I’m tired. Really tired.
My two-year-old woke up 2:23am last night. I tried not to look at the clock but I couldn’t help myself. She had a bleeding nose. Why does she get bleeding noses at night? It never bleeds during the day. An hour later the cat started scratching at the door. It wants to go outside and kill native marsupials. It doesn’t even eat them. It just dumps their carcasses at our door. Why would it do that? My wife says it’s a sign the cat loves us. That’s one sick kitty if you ask me. God, I’m tired. My eyelids feel like they’re made of sandpaper. I didn’t get a seat on the train this morning. Shock me. Flicked through the headlines on my phone only to find Trump whinging about “illegals” again. Soul destroying. Now I’m at my desk and my computer’s not working. My computer never works. I must emit a magnetic field that jams its circuitry. Or it just hates me. Why not? Dogs growl when I tickle their ears. Babies cry when I hold them. Makes sense that computers would hate me too…
THE PESSIMISM PLAGUE
People tell me I’m a whinger. They call me a cynic, a killjoy, a misery guts. My wife’s kinder: she tells me I’m a pessimist.
“Ha!” I sometimes reply with droll swagger. “I used to think I was a glass-half-empty kind of guy. Now I know the glass is full. It’s just full of toilet water…”
My wife’s right, of course. I am a pessimist. But to be honest, I’d never considered it much of a problem. It’s just how my brain works, how my synapses fire. Some people are optimists – I’m a pessimist. And what’s the problem with that? Takes all kinds, right?
Well, as usual, it turns out I’m wrong. Science has established with concrete certainty that pessimism is more than just a disposition – it’s a disease. In fact, it’s a particularly virulent disease that gnaws at every facet of your health. I discovered this when my wife, a medico by trade, laid a sheaf of photocopied studies in front of me after a particularly mournful soliloquy about the various misfortunes that had befallen me that day.
There was a University of Tampere study, for example, that found pessimistic men were three times more likely to develop hypertension than optimistic men. There was a Harvard study that found pessimists were more than twice as likely to develop heart disease than optimists. And there was a 2014 review published in the American Journal of Human Genetics that found increased optimism improves career prospects, strengthens relationships, protects against loneliness, improves sleep quality and reduces the need for rehospitalisation after surgery.
But the real kicker? A longitudinal study that tracked 6959 students entering the University of North Carolina in the mid 1960s. Upon entering university, the subjects underwent comprehensive personality testing that determined their outlook. Over the following 40 years, 476 of them died. The most pessimistic individuals had a 42 per cent higher rate of death than the most optimistic. That’s right: pessimists die younger.
When I’d finished reading, my wife raised her eyebrows: “Maybe you should see someone about this?”
I shrugged: “What’s that going to achieve?”
THE OPTIMISM SKILL
I’m sitting opposite Dr Tim Sharp in his central Sydney office. A clinical psychologist by trade, Sharp now devotes himself to the field of positive psychology and goes by the somewhat schmaltzy moniker of “Dr Happy”. In fact, there’s nothing schmaltzy about Sharp. With his neatly trimmed beard and upright posture, he radiates an air of calm vigilance. I feel scrutinized – a lifelong cynic laid bare on the operating table. Sweat prickles my upper lip.
One of the great misunderstandings about optimism, Sharp tells me, is that it’s not about picking flowers while whistling Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah. “Optimism isn’t just positive thinking,” he says with careful emphasis. “It’s not about saying everything’s fantastic – because sometimes things aren’t fantastic. Optimists are realistic about the world. But they look at problems with a solution focus. It’s not about saying everything’s fantastic. It’s about saying, yes, there’s a lot of good and, yes, there’s some bad – but here’s what I’m going to do about it.”
This “solution focus”, says Sharp, is the defining trait of the optimist. Where the pessimist sees unsolvable problems, the optimist sees solutions. Where the pessimist sees endless troubles, the optimist sees temporary setbacks. Where the pessimist sees his existence as a plaything of cruel fate, the optimist sees his future as something to be shaped.
This explains why optimists enjoy such diverse health benefits. They see the future as controllable, so they work hard to improve it. They exercise, they eat well, they nurture relationships.
The best part, according to Sharp: optimism is a skill to be learnt. “Whatever your genetic predisposition, you can learn to think more optimistically,” he says. “Think of it as a muscle. If you go to the gym every day and work your biceps, they’re going to get bigger and stronger. Optimism’s the same. Now, just like I can’t build a big biceps in one session, you can’t build optimism in one day. Sometimes beliefs can change quickly; more often they take a long time. But they can change.”
I look down at my spindly arms. No amount of biceps curling is going to get them bigger. Is it?
Maybe it’s time to speak to a flesh-and-blood optimist.
FAKE IT TO MAKE IT
Paul de Gelder doesn’t believe he’s an optimist. “I suppose I’m on the optimistic side of things,” he muses, sipping a short black in a packed Bondi cafe. “But I don’t think I’m on the high end of the spectrum. I know shit’s going to happen. Shit always happens. Clearly!” He holds up his prosthetic arm and laughs.
It was February, 2009, when de Gelder, a navy clearance diver, had his arm and leg torn off. He was midway through a training scenario in Sydney Harbour when he felt a blow on his right leg. He looked down and saw the head of a bull shark, it’s teeth sunk into his thigh. For a second or two he simply stared at the shark. It was only when he went to punch the beast in the nose that he realised his right arm was also caught in its mouth. The shark pulled him under, gave him a speculative shake, then glided off.
These days, de Gelder’s in a good place. He’s carving out a television-presenting career in Los Angeles, while custom-built prosthetics allow him to indulge in his passion for shifting iron. But his smile falters as he recalls the dark days after the attack. “As a kid I was extremely unfulfilled,” he explains. “I was smoking a lot of weed, I was fighting, I was stealing. But in the military I found purpose, I found drive, I found brotherhood. All these things I’d been missing as a kid. And now a 10-second shark attack was going to take all this away from me. I was terrified I was going back to that unfulfilling life.”
