Optimism: Inherited Trait or Honed Habit??

I have always been an optimist.

And though I’ve seen plenty of studies that seem to prove that optimism is a trait we’re born with, lately I’ve been waffling about whether that is totally true — or if it’s rather a learned habit; one we develop and refine over time.

My confusion/uncertainty stems from the fact that some people in the absolute worst of situations are still eternal optimists; likewise, many of the world’s poorest countries (like where my husband comes from) have the happiest, most optimistic populations.

These things lead me to think that optimism has to be something we’re born with; how else could these people deal with life’s greatest challenges if not for innate optimism?

But then I think of people who really have to work at being optimistic … it doesn’t come naturally to them. But yet they know that life is better lived with a bit of optimism.

As my brother noted when I asked him what he thought: “Only learned. Especially when it’s easy to learn that life sucks if it’s filled with pessimism. So that only leaves one answer :)”

To see what others think, I posted an informal poll to my friends on Facebook and the overwhelming response was that people think optimism is really a little of both — a trait we’re born with, and one that is refined in time. This really makes sense to me.

It made me wonder if I’d been a different person — i.e., a pessimist — if I’d have handled my recovery process differently. The obvious answer is “DUH, yes.” So I started pondering the “how” — how would it have been different?

Well, first and foremost, I think without having a positive mindset that I CAN get better … I wouldn’t have gotten better. We all know the power of positive thinking is very real, and when you say “I can’t” … you won’t.

Second, when I hit a temporary road-block, a blip in the radar, or  a “stone” in the path (as I used to say)  I’d dust myself and get back on the wagon. If I had had a “what the hell, might as well throw in the towel now” mentality I might have assumed one day of disorderedness would lead to a week of it.

Yet it didn’t necessarily happen that way. Even at my worst, I tried hard not to allow myself to be all-or-nothing, but rather to treat each day as a new opportunity.

And finally, without my positive outlook that there could be a light at the end of the tunnel, I don’t think I’d have gotten as much out of therapy and blogotherapy as I did/as I have. I might have closed up during my couch sessions with Dr. G. last year … or stopped writing for fear of laying so much out there.

But quite the opposite happened.

Yes, it made me/makes me vulnerable to criticism … but by being so honest and transparent about my struggles (which are very real and I’m not alone in them) I’ve been able to serve as both an advocate and a “patient,” if you will. And I think that makes me more real, more human … than if I were to have kicked it under the rug and lived in silence.

I’m not going to lie and say every day I’ve been optimistic … but more often than not, I’ve been able to channel the positive energy within me. And days where I’ve not been able to … well, I’ve tried to look to the next day with an open mind and an open heart.

I very much believe I was born an optimist … both my parents are optimistic and so are my siblings. None of us are Pollyanna-optimistic, but rather positive thinkers. And I really think it’s helped each of us get where we are in life.

But I also know that being born this way isn’t enough; it takes work/awareness, too. We can’t just rely on an inherited trait because that will only get us  so far. Eventually, free will needs to come into play.

And without believing in free will — the notion that I have the power to make a positive change — I’d be nowhere.

How about you? What do you think? Is optimism something you’re born with or something you can develop?


5 thoughts on “Optimism: Inherited Trait or Honed Habit??

  1. I think is both. I think some have to work harder at it then others. For me the change has been to surround myself with optimistic people and I do have to take time to stop and remember to look at the grand scheme of things and it helps me to put things into perspective.

  2. By nature I’m a pessimist. Optimism has always lead me to be let down in the past. I don’t know how many times I’ve been optimistic about a situation and it never panned out like I hoped it would. Being continually let down definitely plays a number on your mind and makes it even more difficult to see things clearly.

    With that said, I work VERY hard to see the positive in otherwise disappointing events in my life. And by work, I mean logging hours with a therapist and really trying to understand why I choose to think this way.

    Because of my own personal struggles and first hand experience with behavioral therapy, I believe you can teach yourself to be an optimist. As I’ve said before, happiness isn’t a mood, it’s a lifestyle. And everybody chooses for themselves, whether or not they want to see life in that light.

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