strategic philosopher Max More

 

 

 

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DYNAMIC OPTIMISM

An Extropian Cognitive-Emotional Virtue

©1998
by Max More

 

 

 

 

 

One of the five fundamental principles of Extropianism is Dynamic Optimism (D.O.), which can be defined as: "A positive and empowering rational attitude toward our individual and collective possibilities." This definition must be taken in the context of the following discussion since "optimism" has been used in a variety of senses. A major objective of this essay is to clarify the nature of a type of optimism appropriate to a rational extropian philosophy, and to distinguish it from the very superficially similar attitude of faith common to religions. Explication of D.O. will make it obvious how it mutually supports the other Extropian Principles, especially Boundless Expansion and Self-Transformation.

The following essay is a thoroughly revised version of my original essay on Dynamic Optimism from 1991.

 

Optimism: The fuel of heroes, the enemy of despair, the creator of the future.

 The Effective Optimist

Angry faces filled the meeting room in my Oxford college. A student presented to the meeting yet another proposal for a protest. Righteous wrath amplified her voice as she spoke of a letter condemning corporations investing in South Africa. During the 1970s, the protests had been against nuclear weapons, nuclear power, and pollution. During the mid-80s, while I studied at Britain’s Oxford University, the protesters complained about apartheid, hunger, poverty, and the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher. Surrounded by gloomy, pessimistic protestors, I realized that the object of the protest was not the important thing. What mattered was simply to protest, to be against something or someone. These often well-intentioned people had adopted protest as an approach to life.

Many of us discover that we can feel virtuous by opposing whatever the trend-setters declare to be wrong. The protest mentality worms its way not only into social issues but into our basic approach to thinking, feeling, and behaving. Throughout my student years I found myself surrounded by people focused on complaining about problems. Rarely did I see a focus on solutions and possibilities. Destructive criticism feels easier than constructive thinking. In that environment, my optimistic attitude stuck out like an African at a Ku Klux Klan convention. Despite the external pressures I maintained an optimistic outlook. I also came to appreciate the dangers lurking in optimism. We do ourselves and others no favors if we replace a pessimistic protest mentality with a passive optimism that assures us that us all will work out well without personal effort. I formulated the idea of Dynamic Optimism to integrate the motivating, uplifting effects of optimism with an active, responsible approach to living.

Optimism forms a core part of emotional life expansion. If we wish to live effectively we will have to root out self-defeating pessimism, replacing it with a rational, active form of optimism. Becoming an effective optimist requires more of us than putting on a forced smile and telling ourselves "everything will work out for the best". Living at full capacity—a capacity beyond what most of us imagine possible—asks us to go beyond superficial formulas ("Don’t Worry, Be Happy!") and to understand an intelligent form of optimism. We will only expand the vitality and achievement in our lives if we understand what optimism is, why pessimism holds us back, and why some kinds of optimism restrain us rather than shooting us forward.

Those of us who think of ourselves as rational, clear-headed people, may say "I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I’m a realist." In making such a reasonable-sounding statement we would intend to express an commitment to truth, sound judgment, and rationality. I suggest that we can be both optimists and realists at the same time. The nature of the world means that to be realistic we must normally be optimistic. Optimism and pessimism are more than attitudes toward truth. In saying I am an optimist, I am saying more than that I expect life to get better. That is a purely factual belief. It is either right or wrong. Optimists go beyond holding certain beliefs about the future. They also display certain attitudes. Optimism and pessimism involve not detached estimates of the objective probability of good and bad events in the future, but personal commitments to certain modes of thinking and behaving. By mastering these modes of thinking and adopting optimistic attitudes, we can profoundly influence our thinking, behavior, happiness, and achievement. Dynamic Optimism contains too many aspects to fully capture in a single sentence, yet a definition will focus us on the essentials:

 

DYNAMIC OPTIMISM is an active, empowering, constructive attitude that creates conditions for success by focusing and acting on possibilities and opportunities.

To understand Dynamic Optimism deeply and to apply it to expanding our lives, we need to become aware of its diverse aspects—the personal characteristics of a dynamic optimist and the kinds of powerful thinking patterns such a person displays. The dynamic optimist both interprets experience positively, and influences outcomes positively. Merely believing that everything will work out fine without taking action makes one a foolish optimist, not a dynamic optimist. For optimism to give us the power to overcome the limits in our lives it needs to fully recognize reality, not hide from it. For optimism to maximize our abilities and happiness, we have to take responsibility for our thoughts, our attitudes, and our actions. This world is full of possibility. We can achieve almost anything we can conceive. Yet we will move forward only by turning dreams into practical, rational, responsible thinking. This kind of thinking will naturally generate productive activity.

The twelve key characteristics of the dynamic optimist can be stated briefly but take practice and wisdom to implement consistently. First I will divide them into characteristics involving the positive interpretation of experience and the positive influencing of outcomes. We can then investigate in more detail what each involves.

 

INTERPRETING EXPERIENCE POSITIVELY:

(1) Selective Focus: Emphasizing the enjoyable, constructive, open aspects of life.

(2) Refraining from Complaining: Avoiding pointless complaining and whining about one’s difficulties. Taking the world as it is and not complaining that life isn’t fair.

(3) Questioning Limits: A constructive skepticism that challenges the limiting beliefs held by ourselves, our associates, and our society. A fundamental creative openness to possibilities.

(4) Sense of Abundance: Feeling free to do what you want, rather than feeling compelled by circumstances or people. Recognizing the world to be full of opportunities. Being for things, not against things.

(5) Humor: Seeing one’s own shortcomings with a sense of humor. Allowing healthy, good-natured humor to reveal new perspectives and combat dogmatic thinking.

 

INFLUENCING OUTCOMES POSITIVELY:

(6) Rational: Using reason rather than being lead by fears and desires. Objectively assessing situations and taking action based on understanding reality apart from our wishes.

(7) Self-Improving: Optimists see the self as a process and seek continual improvement. Their drive to improve is not pushed by fear but pulled by a inspiring self-image.

(8) Experimental: Frequently trying fresh approaches, staying out of ruts, actively seeking more effective ways of achieving goals, and being willing to take calculated risks.

(9) Self-Confident: Believing that we can bring about good things. A fundamental conviction of competence in living.

(10) Self-Worth: Believing one is worthy of success and happiness. Without this, attempts to improve one’s life will lack motivation.

(11) Personal Responsibility: Taking charge and creating the conditions for success. Being aware of how we determine our chances of success. This crucially involves integrity: living according to one’s values.

(12) Selecting Environment: Being attracted to positive people and situations. Seeking out those who will support and inspire, not discourage, distract, and undermine.

