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The Pursuit of Happiness

There are proven medical benefits to being optimistic. But if you’re not naturally happy, can you will yourself to have a better attitude?

Peter Paul Rubens, Landscape with a Rainbow, 1630-5. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Peter Paul Rubens, Landscape with a Rainbow, 1630-5. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The reality is that whatever we do we will all die; that there can be little true understanding between people; that love usually fails; that those we love often predecease us; that marriage as often as not leads to divorce. Reasonably enough, depressed people are paralyzed by these realities. What is extraordinary is that nondepressed people, in general, are not. Against all odds, our natural state is optimism. We live with a protective coating of it; it is our psychological skin. Tennyson wrote, “Oh yet we trust that somehow good/Will be the final goal of ill.” We do trust that, even though there is scant evidence to support it; we resist recognizing that, by and large, bad is the final goal of ill. We defy the reality of our own mortality and act as if we will live forever. Though we hate to age, most of us believe that we are gaining wisdom as we get older and that the passage of time offers many real consolations. We talk about being strengthened by our struggles rather than about the pointlessness of most suffering.

Freud famously said that his purpose was to turn neurosis into ordinary unhappiness, and the standard model for psychology has been understanding the negative and trying to ameliorate it. But researchers in a growing field called positive psychology try to assess the other side: how to enumerate, define, and encourage the positive elements within people. (In fact, the American Psychological Association’s biggest money prizes are the Templeton Awards for research in positive psychology.) “I want to find, develop, and advocate behavioral strategies for happiness,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, associate professor of psychology at University of California at Riverside and a Templeton winner.

One recent scientific study defined an optimist as someone with “a generalized positive-outcome expectancy” — someone who consistently expects things to work out in a way that is best for herself. Most people have a set point on the optimism-pessimism spectrum. An optimist in a bad mood or a pessimist in a good one will still overall be true to their original biases. There is a distinction between being depressed, which is a mood state, and being pessimistic, which is a general outlook on life; between being hypomanic and being optimistic. An optimist can get depressed, but he will deal with it better than a pessimist would. Optimism is “a frame for how you view the world,” according to Laura Kubzansky, an assistant professor of society and human development at Harvard University. The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote, “It is not usually our ideas that make us optimists or pessimists, but it is our optimism or pessimism that makes our ideas.”


You might think that optimists see the positive and pessimists the negative side of everything, but in fact, optimists see both positive and negative clearly: They just believe that they will be helped by the positive and will overcome or can tolerate the negative. My mother-in-law genuinely felt, when she had cancer, that she was lucky by contrast to the younger people in her support group, one of whom still had small children. “I’m so fortunate in the life I’ve lived,” she said repeatedly, though she knew that she was dying. She ended at peace with the world. Optimists don’t believe negative arguments and do believe positive ones. Most of all, optimists believe that what they do will determine what happens to them. “I think to a huge extent, you control your destiny,” says a woman in her 30s, a self-described optimist. Over the objections of her friends, she believed that the guy she loved was her soul mate, and she stuck with that view against a lot of evidence that he couldn’t love and couldn’t commit — and now they are happily married. “Optimism was absolutely defining in my relationship,” she says.

Pessimists tend to be so quick to despair at the negative that they don’t even think it through, and they don’t see the positive. Pessimists believe that they have no control, that they are awash in events outside their powers. One might expect privileged people to be optimistic, because they really do have more control. But the feeling of control can come from anywhere; some people believe they have control over what happens to them because they believe that God hears their prayers. And some people in a position of privilege experience that privilege as fragile and are always afraid that it will be taken away.

“I grew up in the projects,” says Tonya McLeod, an activist for abused women, “and my mom raised my sister and me on her own. She worked two jobs. But she didn’t let that stop her from being happy and hopeful. She planted that seed of optimism in me, and I’ve passed it on to my kids. When my ex-husband used to hit me, I’d tell myself, ‘You’re gonna get through this; you’re gonna be safe.’ Just knowing that things could and would improve helped me so much. The last straw came when he said he was going to kill me. I would say to myself, ‘You’re going to get out.’ I went to court and got him put away for two years. Seven years later, my boys are A students, and I’ve put the pieces of my life back together. Optimism is like a high. It’s like the feeling you get after working out — yeah, you’re tired, but it makes you feel euphoric. It has literally kept me going.”

There are two big questions about optimism right now. The first is what the health consequences of the attitude may be. Optimism is a buffer against the rough stuff in life. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania has shown that optimists deal better with stress than do pessimists. Optimism reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can have very adverse immune effects. Students who have been marked as optimists will have less fatigue and fewer coughs, aches, and pains during the last month of a semester than others. In a study done at Carnegie Mellon University, 334 people were rated as having either a positive or negative emotional style and then squirted with a virus that causes colds and quarantined in hotel rooms to brew. The positive people came down with colds at one third the rate of the negative ones. In a new study at the University of Wisconsin, women were asked to think of and write about the best thing that had ever happened to them or the worst thing that had ever happened to them and were given a flu shot. Those who were thinking negative thoughts had a weaker immune response to the vaccine.

