t interested in your work, and spending time with your children has become your top priority. Try to learn from the negatives without dwelling on them.


Force yourself to think about something else. Say you’re stuck in traffic. Before you give in to mopiness, relive a favorite memory or make a mental list of people to invite to a party.


 Make chores specific and manageable—instead of “clean the garage,” try “put away tools” and “move boxes.” Break down larger goals in the same way—”have more fun” might become “go to the movies every week.”


 Treating yourself to the things you love, says Greg Hicks, co-author of How We Choose to Be Happy, is essential to maintaining a sense of internal happiness. His suggestion is to write down everything that brings you pleasure—displaying freshly cut flowers, reading the newspaper over coffee. Do at least one thing on your list every day.


 Personal coach Cheryl Richardson, author of Life Make overs, has a trick for training yourself to recognize silver linings: in a journal, describe at least one positive thing that happens every day. Even something as simple as preparing a nice lunch is worth noting.


 Smiling when you are down makes you feel better, researchers say. “Project the mood that you want to get back,” says Dr. Susan C. Vaughan, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York City. “Never under-estimate how contagious moods are between people. Often others will react and be nice back to you.”

****** Do you see the doughnut or the hole?

READER’S DIGEST, January 2001, (pgs 145-148)

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