These twelve characteristics of effective optimists give us specific ways of turning the abstract idea of dynamic optimism into actions. Later we will see how these characteristics or attitudes can be turned into particular thinking patterns suited to living effectively. I should note here that the division into interpreting events and influencing outcomes is intended as a tool for understanding and application. The division should not be taken as a theoretically watertight one. Some characteristics could be placed in either category. The two categories go closely together: positive interpretations tend naturally to lead to positive actions by changing the focus of your energy and attention, and positive actions can easily reinforce habits of interpretation.

 

Optimism, Health, and Success

If life expansion were only about feeling better it would have limited appeal. While an optimal life certainly should include the goal of feeling good, we will also want to actually achieve great things and be able to increase our ability to overcome personal limits. This applies just as much to the current discussion of optimism. Before exploring in more depth the characteristics of optimists, I want to cite sound scientific evidence that optimism really does promote success and health. Some of this evidence comes from Dr. Martin Seligman. Seligman used the concept of explanatory style to test the effects of optimism. He compared the effects of optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles on success in work, education, and sports, as well as on health.

Seligman’s testing procedure was designed to test the hypothesis that success will be determined not only by aptitude and motivation but also by optimism. The first major test of the optimism hypothesis was done with the insurance salesmen of Met Life. Administering the ASQ (Attributional Style Questionnaire) showed that the more optimistic the salesperson, the less likely to quit during the first year. Furthermore, the more optimistic, the more sales made. Seligman followed this initial result, limited to 104 subjects, with a full, carefully-designed study on applicants to Met Life. One thousand of fifteen thousand applicants were hired, half optimists and half pessimists, according to the ASQ. 129 applicants were hired despite having failed the career profile because they scored high in the optimism test. Normally these candidates would not have been given a job. This group Seligman dubbed the Special Force. Over the next two years, these were the results:

In the first year, the optimists in the regular force outsold the pessimists, but only by 8 percent. In the second year, the optimists sold 31 percent more. As for the special force, it did beautifully. They outsold the pessimists in the regular force by 21 percent during the first year, and by 57 percent in the second year. They even outsold the average of the regular force over the first two years, by 27 percent. In fact, they sold at least as much as the optimists in the regular force.

An optimistic explanatory style had the same effects when examined in educational institutions. 300 freshman in the class of 1987 at the University of Pennsylvania were given the ASQ. At the end of the first semester, the students who were more optimistic were doing better. Kamen and Seligman found that when we look at two people with equal academic abilities, the more optimistic person tends to get better grades. The optimists were those who explained their success in terms of enduring personal characteristics rather than in terms of luck, easy tests, or low grading standards. Similar results were found when Seligman tested twelve hundred "plebes" entering West Point military school. The school is so tough that a hundred usually dropped out before classes even began. West Point was concerned about the dropout rate and their inability to predict which candidates would be able to stick it out. After following the results for two years, Seligman found that the students who quit were the pessimists: those who blamed bad events on themselves, who believed the bad thing would last forever, and that it would undermine everything they did.

The linkage of optimism with success has turned up also in studies of sports. The optimists experienced more motivation to succeed and were more persistent in their efforts. Seligman and his colleagues analyzed numerous statements by members of teams like the Boston Celtics and the New Jersey Nets in 1983-84 to predict their performance in the 1984-85 season. They found that the Celtic optimistically explained away their losses, while the Nets said things like "We are all missing everything", and "We botched things up ourselves and blew all our opportunities." The researchers found that the teams’ explanatory styles strongly predicted their level of success the following season. The same results were found in baseball’s National League. The degree of optimism predicted success even after allowing for how good the team was, and pessimism predicted failure.

Politics provides another arena in which to test the power of optimism. We see the same results here: One study analyzed the nomination acceptance speeches of Democratic and Republican presidential candidates between 1948 and 1984. Even after adjusting for the popularity rating of the candidates according to polls, the candidates who concentrated on negative statements about the nation’s future almost always lost to those who expressed more optimistic views. The pessimistic candidates lost nine out of ten of the elections. Adlai Stephenson, unsuccessfully running in 1952, declared, for example: "The ordeal of the 20th century—the bloodiest, most turbulent era of the Christian age—is far from over. Sacrifice, patience, and implacable purpose may be our lot for years to come." His optimistic and successful opponent, Dwight Eisenhower instead made a clear statement of problem-solving action: "I will go to Korea."

Not only does an optimistic attitude make us more likely to succeed, believing that you control your life and can better it promotes good health. Optimism benefits health in four ways: First, by replacing a sense of helplessness with a feeling of control, optimism boosts the immune system. This was demonstrated in rat experiments by Madelon Visintainer. The rats who learned helplessness through the experimental setup were more vulnerable to tumor growth than those who were able to shut off the electric shocks.

Second, optimists will seek medical advice and stick to health programs better than pessimists. The pessimists, telling themselves "It doesn’t matter what I do" will give up easily and fail to seek information and professional advice. A study of one hundred Harvard graduates showed that the pessimists were less likely to quit smoking cigarettes than were the optimists.

Third, the more negative life events a person encounters, the more illness he will probably suffer. If, all in one month, you lose your job, break up with your spouse, and a friend dies, your chances of becoming ill increase considerably. Pessimists experience more of these negative events. They take less action to prevent bad things happening, and when negative events occur they make them seem worse by thinking persistently, negatively, and helplessly about them.

Fourth, research has shown a clear correlation between resilience against illness and degree of social support. Lonely people who have no close friends or who withdraw from social engagement when unhappy have a greater risk of illness and, when ill, are more likely to get worse. Pessimists take less action to seek support. Optimism wipes away passivity, leading us to seek out other people. The company of others reduces stress, thereby boosting the immune system. Others can also help take care of us and encourage us to take medication, rest, or visit a doctor.

One of the first studies of the role of pessimism in causing illness was carried out at Virginia Tech in the mid-1980s. The study, following 150 students, found that the optimists had only half as many infectious illnesses and visits to the doctor as the pessimists. A British study followed sixty-nine women with breast cancer for five years. Those who optimistically fought the cancer were less likely to suffer a recurrence and more likely to survive than those who responded to their diagnosis with fatalistic passivity. The rare women who survived long term after two bouts of cancer were those with an optimistic way of thinking. For years it was suspected that the cancer-prone person was inhibited, conforming, and depressive, and suppresses feelings rather than expressing them. Evidence has been accumulating to support this idea. Even more convincingly, the development of cancer tends to be faster and more severe in those who are passive than in people who fight the cancer, believing they have some control. Psychiatrist Arthur Schale has found a higher incidence of cancer in those who feel helpless and hopeless.

