Become an Optimist to Save Your Life



by Susan C, Vaughan, M.D.

Once upon a time a scientist broke the rats in his laboratory into random groups. The rats in the first group were placed one by one in a big tank of water made opaque with milk. They had to swim for a set amount of time. These rats were the lucky ones, since their tank had a tiny island hidden under the water on which they could perch without having to swim. Their island was always in a fixed location in the tank, there for them to find without fail, a way of getting a tiny leg up and a respite from the swim.

The rats in the second group swam for exactly the same amount of time in the milky water as those in the first group. But their tank had no island, no oasis amid the vast vat. After their swims, the rats in both groups were plucked from the water, weary and bedraggled. Both groups then rested, ate, and otherwise recuperated before the real Rat Race.

When the big day came, both groups of rats were at it again. The researcher once again made them swim one by one. But this time all the rats swam in a tank without an island. Much as they swam, there was simply no oasis to be found, no respite from having to paddle like mad just to stay afloat. The researcher rescued them before their whiskered noses slipped beneath the water. Then he carefully recorded precisely where and for how long each rat swam before returning it to its cage, wet and waterlogged, probably surprised to be alive.

When the scientist tallied up the time each rat spent in the tank, imagine how surprised he was. He found that those lucky rodent racers whose island had been there for them the first time swam for over twice as long, looking for the island where it had previously been. In contrast, those who had never found a predictable foothold in their hour of need were reduced to wandering aimlessly around the tank, swimming in seemingly directionless circles, chasing their tails in vain as they looked for a means of escape.

Now, you may find it a stretch to say that the rats that had experienced a consistent island in their prior swims were optimistic. But given that they were broken randomly into two groups in the first place, how else can we understand what kept them looking for twice as long as their competitors rather than paddling haphazardly around the tank? Isn’t their belief that there is something definite to swim for a positive expectation rooted in the reality of their earlier experience? Since there was no island in the tank in which they took their second swim, isn’t it fair to say that what made the difference as to whether they sank or swam was the illusion of an island, their ability to conjure an inner image of an island to swim for when the going got rough, even if such an island existed only in their imagination?

I believe that optimism depends upon our ability to construct and sustain the illusion of an island. I think this ability is the result of a series of inner psychological processes that can be improved upon with practice, a set of psychological maneuvers through which we shift our perspective, refocus our vision. But if you hold a traditional view of optimism and pessimism, you probably believe that optimism depends instead on whether you see the proverbial glass as half empty or half full. And if you tend to see the glass as half empty then chances are you think that’s just the way you are and there’s nothing you can do about it anyway. After all, people are optimists or pessimists by nature, aren’t they? It’s a trait, a matter of inborn temperament, a fixed and immutable fact of biology, isn’t it? While we’ve long recognized that optimism pervades and influences almost everything-our thoughts, our feelings, our perspective in life, even our ability to keep on swimming in the face of adversity-we’ve also long believed that asking a pessimistic person to be more optimistic is like asking a leopard to change his spots.

If this is how you’ve thought about optimism until now, you’re in good company. After all, even the Oxford English Dictionary defines optimism as a “disposition to hope for the best or to look on the bright side of things; a general tendency to take a favorable view of circumstances or prospects.” Contained in the words disposition and general tendency is the implication that optimism is a stable aspect of character. If we were to accept this definition-and we have-we would believe that Eeyore is about as likely to look on the bright side as Tigger is to lose the spring in his step.

Yet I believe we would be wrong, and that in our error we might add our tendency to see the glass as either half empty or half full to the long and growing list of biological imperatives-like height or eye color or an ovarian cancer gene-that we simply have to live with, matters of genetic destiny. If optimism were really an inborn trait, you wouldn’t be able to change it much.

I believe that optimism is the result of an internal process of illusion building. I believe we should fundamentally redefine optimism as the result of a particular series of mental machinations, psychological somersaults. These internal gymnastics are not generally something that optimists are just born knowing how to do. Optimism is not, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson on hope, “a thing with feathers that perches in the breast.” Instead it is an active internal process, more akin to learning to fly. It is a verb, not a noun. And pessimism, by contrast, is not the absence of some elusive winged creature that our biological birdcage either contains or lacks. That’s good news, because if optimism is the result of inner psychological processes, then we can all become better illusion-builders with practice. So if you can’t imagine that illusive island now, don’t worry. You can learn to.

Why would we want to learn to sustain such a fiction anyway, searching for an illusory island that may not be there at all? After all, an illusion is defined as “a false impression or belief, a delusion, an incorrect perception”-not something that a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst such as myself would normally advocate cultivating as a regular habit, a way of living life. Aren’t illusions the stuff of magic acts? Entertaining at best, but fundamentally a distraction from real life? Although illusions may enchant us, don’t they keep us from looking reality square in the eye and doing the things we need to do to change our real-life situations? After all, if we sat in the movies day after day, we might enjoy some amazing illusions, but they wouldn’t alter the reality we faced when we left the theater, blinking in the glare of our problems. Wouldn’t illusions seduce us into living in a fantasy world at the expense of the real one? Shouldn’t we get just get real instead? Doesn’t our psychological health depend upon it?

