Recently a colleague asked me a question about optimism. He had been reading Price Pritchett’s Hard Optimism, where he encountered Pritchett’s assertion that optimism was inherited at about half the rate of other behavioral traits. “Why would it be lower?” About a month ago I posted on positivity. In that essay, I did not address heritability. Here we go.
In order to answer his question, we must define optimism. As with many of life’s questions, the answers depend on how we ask the questions. And how we define terms is key to understanding the question properly. Optimism is expressed in many ways, and that poses a problem for assessing its heritability. So, my friend, just what kind of optimism tickles your fancy?
The word comes from the Latin optimum, for “best thing.” The 18th century French philosopher Voltaire made the term famous through his satirical character, Dr. Pangloss (“glossing over everything”), in his novel Candide. Professor Pangloss exuded the doctrine that his world was the “best of all possible worlds,” and that good would ultimately prevail. Today, optimism comes in many brands.
Explanatory Style. My preferred brand of optimism stems from decades of research on explanatory style. As a graduate student in the 1960s, I studied the work of Ohio State University’s Julian Rotter. He defined locus of control as either external or internal, whereby persons with internal locus of control believed that they were in charge of their outcomes, while external locus of controllers believed that their outcomes were beyond their control. They explained their outcomes in life, whether good or bad, as the result of their own effort and ability (or lack thereof), or as the result of outside forces such as luck, malevolence, favoritism, or some such factor.
As I aged in through the 1980s and 90s, so matured the concept of explanatory style through the research of University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman. Seligman kept the internal/external element but expanded it to include two additional elements: permanence and pervasiveness. In addition, Seligman demonstrated that explanatory style worked differently for good outcomes than for bad ones. Here is a simple description of his model:
- When good outcomes are explained as internal (i.e. “I did it”), pervasive (“This good outcome will spread to other areas of my life”), and permanent (“This good outcome will last forever”), Seligman calls this explanation “optimistic.”
- But, when good outcomes are explained as external (“It was just luck”), limited (“It will not spread to other areas of my life”), and temporary (“It won’t last very long”), Seligman calls this explanation “pessimistic.”
- For bad outcomes, the explanations are reversed:
- Optimists explain bad outcomes as external, limited, and temporary, and
- Pessimists explain bad outcomes as internal, pervasive, and permanent.
While certain inborn personality traits predispose one towards a more optimistic or a more pessimistic explanatory style, or somewhere in between (i.e., realistic), Seligman’s model is learnable. To that point, one of his books is entitled Learned Optimism (1991). Metropolitan Life salespersons trained in Seligman’s model outperformed a control group. Depressive patients trained in the model showed significantly more improvement than those untrained. More recently, Seligman’s model has been taught to military leaders with the hope of creating more resilience in the face of combat-related stress.
So, if we use Seligman’s definition of optimism, then I may tell my friend that optimism is similar in its degree of heritability to other traits, but that, unlike many other traits, it can be increased (or decreased, in the event of persons who are excessively optimistic) through training (i.e., in Seligman’s model). In truth, optimism as explanatory style is more than just one trait, and it is associated with the presence of other traits—resilience, extraversion, curiosity, pride, and ambition. But one can have those traits and still be pessimistic in outlook.
However, Seligman’s model of optimism is only one brand.
Self-efficacy is the outlook whereby individuals regard themselves as capable of mastering a particular domain of knowledge or skill.
Happiness is the dominance of positive emotions (joy, ecstasy, delight, amusement) in one’s life and the relative absence of negative emotions (sadness, anxiety, anger, disgust)–otherwise known as a “sunny disposition.”
Well-being is the outlook that one’s life, while not necessarily rosy and delightful, is nonetheless fulfilling, satisfying, engaging, and headed in a good direction.
Hope is the belief that good things will happen, that everything will turn out alright (the essence of Panglossism). Hebrews 11:1—“Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.” (American Standard Version) So, is hope the same thing as faith? Is hope the optimistic element of religious faith?
Positivity. Pollyanna popularized this approach. Norman Vincent Peale expanded it. I cautioned against it in the blog referenced back in the first paragraph, and close this blog with a comment on excessive positivism.
Escalation of commitment, or the black hole phenomenon—throwing good money after bad, based on the “sure” (i.e., optimistic) feeling that ultimately the investment will pay off. The Vietnamese Conflict is often cited as a black hole. Also, the practice of continually pouring money into a car, home, and such when cutting your losses and starting over again may be the wiser policy.
Grit. Sticking with a goal until successfully completing it—comprised of persistence of effort (i.e., getting up after being knocked down) and consistency of focus (e.g., not abandoning one interest or goal in favor of another). The difference between grit and escalation of commitment is that, while both involve persistence, grit is based on evidence of progress made, while escalation of commitment entails persistence without evidence of progress.
Risk-taking. There are many kinds of risk-taking—financial, social, intellectual, entrepreneurial, health, and so forth. They all involve a willingness to engage in stretch goals—goals whose attainment is not assured, that draw on some unknown aspect of one’s abilities.
Gambling. The kind of optimism that risks one’s resources on a feeling that one is sure to come out a winner; akin to escalation of commitment.
Narcissism. Akin to Dr. Pangloss’s “best of all possible worlds,” in that one sees oneself as the best of all possible beings; also known as an excess of high self-regard, an excess in which one regards one’s breath as e’er sweeter than a baby’s cheek. Also related to self-esteem.
Self-confidence. Akin to self-efficacy, but more general. Self-confidence is trust in oneself—trusting that one can do what one is asked to do—the feeling that, whether it is walking a mile, giving a talk, entertaining a guest, writing a book, or building a deck, one can complete the task satisfactorily.
Self-esteem. Seeing oneself as just as worthy a human being as others are, as opposed to seeing others as more worthy as human beings (called low-esteem). Includes elements of pride, but not the kind of arrogance associated with narcissism.
Self-directed. Some people do not require others (parents, leaders, bosses, teachers, coaches, etc.) to tell them how to direct and structure their lives—they are called self-directed. They set their own goals and figure out how to attain them. I cannot imagine someone being self-directed and not optimistic.
Aggression. A form (often negative) of optimism characterized by seeing every situation as a competition with the intention that oneself will be the winner in that and all other situations.
Leadership. Willingness to assume a leadership role is intrinsically optimistic, but not all optimistic people are willing to take on leadership roles.
Starstruck. And, then there are the good folk who commit to becoming expert in their field—be it medicine, sports, theatre, teaching, music, or statistics—and they bang out the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice required to get there.
One caution about all of these brands of optimism—most are context-dependent. For example, I might feel self-confident in musical endeavors, yet lack self-confidence in social settings. In high school, I took on the challenge of playing a Mozart horn concerto without batting an eye, but I sat by the upstairs telephone for two hours trying to build up the nerve to call a girl for a date. A strong leader in one situation (e.g., combat) might not be a strong leader in another (e.g., small business). One might exhibit hope in the health arena but not in the financial realm.
So, my friend, which kind of optimism have you in mind? Depending on which brand, your optimism may be more inherited (e.g., happiness) or more acquired (e.g., self-efficacy).
My concern is less with the nature/nurture composition of optimism than with the necessity of balancing whatever kind of optimism you embrace with some sense of real-world constraints.
The 9th century Islamic scholar Jami` at-Tirmidhi told the story of a Bedouin leaving his camel untied to a stake. The prophet Muhammad reportedly asked him why he did not secure his camel. Upon hearing the Bedouin’s reply that he put his trust in Allah, the Prophet advised the optimistic, faith-filled Bedouin: “Tie your camel first, then put your trust in Allah.” (At-Tirmidhi, 2517)