Unsubstantiated and exaggerated claims for the power of the mind to influence the body are easy to find. Yet the evidence now strongly suggests that the way we think and feel does influence our health to a significant degree. This should not be terribly surprising. Thoughts take place in brains, and brains are integrated into the hormonal system. Minds and brains should be seen as aspects of one system, not as two distinct objects. One likely mechanism explaining the link between pessimism, depression and susceptibility to disease is this: When we feel pessimistic, depressed, or are grieving over the loss of a loved one—a situation likely to induce a sense of lost control—a group of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain) becomes depleted. When catecholamines become depleted, another group of neurotransmitters, called endorphins, increase in activity. Endorphins are the body’s natural opiates. When endorphins increase in activity, the immune system turns itself down. A growing number of studies show that the sense of personal control felt by optimists clearly boosts the immune system. Not only does optimism feel good, not only does it make us more successful, it can also save our lives and keep us in optimal health.

 

TWELVE CHARACTERISTICS OF THE DYNAMIC OPTIMIST

 

Now we have seen evidence supporting the intuitive view that optimism is good for us, we can examine the twelve characteristics in more detail.

 INTERPRETING EXPERIENCES POSITIVELY:

(1) Selective Focus: Unimaginably vast in scope and complexity, reality cannot be fully recognized at any one time. Even that part of reality I call "my life" contains so many elements, events, phenomena, causes, consequences, and perspectives that I cannot keep every aspect of it in focus at any particular moment. No matter how realistic and rational we are, we have no choice but to focus our attention. Dynamic optimists choose to focus primarily on thoughts, events, and interpretations that induce joy, encouragement, pleasure, and constructive activity. Optimists will look at the same world as pessimists but notice different things, and see the same things in different ways. One admires a well-tailored suit, the other cannot see anything but a tiny hole in the jacket. One enjoys the exertion of climbing a hill, the other worries about getting sweaty. Optimists spend most of their time focused on opportunities, on being with people who they enjoy and benefit from, and on thoughts that energize them.

Dynamic optimists value rationality. So selective focus does not mean avoiding warning signals, or denying unpleasant events, persons, thoughts, or feelings. It does mean dwelling on the constructive and enjoyable and de-emphasizing pain, difficulty, and frustration. The negative aspects of life can be acknowledged but not fixated upon: Your lower back is sore and and you will seek to remedy the problem; in the meantime you will enjoy the movie. Disagreeable events can be placed in a context of learning. Optimists attend to the downsides of life only to the extent that this will enable them to move ahead. Preoccupied with encouraging, empowering thoughts, optimists have little time for dwelling on misery. Optimists can look at a frustrating event, fully accepting its reality, then choose to interpret the event in a way that leads to action, growth, and mastery. A child’s irresponsible behavior, for example, can give a parent an opportunity to improve his communication skills. While the pessimist focuses on the frustration itself, often excessively and pointlessly, the optimist keeps the event in proportion, enjoys the rest of life, and looks for solutions to the challenge. This last word is a key part of the optimist’s vocabulary: Where the pessimist sees problems, the optimist sees challenges.

If things are going well for an optimist, she often takes that as a sign that things will continue to go well, and that she is therefore capable of making things go well in other areas of life. If I’m making strong progress at my exercise routine, I can take it as a sign that I can overcome difficulties with my finances. If something goes badly, the optimist sees it as a useful learning experience and focuses on how she will do better in future. The pessimist thinks through an opposing filter. Some anonymous wit defined a pessimist as "one who feels bad when he feels good for fear he’ll feel worse when he feels better." Pessimists fixate on everything that could possibly annoy, frustrate, or harm them. They worry unconstructively. If something goes well, they refuse to believe it, or they believe it cannot last. If it goes badly, it shows that everything is getting worse. Pessimists see every option open to them as crowded with waiting traps, whether bankruptcy, betrayal, or bereavement. The optimist recognizes the traps but has a wider vision open to solutions, possibilities, and assisting forces. By focusing on constructive, joyful, open-ended aspects of life, the optimist spots more solutions and feels more motivated to overcome obstacles.

 

(2) Refraining from Complaining: Accompanying a positive focus we find the optimist a pleasure to be near. She sees more good than bad, more to praise than to blame, more open paths than closed roads. Even when the optimist thinks of some negative event, she either keeps it to herself, or speaks of it only to help others or to seek solutions. Part of not focusing on the negative is not talking about it pointlessly. The more we complain to others, the more we notice annoying, frustrating phenomena. Whatever we focus on expands. Complaining, whining, moaning all make us fix our attention on our woes. They also make us boring! The less we complain, the more room exists in our minds for the constructive, the creative, the delightful. If life sometimes presents tough obstacles, the optimist recalls the words of Theodore Roosevelt, who said "I wish to preach not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of strenuous life."

A common form of complaint heard from pessimistically-focused thinkers sounds like this: "Life isn’t fair." "I don’t deserve this." "Why me?" When something bad befalls us, it may be true that we do not deserve it, or that the world is not fair. But to whine about it can only be irrational. Yes the world is not fair. It just is. The world was not built for our benefit. Other people are not here to serve us or to make us happy. When the pessimist complains of unfairness, they reveal an underlying irrational belief that life ought to be fair. Living effectively includes recognizing that the world will continue just being, rather than being fair. Making ourselves and others miserable by carping about it will get us nowhere. Such pointless, irrational moaning can only generate resentment. Resentment leads to anger, hostility, and envy. The optimist expects no fairness (though is delighted when she finds it). Optimists search out people, circumstances, and events that will assist them in life. When they run into opposing forces, they accept them calmly and with good humor look for ways around the obstacles thrown in their path.

 

(3) Questioning Limits: Iron-clad limits do exist. You cannot jump unaided from here to the moon. You cannot run faster than light. You cannot make a million dollars by saying "Shazam!" These kinds of limits have little to do with the things we want to accomplish in life. The laws of physics (at least as we currently understand) rule out certain goals but outside that realm we will have to look hard to find many provably impossible goals. Most of what we might want to achieve in life, whether it is making millions, making major breakthroughs in a field of study, becoming famous, achieving our ideal body, or finding a wonderful life partner, may be difficult yet many people succeed. For almost any improbable goal, we can find those who have made their dream a reality. Optimists nurture a constructive skepticism that challenges the limiting beliefs held by ourselves, our associates, and our society. Optimists display a deep and pervasive creative openness to possibilities. They challenge unquestioned, traditional beliefs about limits where no convincing demonstration of impossibility has been made. Optimists’ confidence in their ability to achieve their goals cannot easily be shaken.

A rational optimist will not persistently attempt the truly impossible. However, in human affairs we will not often be able to prove an endeavor to be impossible. Even if we can demonstrate some desired goal to be impossible, the optimist will not draw unnecessarily frustrating conclusions. Many limits are limits only within a specific context. We may be able to change the context and thereby change what is possible. Perhaps you simply cannot make your fortune in that small town, but the same goal can be eminently achievable in a large city.

