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Life on the bright side

Life is just a bowl of cherries.

If I used that phrase in casual conversation, you'd probably roll your eyes a little. Or perhaps you'd sigh and smile at me indulgently. Maybe you're doing that right now.

But "learned optimism" is getting increasingly more attention as a way to manage disease and protect your immune system. The theory is held by several experts in the field of "positive psychology." Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania is a strong proponent.

Seligman's optimistic view suggests we do better in life when we react to setbacks from "a presumption of personal power." We see "bad events" as isolated occurrences and "temporary setbacks." Even more importantly — we view those setbacks as things we can overcome through effort and ability. Seligman believes if you learn to be more optimistic, you "inoculate yourself against depression" and improve your overall health.

In one of the Seligman books (my favorite is "Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life") there's a 48-item test that measures optimism. I took it — twice (the adapted version, that I found on the Web when I Googled "learned optimism").

I initially thought the analysis grid was confusing, but when "highly pessimistic" popped up more than several times to describe my responses, well "… that got my attention.

Here's an example of a question asked in this particular adaptation of the test.

You miss an important engagement (check your reason below):

  • Sometimes my memory fails me.
  • I sometimes forget to check my appointment book.

How do you answer a question like that? I could have checked both. Maybe that was my problem — maybe I'm not pessimistic, maybe I'm just indecisive.

Am I over-explaining here? Seligman separates optimistic people from more-pessimistic people "by the way they explain events and outcomes. Was it luck? Or was it the result of talent?"

At this moment I am reminded of what my husband says to me when I am in an optimistic, "feeling-so-blessed" mood. I might make a comment like, "We are so very lucky, you know." His response will reliably be, "Everyone makes their own luck."

I used to believe in saying that he was looking at life a bit negatively — but now I'm rethinking this whole thing.

I am also thinking "learned optimism" could be life-critical. Seligman has found optimists have less illness and recover more quickly when they do get sick. Their immune systems appear to be more resilient. He is not the only researcher making these assessments.

In a recently published study in Psychological Science, researchers (Segerston and Sephton) measured immune response very scientifically and found people who are optimistic about their health are, in fact, going to end up healthier. They state, "people who are optimistic about heart-transplant surgery recover better from that grueling operation."

Seligman points out optimism is essential to well-being in a very practical, hard-to-argue-with way. I get it. For example, he would suggest salespeople who think they have personally failed in being persuasive enough don't want to make more sales calls. And we know how that ends.

Optimism involves action on our part. It's where the learning comes in. A pilot, for instance, shouldn't just be "optimistic" the wings of his plane won't ice up — he should de-ice them before a flight.

Get it? Me, too.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 541-776-7371, Ext. 210.