Why Being Too Cool For Optimism Is Stupid

New research shows that positivity is the key to resilience—and the stories you tell yourself about your bad experiences help build it.

Living in a too-cool city (like San Francisco or New York) and working in a too-cool industry (like tech or media) tends to teach one that a certain effortless aloofness is the key to being successful, well-liked, and not stared at on the subway.

This is very silly thing for a culture to reinforce. What's fascinating—and worth considering if you care about your own well-being and that of those around you—is that more and more research shows that positivity is the key to resilience. And if you are living in a grind-centric city (like San Francisco or New York) and in long-hours industries (like tech or media), you're going to need some resilience.

As we've Tumbled before, it's not just wishful thinking. Writing in the Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith tells us that a positive outlook is "far from being delusional or faith-based": it predicts whether or not we bounce back or fall into depression.

What the record shows

Smith references Dr. Dennis Charney, the dean of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, who examined 750-some Vietnam veterans who were kept as prisoners of war for six to eight years—yet they did not develop depression afterward. Why? After many interviews, Charney found a set of characteristics of psychological hardiness—including optimism, altruism, humor, and finding a meaning in life.

And blowing off steam doesn't help

As Smith notes, another study found that "venting" your rage—like by hitting a punching bag or throwing your wrath on someone who makes you angry—leads you to feeling worse. Not even thinking about it is healthier than expressing it in these ways, though channeling that depression into something productive is better. A study done by James Pennebaker at the University of Texas demonstrates why finding meaning in your struggles is key to long-term growth:

In a study, he asked people to write about the darkest, most traumatic experience of their lives for four days in a row for a period of 15 minutes each day. While analyzing their writing, Pennebaker noticed that the people who benefited most from the exercise were trying to derive meaning from the trauma. They were probing into the causes and consequences of the adversity and, as a result, eventually grew wiser about it.

Medical records show that the people who wrote about a trauma and worked out a meaning from it made fewer hospital visits than the control group, who wrote about a non-traumatic experience.

Running it off?

As well—and this is crucial for people who follow the advice to "go run it off"—Pennebaker found that people who used exercise to vent received no health benefits. (Though other research directly links physical resilience to emotional resilience.)

Smith's conclusion? There was something unique about the stories people told themselves about their experiences.

Upon reading that, you get the sense that the importance of meaning-finding has been known implicitly for centuries. It's why a 500-year-old Jesuit practice of adding breaks in your day to get a sense of context and muster up some gratitude can be so healthy and why so many of the most successful people keep a journal. The narratives help us understand—and they don't even have to be cool.

The Benefits of Optimism Are Real

[Image: Flickr user Gavin Schaefer]

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1 Comments

  • C. S. King

    Finding meaning in your struggles is quite different then being optimistic. Optimism, especially in today's America is a dangerous elixir. Victor Frankl, in his book, "Man's Search for Meaning," even takes the overly optimistic route to task. Barbara Ehrenreich has also posited that Positive Thinking has helped undermine this country, and cites several studies that show attempting to think positively can actually have the opposite effect. Obviously being an Eeyore is not particularly helpful and no one is advocating that, but sober reflection, problem solving, aggression enough to want to win and/or survive, a strong sense of meaning and a forward focus are more helpful then optimism. Loving the hell out of something couldn't hurt either.