Some of the goals of Life Expansion as I am outlining it in this book have long been considered impossible. Extending the human life span past 120 has been declared impossible. Moving off this planet was considered impossible. Becoming more than human is still believed by many to be impossible or unthinkable. Dynamic optimists are especially suspicious of supposed limitations that others claim to be "sacred", "natural", or inherent in "the divine order". Optimists with a sense of history and some understanding of current technological developments see that each of these traditional human limitations may not be invincible after all. Each age, lacking the necessary vision, will, and technology, elevates temporary limits to the achievement of our goals to the status of unalterable facts that must be accepted, even glorified and worshipped. (If life cannot be extended, why then, mortality must be good and natural!)

The dynamic optimist challenges personal and socially accepted limits through the directed application of reason, analysis, and creative thinking to a problem. The pessimist accepts limits without question, feeling comfortable with the given, and lacks the drive to search for solutions. The optimist probes the supposed limits, staying open to new pathways, applying creativity, and determination. Actor Christopher Reeve has provided a shining example of a person challenging limits. Instead of giving up after being severely crippled in a horse-riding accident, he has persistently pushed himself to regain strength and control. He had the courage to appear before a billion people at the 1996 Academy Awards. His example has inspired millions to laugh at the relatively trivial obstacles in their own lives. The Wright Brothers, the Apollo rocket launches, and the gerontologists probing at the mechanisms of aging all represent the optimist’s unwillingness to acquiesce in what others see as inevitable limitations.

 

(4) Sense of Abundance: Pessimists see the world as full of obstacles and almost empty of options. They feel that someone else’s success means their failure. They see life as what economists call a "zero-sum game"—gains by one person must be matched by losses for others, so the total gain is zero. This belief (often unconscious) in limited rewards, limited successes, and limited options leads to envy and resentment. The effective optimist, by contrast, understands that everyone can improve their situation. Another person’s success is to be admired, not resented. The success of others not only does not keep us down, it can help us: success in others provides a model for us to learn from, and concretely shows that success is possible. If my friend writes a best-selling book, why then, perhaps I can too!

Dynamic optimists feel free to do what they want to do. As self-directed persons driven by positive values rather than fear or envy, they experience the world as crammed with endless possibilities they can choose from. Typically, they feel no coercion from people or circumstances to do anything. All they do is driven by their passions, not by external pressures. They work at what they love, not because it was their parent’s profession or because it is "respectable". Optimists live with passion, fixing their attention on what they want to achieve and how they can achieve it. They appreciate what they have and love the world for all that it offers. Rather than complaining about having to make a living, for example, optimists apply their sense of abundance by fully appreciating the vast range of possible occupations open to them. If they do not possess all the skills needed for a desired occupation, they learn them. Pessimists settle for what they see as the "realistic" option.

Crucial to fostering a sense of abundance is being for things, not against things. You may be against many things: crime, war, being overweight, the budget deficit, intolerance, aging. Optimists restate anything they oppose in positive terms. Rather than being against government, be for liberty and responsibility. Rather than being against your company or office manager, be for making improvements. Instead of saying no to drugs, say yes to healthy pleasures. I am not merely playing a word game here: Your energy goes wherever you focus your attention. When you are against something you will expend your time and energy attacking it, complaining about it, and reacting to it. When you are for an alternative, you focus on changing it, creating alternatives, exciting others about new options, and feeling productive and creative—you will be proactive rather than reactive. Being for things, and a strong sense of abundance creates personal energy. An optimistic sense of abundance encourages cheerfulness and activity. In a high-energy optimistic state you want to tackle tasks because you expect to enjoy the activity and expect to make progress at it. This creates a self-reinforcing cycle: Optimism breeds increased enthusiasm; this leads to effort and progress which validates optimism and generates more of it. The virtuous circle of optimism replaces the vicious circle of pessimism.

 

(5) Humor: Humor acts both as a cause and a consequence of dynamic optimism. Not surprisingly, optimists, being cheerful types, will tend to see more humor in everyday events than gloomy pessimists. Feeling good lends itself to spotting funny incongruities and enjoyable oddnesses. Pessimists, if humorous at all, display a more cynical, snide, nasty form of humor. Humor for them provides a way of tearing down and deriding the accomplishments and character of others. More surprisingly, humor adds to optimism. Since optimism requires an openness to new possibilities and different perspectives, it helps to be able to laugh at dogmatic thinking in ourselves and others. Healthy, good-natured humor can reveal fresh approaches. Humor will be particularly helpful when the rigidity or irrationality is found in ourselves. Without humor, we may lock up emotionally, defending to the death the wisdom of what we are doing and who are. With humor, we can look on our shortcomings with amusement. Most humor involves seeing old things from unexpected angles. This explains the power of humor to promote self-transformation: We will find it easier to change ourselves if we can use humor to step aside from who we are right now and see who we could become. Nietzsche told us that laughter means "to rejoice at another’s expense, but with a good conscience". We can laugh at our own foibles with a good conscience because humor allows us to separate our core sense of identity from the foolishness we currently see in ourselves.

 

INFLUENCING OUTCOMES POSITIVELY:

(6) Rational: Being rational means doing our best to see reality as it is rather than as we want it to be. Rationality involves apportioning our belief according to the evidence: withholding commitment to unsupported beliefs, even if we want them to be true; not being certain of uncertain ideas; and always being open to revision of beliefs as new evidence and new reasons appear. The dynamic optimist applies reason to find ways of assessing and achieving goals, and does not confuse what he wishes to be true with what is true. Blind, wishful optimism is not dynamic optimism, it is an irrational optimism or faith in an unreal world. The rational optimist—the optimist who works with reality rather than against it—separates his emotional urges from his understanding as far as possible. The rational optimist thinks critically and logically about the world around him. He also turns the bright light of reason on himself, examining the causes and reasons of his motivations and beliefs about himself.

Rational optimism means using reason to discover what truly works. Reason involves learning how to assess evidence for claims, how to analyze arguments, assess motivations, figure out who and what to believe and how far to believe it. Is supplemental vitamin E good for my health? Should I invest in stocks or bonds? Should I believe the claims of homeopathy? Should I always trust my intuitions? Reason also involves ensuring that that your goals are attainable and that you have chosen effective means to them, and making sure your goals are consistent and coherent together.

