THE ROOTS OF OPTIMISM
by Anne Bilodeau, Ph.D.
A boy asks a girl to the school dance, and she says no. Will he decide that he is a social failure and begin to withdraw, or simply ask another girl and hope for a better result? If he is programmed for optimism, the boy will probably go to the dance with a date. What's not clear, however, is how he got programmed in the first place.
As it turns out, researchers say, the answer is a complex blend of psychology, physical sciences, and common sense. Hoping to explain why some adults bear up while others dwell on pain and slide into depression, researchers are discovering that resilience and a hopeful outlook begin-and must begin to take root-in childhood.
If children are optimistic, they are likely to have a happier, healthier life, with less illness, more success, and greater joy in their lives. That's most likely to happen if they come from the right family and are taught the right outlook, psychologists say.
Body and Soul
To some degree, optimism seems to be an inborn trait, a hidden but important part of some lucky people's genetic code. Like several unpleasant mental states, such as depression, anxiety, and antisocial behavior, a tendency to optimism can be inherited, it seems.
Several research studies have found that optimism runs in families, though none of the studies can determine exactly what gene or brain chemistry is responsible. Scientists test this theory by studying twins. They locate identical twins who aren't living together, and determine how similar or different their personalities are. Since identical twins develop from the same egg and share genetic material, scientists believe that they can attribute similar traits to genetic causes. One of the best-known twin researchers, Dr. Thomas Bouchard of the University of Minnesota, has found over the past several years that several significant traits may be shared by family members.
Still, the thinking habits children learn are a far more important influence, most psychologists agree. Optimistic thinking is just an activity, like swinging a tennis racket or riding a bicycle, with a specific pattern that can be demonstrated to children. The area known as cognitive psychology is built on the idea that if you change the way people think, you can change their emotions and eventually their behavior.
Though it's more common for researchers to study depression, a few are focusing on optimism, hoping to help children grow into resilient, upbeat adults. The benefits can be great, researchers say, as optimists seem to do better at work, have fewer emotional problems and maintain better physical health.
Challenge Breeds Optimism
It's no surprise to hear that children are more optimistic when they have been encouraged to be so, and praised when they have a positive outlook. It also seems that children who learn to take care of themselves physically will have a more positive outlook.
What is less often said, scientists note, is that children must face challenges to develop their problem-solving and coping skills. If they don't learn to cope, even the happiest child may become a pessimistic adult when trouble first hits. The most optimistic children, researchers say, have had challenges that they can solve, preferably with some difficulty, but haven't had to face a long string of far-too-difficult problems.
A simple example is that of a child caught at the top of a tree, shouting for help, noted Canadian researchers Stewart Page and Kathryn Lafreniere in a recent research paper. Most parents want to climb the tree and get the child down immediately. Parents who hold back and let the child help him or herself breed self-esteem and optimism, the researchers wrote. Encourage the child toward patiently making his or her way down, thus communicating the expectation not of "I'll get you down," but rather "You can do it yourself," they write. And later, instead of "You're safe!" one might communicate "You did it! I knew you could."
Training Children To Be Optimistic
One group of researchers is so certain that optimism can be taught that they've begun teaching the basics to schoolchildren at risk of emotional problems.
Scientists with the Penn Optimism Program (POP) at the University of Pennsylvania assume that if you change the way children talk to themselves, you can change for the better the way they behave.
Penn's researchers believe that optimists and pessimists have a different explanatory style-in other words, the two groups explain problems to themselves in different ways.
Optimists, they have found, usually think that problems are outside of themselves, that problems aren't permanent, and that only a small part of their world will be affected in any event. Pessimists, meanwhile, tend to believe that problems are their fault, permanent, and likely to affect most of their day-to-day life.
There's no magic to learning the optimistic style of thinking. It is important, however, to train children to think optimistically at an early age, noted Andrew Shatte, who works with the POP. To catch children while they are still able to learn, the program's staff goes out to area schools, reaching out to preadolescent children aged ten to thirteen.
For twelve weeks, POP teachers give two-hour sessions training children how to change the way they think about bad events, as well as how to deal with peers and how to assert themselves. The program seems to work: In one school, the trained students had one-half the depression rate of those who didn't take the class, Shatte and his colleagues found.
What's more, the tests were done two years after the program was completed, showing a long-term benefit that is hard to ignore. Children who participated in the POP will at least find dance dates, Shatte hopes.
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