In fact, studies suggest that reality is overrated. People who are the most closely in touch with reality are probably depressed. For example, in one study, depressed people were much more accurate than those who were not currently depressed at estimating the risks of all sorts of disasters befalling them, from plane crashes to their chances of being hit and killed by a bus when crossing the street on any given day. They saw the dangers of life head-on and estimated them accurately. Psychologists call it “depressive realism.” In contrast, nondepressed people are off the mark when asked about the odds of various kinds of negative events-in an optimistic but unrealistic, inaccurate way. When we look at reality stripped bare of the illusions I consider crucial, what we are really seeing is our fundamental helplessness and lack of control in the face of an indifferent universe, our elemental aloneness, our failure to achieve successes that can change the basic parameters of our mortality. And perhaps most importantly, depression and the bald-faced look at reality it provides for us tend to yank us out of our engagement with life, our ability to exist in the moment. Seeing the world this way can even precipitate an existential crisis in which we’re left living in a universe in which none of our actions ultimately matter, in which we’re just going through the motions waiting for it all to end. As psychiatrist Viktor Frankl concluded after surviving the dismal reality of Auschwitz, we must each search for and ultimately construct our own meanings in order to survive. Looking at reality stripped of all of our illusions means being psychically naked, unprotected, and open to despair, depression, even suicide. So despite the emphasis that psychologists and psychiatrists have placed on the importance of “reality testing,” it may be that the illusions involved in optimism are actually more psychologically healthy.

In contrast to overrated reality, it is difficult to overemphasize the importance and positive effects of optimism. As you might conclude from the Rat Race, perhaps paramount among the advantages of optimism is that optimists persevere, with continued-and even more determined-activity rather than inertia in the face of adversity. Optimism is also to some extent a self-fulfilling prophecy in the sense that if you look for that island for over twice as long, you better your chances of finding it if it’s there. Other people notice and respond positively to the outlook of optimists, giving them an advantage in work, love, and play. In addition to perseverance, optimism breeds popularity and the success that so often accompanies it. Optimistic thinking predicts who will be a successful life insurance salesman as well as which basketball teams will beat their projected point spreads in any given season. A candidate with an optimistic stance has a greater chance of being elected president. And optimistic swimmers who are told their times in an important race are worse than they actually are will do even better the second time around.

When it comes to health and optimism, the jury is in. Even rats who are made helpless respond differently to an injection of potentially lethal tumor cells. When injected with a number of tumor cells from which 50% of a control group live and 50% die, only 27% of helpless, pessimistic rats survive, while 70% of rats who have a more optimistic stance remain alive. Pessimism is just as bad for human health as it is for rat health. It makes people more liable to die of heart disease once they have it as well as more likely to get cancer in the first place. In a study of male Harvard undergraduates from the 1940s, high amounts of optimism at age twenty predicted good health at sixty-five. Meanwhile, those who were highly pessimistic at twenty often had left no forwarding address by the time those questionnaires rolled around at age sixty-five.

Perhaps the main reason being optimistic is worthwhile is that it simply feels better. No matter how long you live or what you do with yourself while you’re around, you’ll enjoy life more if you can sustain the illusion of an island up ahead, something to swim toward. You’ll spend more time feeling engaged, hopeful, and happy and less time feeling depressed, anxious, or angry. Given the choice of viewing life through the rose-colored glasses of hope rather than the dark blinders of sadness, anger, and worry, wouldn’t it be far better to assume you’ll find a foothold amid the chaos? After all, even if you go under, won’t you have enjoyed the swim all the more if you sustain hope until the end rather than sinking into despair? Although optimism is the result of an illusion, it is a desirable distortion of reality.

But what exactly does this illusion do for us? And how does it lead to optimism? I believe that the island’s importance is that it gives us something to swim toward when we feel overwhelmed, tired to the bone, and in danger of giving up and going under. By giving us such a goal, the illusory islands that optimists construct help them fend off negative feelings and keep them feeling autonomous and centered, the skippers of their own ships. Like a beacon on the horizon to aim for when sailing on a stormy sea, the illusion of an island allows us to look beyond the menacing problems (and the waves of emotions they produce) that we’re currently battling toward a future in which we will be standing securely on dry land once more. In this case the beacon cannot be purely external in order to work well over the course of a lifetime. It must be present within us, and we must be able to cast its internal light onto the horizon so that we can see it when we most need it. Through my own research and years of experience in clinical practice, I’ve come to believe that the real reason to sustain the illusion of an island on the horizon is that it gives us hope amid stormy seas.



From Half Empty, Half Full: Understanding the Psychological Roots of Optimism by Susan C. Vaughan, M.D. Copyright © 2000 Susan C. Vaughan. Excerpted by arrangement with Harcourt, Inc. $13.00. Available in local bookstores or click here.