 

(7) Self-Improving: Dynamic optimists see themselves in transformational terms—they see the self as a process, not a static entity. Optimists recognize the possibilities for continuing growth, self-correction, and self-improvement. Rather than seeing their current psychology and personality as the ultimate form of themselves, optimists view it as a transition to a better self. If we are to expand our lives, overcoming limits to achievement and happiness, we need to detach ourselves from who we are today. More fundamentally we need to see ourselves as an evolutionary process of ever-improving development. Our current personalities serve as one link in the chain of our being. As Henri Bergson said in Creative Evolution: "To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly."

The powerful drive to improve, to overcome existing limitations in the self, in optimists is not pushed by fear or self-dislike. This drive is pulled by an inspiring self-image. Optimists form an image of who they want to become and use it as a guide for action. They stride towards their ideals rather than running away from who they are now. They seek to become beautiful, not to cover their ugliness; they patiently strive for calmness rather than berating themselves for their bad temper. Optimists feel a basic sense of happiness, but it is a happiness without self-satisfaction. The drive to self-transformation comes not from a rejection of the self, but from an identification with the self’s continual process of maturation and strengthening. Optimists recognize the natural law: Develop or perish. To remain the same leads to stagnation and to falling behind, especially in the modern world’s frantic and accelerating rate of change. Dynamic optimists seek to be not masters of the present, but masters of transformation.

The drive for self-transformation, perpetual self-improvement, distinguishes the dynamic optimist from the passive optimist. The latter sits back, does nothing, and tells himself that everything will work out fine, and that he need not make any effort to improve his approach to living. The dynamic optimist acts on the recognition that continual transcendence of personal limits fuels success, achievement, and happiness. As Goethe tells us in The Mysteries:

All force strives forward to work far and wide

To live and grow and ever to expand;

Yet we are checked and thwarted on each side

By the world’s flux and swept along like sand:

In this internal storm and outward tide

We hear a promise, hard to understand:

From the compulsion that all creatures binds,

Who overcomes himself, his freedom finds.

 

(8) Experimental: Pessimists and passive optimists both cling to the old and familiar, the authorized, regulated and approved. The dynamic optimist will be among the first to adopt more effective practices. Effective optimism requires more than a belief that things will improve; it requires actively searching for and creating novel approaches. Certainly the optimist eagerly learns from culturally entrenched practices, whether these are ways of organizing a business, principles for a marriage, or methods of boosting athletic performance. Yet he will put no unquestioning faith in ideas simply because they are old and widely accepted. The optimist evaluates each idea, each method on its merits, being quick to try fresh approaches where they appear to offer advantages. The optimistic personality continually seeks out better ways of doing things, jumps out of ruts before they can wear deep, and questions dogmas and unthinking traditions. Nietzsche expressed this urgent drive to challenge the old:

Not to question, not to tremble with the craving and joy of questioning… that is what I feel to be contemptible, and this feeling is the first thing I seek in everyone: some foolishness persuades me ever and again that every human being has this feeling, as a human being.

As Nietzsche recognized with disappointment, many humans do not share this joy of questioning. Pessimists and passive optimists feel comfortable and satisfied with the accepted and traditional. Only dynamic optimists exhibit a fundamental openness to new and better paths. An optimistic attitude encourages openness to new sources of information and new methods of improving life. When it forms part of your personality, an actively optimistic attitude programs your brain to apprehend opportunities and possibilities. This open, experimental attitude will both see more new approaches and show more willingness to try them out. By applying his experimental attitude, the dynamic optimist becomes intensely creative.

Willingness to experiment implies a tolerance for risk-taking. Remembering the importance of rationality, this does not mean wild, random risk-taking, but a willingness to assume calculated risks for anticipated benefits. We might think that sticking with widely accepted methods is safe, but where improvement is needed, failing to experiment is itself risky. The optimist heeds the advice of Thomas Watson, founder of computer giant IBM, who told us: "The way to succeed is to double your failure rate." Optimists see the self as a process not a static entity. This allows them to identify with improving their ideas, methods, and practices, rather than desperately needing to be seen as right. Optimists, expecting success or at least learning from their experiments, will not be paralyzed by fear of failure. They keep their mind on their goals, unlike pessimists who shy away from uncertain attempts because they entertain all the possible undesirable outcomes while feeling that being mistaken means being failures and fools.

 

(9) Self-Confident: We all feel confident in specific areas of life. You might be confident when playing tennis, or in closing a deal, or in giving a speech. But you might lack confidence in changing a diaper, replacing your computer’s hard drive, or singing in tune. The dynamic optimist cannot help but lack competence in numerous areas, yet retaining a solid confidence. Self-confidence means not confidence in specific areas, but a fundamental conviction that I am competent to live. I may lack a skill or ability needed to get a particular job or to solve a relationship difficulty, but I feel confident that I can acquire those skills. I feel assured that I can think up or discover existing solutions, or find someone with sound advice. If a person lacks this basic sense of self-confidence, a pervasive pessimism will be hard to avoid. Acquiring self-confidence requires an effort; anyone promising to deliver it to you in one quick painless fix is lying. The underlying confidence I refer to comes from repeated experiences of successful learning and problem-solving, each of which takes attention and effort. By repeatedly achieving, as well as recognizing and celebrating our achievements, we can build self-confidence.

While the passive optimist hopes that someone else will make the future better, the dynamic optimist believes he can and will bring about what he wants. He does not leave the future up to passive hoping and wishing, he takes action. If he wants a more enjoyable job, he does not wait for an offer, he goes out and searches for one, confident that he has the necessary skills or that he can acquire them. Effective optimism implies confidence in being able to create the future we want. Self-confidence generates persistence by giving us the power to keep trying in the face of resistance and setbacks. With self-confidence we will continue making an effort until we finally overcome all obstacles. Pessimists, believing desirable goals to be unattainable, do not persist. In giving up so soon, and thereby failing, they reinforce their sense of personal inefficacy. Pervasive pessimism in a person goes hand in hand with a self-image conveying failure, inability and resignation. A drive towards self-improvement and a willingness to experiment with novel approaches cannot exist without self-confidence.

 

(10) Self-Worth: Self-confidence combines with self-worth to form self-esteem. Whereas self-confidence means a fundamental sense that I am competent to live and flourish, self-worth means a sense that I deserve to live. Some unfortunate individuals lack self-worth, sometimes due to destructive parents who continually undermined them as children, and sometimes due to religious doctrines proclaiming that we are inherently evil, corrupt, and unworthy. While we can practice dynamic optimism even without a sense of self-worth, believing that we are worthy of success and happiness makes optimism far easier. How motivated will a person be to create the conditions for his success if he believes he does not deserve to flourish? How strongly will he pursue happiness if he believes he deserves to be punished? This motivation may still exist: the person might be motivated to achieve in order to serve someone else, or as an offering to a god. Such externally-based motivation risks building resentment. Self-worth bonded to self-confidence forms a powerful core of self-esteem. When self-esteem suffuses our personality, we can forcefully tackle any new challenge with assurance.

