Optimism is Not a Choice—It’s an Obligation

First published at Be Yourself on October 23, 2018
Psychologists have long noted the power and importance of optimism.
In his 1994 book Passion and Reason: Making Sense of Our Emotions, renowned psychologist Richard Lazarus describes a study of surgical patients that showed those with lower anxiety regarding their operations saw fewer post-surgical complications and more rapid recovery — even their surgical wounds healed faster. In a 2002 paper, psychologists Ian Brissette, Miael F. Sheier, and Charles S. Carver showed that greater optimism, assessed at the beginning of a student’s first semester of college, is associated with smaller increases in stress and depression over the course of that semester, as well as greater increases in perceived social support.
Even when it comes to our physical well-being —things like cardiovascular health, staving off infections, and (by implication) life expectancy — staying positive is one of the most powerful tools on the road to whole-body health.
Choosing optimism through life’s ups and downs, then, isn’t just a way of coping. It’s an imperative for those who want to emerge from life’s trials as alive and healthy as possible.
But what about optimism and others? How does our outlook on things impact those around us, and what does that mean for the choices we make when faced with discouraging circumstances?
I remember riding bikes with my little brother one summer evening several years ago. I didn’t want to go at first. Dark clouds were building overhead. But eight-year old Grant convinced me that we wouldn’t be gone long. “A little rain never hurt anyone,” he said—a line I’m sure he picked up from some TV show. He’d wanted to ride bikes all day, and was excited that I’d even considered the idea.
I felt bad turning him down, so we set out.
He’d just learned to ride without training wheels, so we went faster and farther than usual. It was fun. For him, riding so far from home was an adrenaline rush. I smiled watching his face glow with delight as we pedaled further and further from home.
But 15 minutes in, the sky began to look especially ominous. The clouds turned a deep gray and a cool wind picked up. Then, “Crack!” The ground shook below us. The sky lit up. Lightning struck something nearby, sending me veering off the road and ducking for cover under the shelter of a tiny tree in a neighbor’s yard. Grant followed. I knew a storm was coming, but I didn’t think it would come so fast.
We sat for a few minutes watching the sky. The lightning got louder and brighter. It struck something nearby again. I wasn’t comfortable riding back home just yet, but I also didn’t want to get soaked. Grant didn’t know what to think, but seemed quite engrossed, even excited, by the light show overhead.
“I’m scared,” I said, scanning the horizon. I really wasn’t scared — the words just slipped out of my mouth. In fact, I’m not sure I would remember saying them had I not turned to look at Grant. He’d gone pale as a ghost.
Grant had always been (and still is) a brave kid, and we’d been caught by storms before, so this shocked me. But it shouldn’t have. I was 19, he was eight. He’d looked up to me for years. If I said I was scared, sure as hell he’d be scared.
As Grant began to fight back tears, I immediately regretted what I said. I was the only one of us who knew the true danger of being out in a storm (that getting a little wet was almost certainly the worst possible outcome), and I’d given the impression that there was something to fear. Grant took this as a signal to let his courage down and be scared. So I changed my demeanor. I smiled and said I was only kidding and that storms aren’t scary. He cheered up a bit, but was still apprehensive. I looked back out at the sky, wondering what else I could say. I raised a fist and shouted playfully, “We’ll conquer you, storm!”
Grant laughed.
I hopped on my bike and told him to follow. We were home in minutes, as happy (and dry) as we were setting out just half-an-hour earlier.
I doubt Grant remembers that evening. It wasn’t too traumatic, I suppose, after I cheered him up. But I’ve never forgotten it—especially the look on his face. For the first time in my life, I truly realized the power I have over the feelings of people who look up to me and how my attitude could affect their outlook in some very significant ways. I knew Grant admired me, but until my gloomy reaction had an obvious, visible effect on his feelings, I didn’t grasp the extent of my influence. It was serious. What I said and how I said it changed the way he saw things. If I had said “Cool storm!” or “Isn’t this exciting?” things would have been different. He’d have been fine. The joy and excitement of our bike ride up until then would have hardly been disrupted.
But instead, I said probably the last thing an eight year old wants to hear his big brother say: “I’m scared.”
Admittedly, the stakes weren’t high in this particular situation. I’d caused Grant to be unnecessarily scared, but the damage to his psyche was negligent. Perhaps he’d be a little too scared the next time a storm rolled around, but all would probably be forgotten in a day or two.
But when else had I caused unnecessary fear with my reckless negativity? Even as a teenager, I tried to be positive. But I never thought about optimism as something I owe to those around me. I never realized that even honest, off-the-cuff negativity can drag others down. Who else had I harmed by being negative?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. I (and everyone) interact with dozens of people every day. There’s no telling how far our influence reaches, or how powerfully our words affect those around us.
Choosing optimism, then, is more than just a coping mechanism — it’s a matter of social responsibility. It’s a way of appreciating those around us, and it’s the only choice for those of us who truly want the best for our loved ones.