Richard G. Petty, MD

Optimism and Pessimism

It is sometimes very disheartening to read articles that are probably well intentioned, but in which the writer hasn’t done the most basic research.

I was just sent an article on optimism and pessimism, in which the writer extols the benefits of developing an optimistic outlook on life. And yes, it’s nice to be optimistic, but he – at least I think that it’s a he – makes several significant errors.

He gives examples of several well-known people who were supposed to have attained great things by being optimistic rather than realistic. He has clearly not studied the lives Thomas Edison or Henry Ford in any detail. Or Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa or Ted Turner.

He then says that optimism cannot be measured. Yes it can, there are many validated rating instruments. There is also a lot of research on the relationship between optimism, pessimism, temperament and cognitive and personality styles.

He goes on to say that you can learn to have an optimistic outlook on life. That is only half true. There are well-known genetic predispositions to optimism and pessimism. I’ve also written about recent work from Finland that makes it clear that it is very difficult to develop an optimistic mind set if you spent your childhood in a low socioeconomic status family. Special techniques may be needed to help people who were disadvantaged in childhood.

The idea that you can achieve anything by just “thinking it,” is not just wrong but it leads to some people feeling inadequate because they cannot generate enthusiasm and optimism. I have seen countless people feel guilty because they could not feel happy and optimistic the way that the motivational speaker told them to!

An un-researched and unbalanced article does more harm than good. It’s no good saying that it wasn’t meant to be scientific: you, as a reader, deserve better than some generalized nostrums based on wishful thinking. If someone recommends something, you need to know whether you can rely on what you are being told, or if it is just an unsubstantiated opinion. If it’s just an opinion, that’s fine, but you need to be told that, and why you can rely on that opinion, or why the writer has chosen to disregard research and previous experience.

So are you stuck with you genes and your upbringing? No you are not. But it is important to know if you are one of the people who do better with negative cognitions. It is well known in psychology that some people do much better with a constant negative outlook on life. In fact a psychologist – Julie Norem – wrote a first rate book on the subject entitled The Positive Power of Negative Thinking: Using Defensive Pessimism to Harness Anxiety and Perform at Your Peak.

There are techniques from cognitive therapy that can help change a person’s outlook and the newer technique – Attachment and Commitment Therapy – teaches ways of detaching from negative and pessimistic cognitions, rather than trying to stick a smiley face on them.

Best of all are the techniques of Integrated Medicine, that help attitudinal problems with a combination of highly individualized physical, psychological, social, subtle and spiritual techniques.

“If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.”–Unknown Author

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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