 

(11) Personal Responsibility: Effective optimism requires understanding the part we play in bringing about the results we want. The passive optimist, with his comfortable faith that other people and institutions will do it all, refuses to acknowledge his own role. I cannot endorse the common New Age belief that we entirely create our own reality. Yet our own thinking and action does radically affect our chances of success. Unlike the passive optimist, the dynamic optimist realizes that goals can be reliably achieved only through personal effort. Wishful thinking cannot substitute for active pursuit of the life we want. Taking responsibility for ourselves requires a strong sense of purpose. Without a clear vision of our destination we will find it hard to get anywhere. Being responsible asks of us self-discipline: as we make our choices through the day we need to keep our goals and values in mind, stay focused, and resist distractions. More than that, taking responsibility means persisting at working toward what matters to us. Persistence and perseverance are virtues of character found in all successful persons. Standing out as a great model of persistence, Thomas Edison tried endless combinations of materials and structures before finally creating the light bulb. His mind stayed focused tightly on his goal, allowing no doubts to stop him, and he persisted through hundreds of failed attempts.

Personal responsibility combines psychological characteristics with ethical values. Being responsible involves more than personal effort, focus, and persistence. It also requires integrity: living according to your values. An integrated personality has developed a consistent and rational set of values conducive to successful living. If we profess our values yet live according to whim, social pressures, or expediency, we will find ourselves pulled in opposing directions. Lack of integrity saps our will by pitting our values against our outward words and deeds. Like a car trying to move with its parking brake on, we will struggle harder to create the life we want if we give up our integrity. Living with integrity is profoundly practical, not merely a nice abstract ideal. Taking responsibility for keeping our words and actions consistent with our values means exercising our autonomy—our ability to make our own choices even in the face of external pressures. Being responsible for ourselves can be a great challenge when surrounding us we find government programs to take care of us, and authority figures wanting to run our lives (whether these are parents, gurus, or officials). These stealers of responsibility seduce us by offering ease and security if we will only give up personal control and let them make the decisions. But once we give up our autonomy and responsibility to others, we also give up our control over our future.

 

(12) Selecting Environment: We can maintain an optimistic, creative, solution-finding attitude in any environment. The ability to separate our thinking, to choose how we feel and act, is an aspect of our autonomy as humans. Even in the Nazi death camps, some stayed alive and sane by focusing their thoughts on their hopes and on what they could control. Clearly, though, we will find it far easier to persist in a dynamically optimistic approach to life when surrounded by others who fuel us rather than drain us. Some of us may be unfortunate enough to live and work with those who continually tell us why we cannot do what we want, why our efforts are doomed to fail, and who point to all the possible obstacles and relate tales of every failure they have heard of. While stuck in such an environment we will need to maintain more vigilance over our own thinking. If we find ourselves smothered in this miasma, we would do well to devote plenty of effort to changing our circumstances. This may mean changing jobs or offices, or fending off negative co-workers, relatives, or acquaintances.

Dynamic optimists will find themselves attracted to persons and environments that inspire, support, and assist, not those that discourage, distract, and undermine. Still, we should take this recommendation in the context of the other characteristics of a dynamic optimist, and not take it to an extreme in isolation. Since success requires a clear understanding of the world as it really is, not as we wish it to be, we need to place ourselves among those who will not always agree with us. If we hear only agreement from those who think just like us, we will fall into a distorted view of the world. Our beliefs, values, and goals need to be tested, questioned, challenged. Only by surviving the criticism of others (and ourselves) or mutating into new forms can our beliefs and goals offer any assurance of being realistic. The optimist will therefore select the environment so as to surround himself not with only those who agree with him, but with those who will either agree and support him or constructively, reasonably, usefully criticize his goals and methods. Hostile, destructive criticism can still be useful, but is harder to learn from and can undermine our motivation. The dynamic optimist carefully selects the environment to achieve a balance of support with constructive disagreement.

 

Optimism and Uncertainty

Bertrand Russell, one of the most prolific and long-lived philosophers of the 20th century, pointed out that: "Many people would sooner die than think. In fact they do." Russell’s barbed observation continues to be all too true. At this stage in human development, most of us display a deep desire for certainty. Is this due to culture or our biological nature? Given the cross-cultural persistence of the need for certainty, I suspect it is partly rooted in our evolutionary past. Back in our hunter-gatherer days, those who were uncertain about whether to run, how to throw a spear or stone, or whether to mate, were likely to die, their genes being forever taken out of the gene pool. The choices then were relatively simple. Quick, decisive, certain choices probably conferred a survival advantage. If a tendency toward certainty and the dogmatic thinking that results really is built into our brain, advanced genetic technology may be the only effective way to remedy it. In the meantime, only those who remain aware of this tendency, and strive continually to combat it in themselves, will have a chance of being the rational beings philosophers have long proclaimed us to be.

We find it more comfortable to believe things with certainty. Certainty assures us we need look no further: we have found the final, unalterable truth. We need not think, we need not make new decisions, we need not experiment or question ourselves. The desperate desire for certainty insinuates itself into every aspect of our lives but especially in the area of religious and political beliefs. Dogmatic religious beliefs extol certainty, even making faith—belief in something despite the evidence—into a virtue. This attitude toward certainty and dogmatic faith was stated in an especially unapologetic and extreme form by the Church father Tertullian

After Jesus we have no need of speculation, after the Gospel no need of research. When we come to believe, we have no desire to believe anything else; for we begin by believing that there is nothing else we have to believe.

Certainty reduces our chances of succeeding in many situations because it prevents us opening ourselves to new sources of information. It leads us to conclude further investigation and experimentation to be a waste of time. The emotional reward that keeps people coming back to certainty like a favorite drug is its ability to pacify us, to soothe us, and to relieve us of responsibility. Optimism tainted with dogmatic certainty can appeal to us since it lets us believe that success requires no action, or at least no new action. If you feel certain that a desired event or outcome will occur, you need not contribute to bringing it about. If you hold a belief with certainty you need not go to the trouble of looking for contrary evidence.