Increased immunity has many implications; it makes your life better in a thousand ways. In yet another study, Laura Kubzansky found that when she tracked men over a ten-year period, the optimistic ones were “about half as likely to develop heart disease, even when we controlled for other things like smoking, hypertension, and family history.” Of course, these data can be looked at too simple-mindedly. It may well be the case, for example, that optimists who believe they can improve their lives do more regular exercise; it may be that they sleep better.

While there is debate about what physical-health benefits optimism brings, there is no question about its mental-health benefits. Optimists have higher self-esteem. They adjust better to new situations. A recent study has confirmed that they experience less loneliness. One woman interviewed for this article describes getting herpes as a wake-up call that changed things for the better: “I used it as a way to get my life back on track. As an optimistic person, I saw the experience as positive — ultimately, my promiscuous behavior could have resulted in something much worse. Getting herpes meant that I had to take a good, long look at my life and assess what needed changing. I am now in a committed, long-term relationship, and I feel in control of my life again.” That’s how one wants to experience illness, even though, of course, her attitude has not affected the virus itself.


The British Medical Journal recently published a study that showed that a person’s optimism or pessimism does not have any effect on the outcome of his or her cancer treatment, although “a relationship between coping and disease is biologically plausible.” Nonetheless, it seems clear that positive thinking will improve your quality of life while you are coping with such an illness, and the view that you will get better inclines you to take sensible precautions, to pursue good treatment, and to keep yourself in optimal shape. A friend of mine went through a difficult struggle with breast cancer last year, and she fought valiantly to keep a positive attitude throughout, claiming that if she gave in, she’d never recover. She managed to get through the cancer without any of her professional colleagues even knowing she was ill, and putting on a brave face ultimately helped her to feel in control: “If it didn’t help me recover from the cancer itself, it certainly helped me recover from the chemotherapy,” she says. Stewart Dunn, a professor of medical psychology at the University of Sydney, writes, “If a person can compartmentalize the cancer, so that other things that matter in life can have space, this may confer a survival advantage.”

There is a caveat, however. While being optimistic reduces stress, trying to be optimistic can increase it. The notion that positive thinking is correlated with good health puts enormous pressure on people to cleave to beliefs that they don’t actually trust. Someone develops cancer, and everyone around her tries to encourage her good moods and reprimands her when she is weepy or negative. It makes for a terrible sense of failure. And if she tries to be positive and gets sicker anyway, the tendency is for her to feel guilty, somehow culpable for the degeneration.

The second question is to what extent optimism and pessimism are genetic. Scientists at the University of Minnesota have found that identical twins raised separately tend to havethe same general outlook on life. Sonja Lyubomirsky says that about 10 percent of happiness comes from individual circumstances, 50 percent from “genetic biological variables,” while 40 percent is “uncharted.” Danielle Ganci, daughter of the highest-ranking member of the New York City Fire Department to die on September 11, 2001, described sticking it out with school even though she was in mourning for her father and, at the end of the year, getting the highest score of anyone. “More than one person said that was a gift from my father,” she recalls; there was optimism in her blood.

There is evidence that one’s optimistic or pessimistic tendencies crystallize around age nine, but they are subject to change. Can one learn optimism? The most effective psychodynamic treatment for depression is cognitive-behavioral therapy, which involves retraining thought patterns, recognizing and combating negative feelings, and trumping emotion with rationality. “You have to actively practice optimism,” says one young lawyer who was able to turn around her romantic career when she started looking at the bright side of things. Meghan, a philanthropy officer, struggled hard after both her parents died while she was a teenager. She credits optimism for getting her through. “A positive attitude will create a domino effect,” she says.

There have been studies that show significant learned negative emotion and behavior. The most famous of these is “learned helplessness.” If you take a lab rat and persistently prevent it from escaping a negative stimulus, it will eventually cease trying to escape, even if you take away the restraints. It just gives up hope. It seems likely that it is possible also to learn that you are strong and that such learning may serve a beneficial purpose and make you more positive in your responses to external stimuli.

An optimist’s challenge is a pessimist’s threat. In one recent study, a group of depressed people and a group of average people were asked to play a video game for an hour and, at the end of the hour, to estimate how many little monsters they thought they had killed. The depressed group were, by and large, accurate to within 10 percent, while the control group guessed between 10 and 20 times as many monsters as they had actually killed. The natural state is to think you are more powerful than you are, that people like you more than they do, and that things are going to turn out better than there is any authentic reason to anticipate. If you didn’t have at least a modicum of all these beliefs, you’d be unable to function in the world. Life is too hard if you see it clearly. We need our optimism. “It would seem,” the social psychologist Jonathon D. Brown has written, “that much as the immune system has evolved to protect the body from outside invaders, so, too, have people’s cognitive capacities developed to insulate the self from threatening experiences.” The pessimist always cries out in support of her bias that she sees things more accurately, that her positions are more true and real. Being accurate is not such a great virtue. “Reality,” says Susan C. Vaughan, author of Half Empty, Half Full (Harcourt), “is overrated.”