Optimism is something I really never gave too much consideration to. I have always really prided myself on being a realist – not overly pessimistic or cynical, but definitely not an unfailing hopeful (although I suspect many people may choose to classify themselves in this way, just as everyone insists they are a “better than average driver.” Except me. I am a terrible driver and I don’t care. I blissfully have not attempted to drive in about 3.5 years now and I love it). However, I have the opportunity to work for one of the most eternally optimistic people that have ever walked the earth. My boss is unfailingly positive and constantly reframes every problem, disaster, or traumatic event to a shocking extent nearly effortlessly. And as the prototypical optimist, it comes as no surprise to me that he is very successful, well-liked, cheerful and happy. He was the image that immediately came to mind when last fall I read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which discussed the many blessings and risks of optimism as it relates to biases and fallacies in our thoughts and forecasting.
Psychology defines optimism as a general disposition, tendency or preference for seeing the bright side of everything and research shows that such people are likely to be more resilient, persistent, and able to adapt to failures and hardships, more willing to seek challenges and take risks, more popular, more healthy, more self-confident and less likely to become clinically depressed. Kahneman’s purpose was not to argue whether or not optimism can or even should be developed and he moved onto discussing the impact that an optimistic bias can have in decision making. However, I was able to able to do a deep dive into the subject when I recently read Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism, which as the title implies, argues that being optimistic is not only an extremely valuable quality, but it that is also one that can be acquired over time with deliberate practice.
Seligman describes our “habitual way of explaining bad [or good] events as [our] explanatory style [and it’s] more than just the words you mouth when you fail. It is a habit of thought learned in childhood and adolescence [which] stems directly from your view of your place in the world – whether you think you are valuable and deserving, or worthless and hopeless. It is the hallmark of whether you are an optimist or pessimist.” And he goes onto outline three crucial dimensions of one’s explanatory style which are:
- Permanence: The extent to which we believe a situation to be permanent or temporary which affects how long we allow something to affect us. He says, “if you think about bad things in always’s and never’s and abiding traits, you have a permanent, pessimistic style. If you think in sometime’s and lately’s, if you use qualifiers and blame bad events on transient conditions, you have an optimistic style”.
- Pervasiveness: The extent to which we make universal versus specific explanations for a failure or success. If we believe a setback is more indicative of an innate character weakness versus a specific shortcoming or lack of experience in a particular area, we are likely to be more pessimistic across a range of circumstances.
- Personalization: The extent to which we internalize/blaming or credit ourselves versus externalizing/blaming or crediting outside events, circumstances or others. Of the three, this matters least because it only impacts how we feel about ourselves as opposed to producing specific actions. Nonetheless, it is important to develop a balanced self-esteem.
I have noticed that I struggle a lot with the last point – personalization. As I said in conversation with a friend the other day, I think I do a lot of unconscious overclaiming for both positive and negative events. While I think that accepting responsibility for the good and bad that I do is advantageous in many or most cases, it does me a lot of disservice when I fall into my spirals of perfectionistic thinking or overanalyzing and replaying failures. Giving myself grace is not something which is easy for me, but is something that can easily impair progress and growth. A few years ago another friend introduced to the ideas espoused by C.S. Lewis, who argued that an unhealthy focus on ourselves, whether glowing or self-deprecating, is an issue of pride which must be dealt with in order to fulfill our purpose and live a life of meaning. It seems that Dr. Seligman’s work has shown the same since consistently research demonstrates that although society has undergone massive shifts over the past decades to equip children (and adults) to feel good, have high self-esteem and confidence, levels of depression are at an all time and epidemic high. He argues that “depression is a disorder of the ‘I,’ failing in your own eyes relative to your goals [and] in a society in which individualism is becoming [increasingly] rampant, people more and more believe that they are the center of the world. Such a belief system makes individual failure almost inconsolable.”
Seligman’s work echoes Lewis’ – neither beating ourselves up or artificially inflating our self-esteem will yield good results. We need to become less self-focused in general. That might mean looking beyond ourselves as the root of failure or success in every situation or giving generously in terms of time, money or other resources, or finding ways to seek out and share experiences with others. So yet again – investing in building and maintaining relationships and meaningful connections proves to be not only adaptive or effective, but actually essential.
And something that quite often brings people together is food! So many times meeting up with someone includes a meal out, a holiday dinner/celebration, or party snacks and treats. And although for me, the time spent with the person is always the biggest priority and main focus, I am usually not very optimistic about the food options that will be available. I don’t like plain or boring food, so most events include me bringing along a dish to share like this dairy-free, Vegan and Paleo Queso Dip! It is easy to make and a tasty clean eating option which will appeal to all your favorite optimists, pessimists, and everyone in between!
- Raw Cashews 1 cup (125 g)
- Juice of ½ a Lemon
- Water .5 cup (125 ml)
- Cilantro/Coriander, Loosely Packed .25 cup (15 g)
- Nutritional Yeast .25 cup (10 g)
- Paprika .5 TSP
- Chili Powder .5 TSP
- Garlic Powder .5 TSP
- Onion Powder .5 TSP
- Sea Salt 1 TSP
- Black Pepper .5 TSP
- Jalapeno 2 Small
- Soak the cashews in a bowl with just enough water to cover for at least 6 hours or up to overnight. The longer you let them go, the creamier the final result will be.
- Drain and rinse the cashews and then add them along with all other ingredients (except for one of the two jalapeños) to a blender or food processor.
- Blend until smooth and creamy.
- Add the last jalapeño and pulse a until broken into smaller pieces.
- Serve with sliced veggies, tortilla chips or drizzle over tacos like a nacho cheese sauce and enjoy!
- You can keep this well covered and refrigerated for up to about 5 days.