Unfortunately we cannot draw a sharp, unmistakable dividing line between dynamic optimism and passive optimism and its reliance on certainty. Keeping in mind the twelve characteristics of the dynamic optimist will help keep optimism active and open. It is up to us to guard against allowing our dynamically optimistic thinking to degenerate into passive Pollyanna optimism. We cannot reliably distinguish rationally and irrationally optimistic beliefs on the basis of the strength of those beliefs (though this can be one indication). Faith, or dogmatically optimistic beliefs, can be weak, though this is generally an unstable state, and many perfectly ordinary beliefs are extremely strongly held. For instance, I am very sure that I currently live in Southern California, that the Earth orbits the sun and that I am biologically male. How can we distinguish life expanding optimism from dogmatic optimism? Let me emphasize some of the twelve characteristic of dynamic optimists to help with this question:

Both kinds of optimistic thinking involve selective focus, or selective filtering of information and experience, but in different ways. Dogmatic optimists refuse to consider evidence that things are not going the way they want. They avert their eyes from obstacles to their goals. They see only encouraging signs while blanking out disturbing signs. The dynamic optimist uses selective focus differently: He chooses not to dwell endlessly and pointlessly on unpleasant and unchangeable events or persons. He remains open to recognizing and accepting obstacles to his goals. Rather than blind himself to them, he sees them as challenges, and thinks cheerfully, creatively, and openly about how to deal with them.

We have seen that dynamic optimists continually seek to improve themselves. While valuing who they are now, they strive to become ever better. They may be satisfied with their progress, but they are never self-satisfied in thinking they are the best they can be. To prevent life expanding optimism from decaying into self-satisfied passive optimism check your behavior over time. Have you stopped looking for ways to improve? Do you approach every conversation as a chance to show the other fellow where he’s gone wrong? Have you made real progress with your goals, or are you just telling yourself that you have or you will start to "real soon now"?

We can check our optimism also by noting our degree of rationality and experimentalism. You may be facing a problem or choice: Whether to stay with this job or change companies or professions; whether to tell the truth or lie to stay out of a conflict; whether to vote for government welfare or subsidies or to oppose them. How do you go about making these decisions? Do you look for answers and solutions always in the same places? Is there one book that you look to every time for certain answers? Do you stick with what you have always done in the past? Do you look at information always from the same sources, or do you consult diverging books, magazines, speakers? Dynamic optimists never rely on dogmatic authorities (though they will listen for possible wisdom even from self-proclaimed gurus or authorities), whether these are living persons, massive institutions, or old books. The dynamic optimist tries to think as a critical rationalist—someone who leaves everything open to question and who treats no authority as an absolute guarantee of truth. Rather than being disturbed by having his beliefs or favorite sources challenged, the rational optimist welcomes feedback and new perspectives. (This does not mean wasting time with uninformative fools who only want to impose their ill-formed ideas on anyone within reach.) You can feel confident that your optimism remains rational and effective so long as you see plenty of signs of continued searching, critical experimentation, and personal responsibility for learning in open ways.

The active and passive forms of optimism differ in an obvious way when it comes to the issue of personal responsibility. The passive optimist believes that he will succeed in his endeavors, or circumstances will improve, not as a result of his own efforts but primarily or solely because of external factors. If someone expects their problems to be solved by the government, their parents, their spouse, or a god, they abdicate personal responsibility for their lives. You can spot the slide from dynamic to passive optimism if you see yourself no longer taking action to better your circumstances, instead sitting back and thinking someone else will take of it. Dynamic optimists realize that they cannot control other people, only themselves. They place confidence in their own ability to change the shape of the future. They jump in and actively set about creating the outcome they desire.

Adopting certain habits and practices can help guard against letting our dynamically optimistic thinking deteriorate into the more common passive form. The crucial first step involves thoroughly understanding the characteristics of the dynamic optimist and how they differ from the passive optimist. Once that understanding has been absorbed deep down, we will find it easier to detect and prevent the infiltration of passive thinking. As part of regular daily and weekly meditation and life-review habits, we can check our recent thinking and behavior. Regular sessions for setting personal goals and priorities provide an opportunity for a reality check. These sessions give us a quiet time in which to reassess short-term and long-term goals and the effectiveness of the means being used. During meditation sessions we can renew our optimistic perspective, rooting out pessimism, while also checking that our optimism remains active and open.

Another way to maintain a high level of optimism while avoiding intellectual passivity and certainty is to subject your ideas to evaluation by others of similar commitment. Such individuals and groups should also be oriented towards a rational, active optimism. Such persons allow you to test your ideas and goals in an environment both friendly and able to restrain unbridled flights of fantasy. Testing your ideas in groups that are fundamentally opposed to your goals, or who cannot comprehend them, is neither encouraging nor enlightening. Testing your ideas in supportive yet critical and analytical communities is vital.

Optimistic Thinking

Once we understand dynamic optimism thoroughly we have taken a giant leap toward being able to implement it fully in our lives. Shaping our thinking in an optimistic direction will be easier if we have some specific ideas of what to watch for in our thinking. I can only briefly explain a handful of these mental patterns here. I refer the reader to the Resources for more writings and workshops on the subject. Cognitive psychologists such as David Burns and Albert Ellis have done us a great service in clearly identifying many thinking patterns typically found in pessimists and depressed persons. Since my focus is on the positive—on becoming ever better than we are—rather than on the negative side of what causes depression and lack of motivation, I will point out a few positive correlates of the thinking patterns identified by these therapists.

PARTICULARIZE: When the optimist has been frustrated by obstacles to his goals, he reacts appropriately: He inspects the obstacle and sees it for what it is, then considers how to remove it. The pessimist, especially if depressed, does the opposite. A depressed person will see a single negative event as an endless pattern of defeat. A woman went for a first job interview. Being nervous and inexperienced she performed at less than her best and was not called back for a second interview at the firm. She told herself: "I never get a break. I’m so rotten at this that no one will employ me. What’s the use?" From a single experience she irrationally overgeneralizes to a belief about all future interview experiences. A shy teenage boy asked out a girl he was attracted to. Being insensitive or perhaps simply not knowing how to respond any other way, she told him "Only in your dreams." The boy tells himself: "I’m ugly and boring. No girl will go out with me." Overgeneralizations like this can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies since the irrational belief leads the person to refrain from more attempts. With no more attempts to get an interview or a date, there can be no successes and so the person’s belief seems to be confirmed.

The optimist refrains from overgeneralizing. Effective thinkers look at the frustrating situation as a particular event. That event need not represent any pattern; it can lead to very different future events if treated as a learning experience. If the woman going for the interview had been aware of her thinking, she might have stopped the self-defeating cognition, instead telling herself: "Well, I didn’t do so well at my first attempt. I’ll do better next time. Now I know better what to expect. Let’s see, I could practice my responses to the questions I was asked, I could sit straighter and speak up confidently, and I could take more initiative in asking questions when given the opportunity." Similarly, the rejected boy might have reminded himself that this girl might have been having a bad day, and not all other girls would react the same way. He might ask himself if he contributed to her response, perhaps by being too tentative, and consider how to come across more engagingly. The optimistic response to a bad experience is to look at it as a particular event, not an omen of perpetual failure, and to learn from it in order to correct course and home in on the desired goal.