It was at this juncture, however, that de Gelder’s stunning optimism kicked in. Lying in his hospital bed, his stumps still fizzing with pain, he decided that he wasn’t going to wallow in self-pity. Instead, he made a commitment to himself: he was going to go back to work. “That was my motivation,” he says. “That’s what took me out of my initial funk.”
For de Gelder, establishing this goal was crucial to his recovery. “You can’t have positivity without a goal,” he says simply. “You can’t maintain positivity unless you’re aiming toward something.”
And when the inevitable negativity sunk its claws in? “I ignored it,” he says simply. “I put a front of ultimate positivity on. I constructed an aura of invincibility.” When he couldn’t cut his own food up, he shrugged and asked for help. When he couldn’t do the button fly on his jeans up, he smiled and left the house with his fly open. He let the vexations pass him by. “And you know the funny thing that happens? When you do something over and over and over again, it becomes real. That’s what happened to me. The more I pretended I could do it, the more I could do it.”
I shake de Gelder’s prosthetic hand and leave the café with a pleasant buzz that can’t be fully explained by the two long blacks I’ve just downed. In de Gelder, I see optimism as something real, something tangible. And it’s beautiful to behold.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
“I’m standing on a sheet of ice that rises up into a dazzling blue sky. My altimeter shows I’m at 8600m but my lungs feel good, my legs strong. I can make out the summit of Mt Everest above me. I know that in a few short hours I’ll be standing there. Suddenly my phone beeps. Reception up here? The wonders of modern technology! I pull the phone from my down jacket. It’s a message from my daughter – she’s just passed her medical exams. I’ll call her from camp tonight. For now – the summit…”
I put my pen down and lean back in my chair. Yesterday I bought a Pacific island and spent my days swimming in the lagoon. Tomorrow – who knows? A century-old vineyard in the Loire Valley? A circumnavigation of the globe in my yacht? The first civilian to set foot on the moon?
I’m employing a psychological strategy known as “Best Possible Self” (BPS). I’ve been put onto it by Dr Lisa A Williams, a social psychologist based at the University of NSW. It’s simple: each day I’m to spend five minutes imagining a future in which I’m happy, fulfilled and thriving. “Forget about financial constraints,” says Williams. “Forget about geographical constraints. Simply imagine the best place you could possibly be. And really imagine the details of that future.”
The evidence supporting BPS is strong. A 2011 study from Maastricht University found that after imagining a golden future for just five minutes a day subjects reported higher levels of optimism after two weeks, while researchers at Southern Methodist University found that subjects who spent five months writing down life goals experienced less ill health over the period than controls.
As I stand on the peak of Everest – a frigid wind numbing my cheeks, the Himalayan peaks ranged beneath me – I begin to see the appeal. I feel vital, driven, empowered. Focusing on something beyond the tedious here-and-now lifts a weight from my shoulders.
And this, says Williams, is one of the key mechanisms at play in BPS. “In our day-to-day lives, you’re always focused on the immediate; the tasks you need to do right now, the places you need to be right now. But this activity puts the brakes on that immediate attentional demand. It lets you raise your gaze to the future and imagine that future as something overwhelmingly positive. In this modern age, that represents a big shift.”
Maybe this is why BPS clicks with me. Just as de Gelder’s goal to get back to work lifted his gaze away from the daily torture of negotiating life minus an arm and leg, so imagining a glorious future lifts my gaze away from the daily aggravation of sleepless nights, recalcitrant computers and terrifying election results.
After a month of daily BPS sessions, I begin to narrow my focus. My imagined futures grow less fantastic and more realistic. There’s less summiting mountains and more paying off mortgages. I concentrate less on glittering achievements and more on the characteristics that will carry me towards a positive future – the strength to laugh at irritants, the fortitude to let annoyances pass me by. In this way, the future becomes something malleable, something I can influence.
I know I’ve turned a corner one morning when my computer inexplicably shuts down, deleting an hour’s worth of work. I stare at the blank screen. I breathe deeply. Then I call IT. The guy on the other end of the line’s friendly. He asks me how my day’s going. Then he recovers my lost work. I thank him. He says, “Hey, any time.” And that’s it. A two-minute exchange that leaves me with a smile on my face. It is, I realise, the first green shoots of optimism.
Am I an optimist? Not by a long shot. But I reckon I can get there. And if that’s not optimistic mindset, I don’t know what is.
LIVE ON THE BRIGHT SIDE
Need to up your optimism? Try these tricks
1/ TALE OF WOES
Twice a day, spend five minutes writing down your thoughts. Don’t analyse them – just write them down. According to psychologist Dr Tim Sharp, a thought journal allows you to build awareness of negative thought patterns. “After all, you can’t change something if you don’t know what it is,” says Sharp.
2/ SHIFT FOCUS
Blindsided by bad luck? Write down what happened, making a conscious effort to reinterpret how this will impact your life. If you’ve been made redundant, for example, instead of chalking it up as a financial hammer blow, reinterpret it as an opportunity to find a better job.
3/ SNAP OUT OF IT
Put a rubber band around your wrist. When negative or self-destructive thoughts start to drag you into a pessimism spiral, snap the band. A small dose of pain can be a helpful aid in changing entrenched thought patterns, says psychologist Dr Fred Bryant.
4/ GET COLOURFUL
According to a recent study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, optimists eat more carotenoids – antioxidants plentiful in colourful produce such as carrots, sweet potatoes and tomatoes – than those with a cynical bent. Researchers believe that healthy eating may allow optimists to cope with stress.