February 28, 2024

Shortcuts: Optimism, but Not Too Much, Can Be Good For You

But society seems to value optimism. Who would you rather hang out with — Winnie-the-Pooh (“Nobody can be uncheered with a balloon.”) or Eeyore (“Good afternoon, if it is a good afternoon, which I doubt.”)?

We’re living in a time, however, that makes it difficult to cling to our Pooh side. A Thomson Reuters-University of Michigan survey found that Americans’ expectations about the economy were the lowest in three decades and that only 17 percent of those surveyed expected their finances to improve.

But putting aside the reality of the economy, is it good to see through rose-tinted glasses? As economists, neuroscientists and psychologists look at what we mean by optimism and how it affects everything from our jobs and our investments to our marriages, they are finding that there is such a thing as too much.

First, many of us may have the wrong idea about optimism. It isn’t solely — or largely — about repeating “boosterish phrases to ourselves like, ‘Every day in every way, I’m getting better and better,’ ” Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in his book “The Optimistic Child” (Houghton Mifflin, 1995). Rather, “the basis of optimism does not lie in positive phrases or images of victory but in the way you think about causes.”

So a pessimist tends to believe bad things are permanent, while an optimist will view the same problem as temporary, he notes.

It’s as simple, but as vast, as the difference between these two world views: “Tony hates me and will never hang out with me again,” and “Tony is mad at me today and won’t hang out with me.” The optimist sees the rift with Tony as transient, while the pessimist is sure it will never end, wrote Professor Seligman, who has long studied the issue.

And if something is seen as permanent, then there is no hope for change.

But when good things happen, pessimists and optimists flip. “When children who believe their successes have permanent causes do well, they will try even harder next time,” Professor Seligman wrote. “Children who see temporary reasons for good events may give up even when they succeed, believing their success was a fluke.”

As with most traits, the way we see our lives — optimistically or pessimistically or somewhere in between — is a combination of the temperament we’re born with and the environment we grow up in. How much we can change that is always a subject of debate, but, Professor Seligman wrote, he believes optimism can be taught.

We may not want to go overboard, though. Manju Puri, professor of finance, and David T. Robinson, professor of business administration, both at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business, have determined that while moderate optimism is good, extreme optimism is not.

In their paper, “Optimism and Economic Choice,” which appeared in The Journal of Financial Economics in 2007, Professors Puri and Robinson used statistics from the Federal Reserve Board Survey of Consumer Finances, a triennial assessment of thousands of American families’ financial and demographic information. Although the survey does not directly ask about optimism, it does ask respondents how long they expect to live.

The professors then used health-related information and demographics to determine what the respondents’ actual life expectancy would be.

Those who predicted they would live 20 years longer than statistically expected were classified as “extreme optimists,” in the top 5 percent of optimists.

And those who predicted they would have longer life spans than statistically probable also answered more positively to questions like whether the economy was going to improve.

“Extreme optimists don’t think savings are good, don’t pay off their credit cards and don’t do long-term planning,” Professor Puri said. “They think the economy will always do better.”

They are also more likely to remarry if divorced.

Moderate optimists, on the other hand, work longer hours, save more money, are more likely to pay off their credit card balances and believe their income will grow over the next five years.

The study was published before the recession, Professor Robinson said, so some of those optimists may be less sanguine about the future now.

E-mail: shortcuts@nytimes.com

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=cd31adef3c0e4ba343039f19596712dd

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