EMPHASIZE THE POSITIVE: Depression-prone individuals usually suffer from anhedonia—the inability to enjoy anything. One cause of this is their tendency to disqualify their positive experiences. Even non-depressive, hard-driven Type A personalities can fall into this trap. Upon being given a major promotion with raise in pay and benefits, an executive immediately started worrying about her new responsibilities. She did not hold a party to celebrate, turned down friends’ invitations to dinner to congratulate her, and forgot about all the ways she earned the promotion. A man in his sixties who has exercised for years and maintained sound diet and health habits was complimented on his trim, youthful appearance. "I’m just lucky" he replied. Have you ever replied to a compliment or commendation with phrases like "You’re just being nice", "It was nothing really", or "It doesn’t really count for anything"? If so, you have disqualified your positive experiences. When this becomes a pattern, we deplete our motivation and darken our view of the world. Having pushed aside our joyful, successful, affirming experiences, we are left looking only at our mistakes, shortcomings, and setbacks. Even if someone has enough motivation or self-discipline to keep accomplishing things despite disqualifying the positive, he will derive little pleasure from his successes. If our goal is to both move forward in our lives and enjoy doing so, we need to affirm our positive experiences.

The dynamic optimist does not need to seek approval, and does not abuse compliments by puffing himself up in a falsely self-aggrandizing manner. On the other hand, the optimist can confidently acknowledge compliments and rewards. Instead of replying with "It was nothing", he says "Thank you". The optimist celebrates both his own and other people’s successes, enjoys each victory and advance, and appreciates what he has earned. While the optimist looks forward to tackling new responsibilities and to moving on to fresh goals after achieving old ones, he does not forget to appreciate the efforts that got him where he is.

Set realistic goals and standards: The tendency to disqualify the positive often festers side by side with the vice of perfectionism. Optimism has nothing to do with wanting to be perfect. Optimism as I have explained it involves a confident drive to continually improve oneself and one’s circumstances. But not only does continual improvement not require perfection, it is not even compatible with it. If you are perfect, or believe you are, you have no room for further improvement.

Optimists expect to do well and to keep getting better. They feel no need to be perfect or do a job perfectly. They do not have to mow the lawn magnificently, just well enough. They do not need to write to their friends with unprecedented wit and skill; they just need to say things clearly. By setting realistic goals and standards for themselves, optimists succeed more often, thereby reinforcing their optimism and motivation. If I feel I must ski not just well but perfectly, I will get frustrated and angry at myself for being only fairly good. Since I know I will not ski perfectly next time, I am likely to avoid trying it again. Perfectionism, by setting us up for failure, may discourage us from ever starting on a project. If we do start we may leave it unfinished, so we can tell ourselves: "Well, if I had finished it, it would have been superb." If we do finish the project, we will be unable to fully enjoy the imperfect result. We can see perfectionism as an example of black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking. Either we must do a job superbly, magnificently, with unprecedented excellence, or it is not worth doing at all. Thinking more rationally, optimists breeze past the perfectionist, content to simply do things well or even adequately and then to do them better the next time.

Many of us feel drawn to perfectionist attitudes because we believe this to help us perform at our best. Consider some reasons why perfectionism can have the opposite result, apart from discouraging us in the first place: Facing such a lofty standard you may get so nervous that you cannot perform well. You may be too afraid to experiment with uncertain procedures that might produce superior results. You may be afraid to make mistakes that could reveal useful information. Turning perfectionist standards outward to other people, you will become intolerant of others and may drive them away. Since perfection is almost never attainable—or even definable (how would you run a marathon perfectly?)—you will always feel frustrated, unhappy, and bitter so long as you put perfectionism in place of realistic goals and standards.

KEEP EVENTS IN PROPORTION: A woman went to pick up her car from the mechanic, expecting it to be fixed by 3pm. She was looking forward to meeting a date at 4pm on the other side of town. Smiling tightly at her, the mechanic explained that he hadn’t been able to fix the engine trouble yet, and would have to keep the car for another couple of hours. "You’re ruining my life!" the woman shouted. This exaggeration in thinking afflicts almost all of us sometimes, and some of us all too frequently. The housecleaners do an imperfect job and we complain "Everyone’s incompetent!" Perhaps you notice a minor mistake on a report for your company after it has been printed for everyone to read. "How awful!" you tell yourself. "That’s terrible. How could I be so sloppy? Everyone will think I’m an idiot. Damn it!"

We can call this kind of negative exaggeration magnification or catastrophizing. It involves blowing up a minor irritation into a major calamity. The old clich√© about making mountains out of molehills arose from someone noticing how some of us like to turn small annoyances and frustrations into world-shaking (or at least life-threatening) catastrophes. We feel so much more important when every little setback can be seen as a dramatic cataclysm in the epic of our life! Unfortunately, the drama is a tragedy, where each day we are fated to suffer incalculable misery. Cognitive therapist David Burns has referred to this distortion in thinking as "the binocular trick". You look at negative events in such a way as to blow them up in size and importance. If you tend to compare yourself to others, you might also magnify the other fellow’s accomplishment, making yourself feel more threatened by comparison. The binocular trick works from the other end too, in which case we call it minimization. Here you look through the other end of the binoculars at your accomplishments (or your competitors imperfections) and shrink them down to an insignificant size. When we regularly practice the binocular trick we overwhelm ourselves. Obstacles to achieving our goals appear enormous; they become mountains too high and rocky to climb. Our motivation drains away, leaving us apathetic and unproductive.

The dynamic optimist, being aware of this seductive tendency to catastrophize, strives to keep events in proportion. Life as a dramatic tragedy is replaced with life as a balanced, steady march forward, drama finding its place in the major accomplishments in one’s life. Attaining a developed ability to keep things in proportion can take self-discipline for many of us. Letting one’s destructive emotions run wild may feel easy. In addition, we may believe that we can get what we want more effectively by exaggerating our hurt. Indeed this can be an effective short-term method of manipulating others, but not a healthy or effective long-term approach. It will lead to a loss of respect from others, avoidance of involvement in our little dramas, and distract us from directly and rationally confronting obstacles.

Developing and strengthening this dynamic, practical optimism is one of the most effective ways of adding to our personal power. A thorough-going dynamic optimist cannot be stopped. He cannot be pushed aside, blocked out, or shut down. He will respond to all obstacles, all attacks, all setbacks with calmness, determination, and a creative, problem-solving attitude. Optimism and pessimism affect our entire worldview. Our whole approach to living will be either empowered or chained depending on which style of thinking predominates. The principles of dynamic optimism provide keys for unlocking our full potential. In the next chapter I will reveal another, complementary, approach to bringing emotions and moods into the realm of choice.