This appears at first sight to be one of those irritating 'positive psychology' books that exhort the reader to smile, or whatever, and her/his whole world will quickly come right. However, the book is in fact a great deal more complex than that and its message is quite nuanced.
The author is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Her specialisms lie in the area which explores the relationship between personality and health. She has carried out her research on a wide range of groups in society including HIV positive men, cancer sufferers, and law students.
The essence of the book lies in the investigation into whether optimism is a healthy trait or not. The glib answer may well be that it is obvious that it is. However, the actual results are much more interesting. Given that eighty percent of people are moderately to very optimistic, what does that imply for the daily lives of these people? The author makes it clear that optimism is not simply a positive outlook on life; optimism is also about what one actually does. In other words, optimism is not about wearing rose-tinted spectacles; it is about rolling up one's sleeves and trying to bring into existence the ideals one holds. Putting that into practical terms, the author shows how, when faced with a difficult university course, a sixth of very optimistic students might drop out, a quarter of the moderately optimistic students and a whopping third of the pessimists. So that all looks cut and dried, doesn't it? It is not.
First of all, the author makes it plain that there are times when giving up is the better option. She uses the example of a man trying to get a date with a woman whom he finds very attractive. If she turns him down the first time, it is most certainly worthwhile for him to persevere and try for a second, third or fourth time. However, if he has a restraining order against him forbidding him to contact the woman, it is time to give up! In other words, there is a formula which balances the possible costs against the possible chance of success. If the woman has taken out a court order against him, the chances of her granting him a date are infinitesimally small while, if he persists in approaching her, his chances of landing up in prison are extremely large. Even an optimist should bow out gracefully at this point.
This leads the author into what is possibly the most interesting area of the book. Her thesis is that when a pessimist gives up on a task, s/he is conserving resources whereas when the optimist spends time and energy pursuing a goal, s/he is consuming them. It makes sense for the optimist to use up those resources if the payback involves achievement which will ultimately see an increase in resources -- time, energy, finance, friendship, etc. However, if the payback does not come, all that expenditure has been for nothing. Optimists are high achievers because they are prepared to take the calculated risk of investing resources in order to achieve the desired goal. But the effort does take its toll and the crux of the author's work is to show that part of the cost is a reduction in the body's natural immunity system. That too is part of the price that the optimist pays for hanging on in there but it crucially explains why patients who are HIV positive or whose immunity is otherwise already threatened by disease such as cancer, do not as a rule improve their situation by being heartily optimistic: their optimism further reduces their immunity and makes them even more susceptible. This is a time when being pessimistic is no drawback whatsoever.
The book ends with sensible advice. Rather than Change Your Thoughts and Your Life Will Follow, the author advocates concentrating on changing one's deeds and she assures us that our thoughts and our attitudes will follow. Just as in exposure therapy, actually doing something can change the way we view it. By acting positively and optimistically, we can become positive and optimistic. However, the costs have to be in proportion to the potential benefits and it has to be worth reducing the efficiency of our immune system. By keeping these factors in mind, the naturally pessimistic person can become more optimistic and achieve more while the naturally optimistic person will not take the gamble in certain situations.
The book is engagingly written with a delightful sense of humor which helps the reader enormously. For students of psychology who want to learn more about optimism and health, this is a delightful introduction. For the general reader, it is a thoroughly interesting topic which would repay their time.
© 2007 Kevin M. Purday
Kevin M. Purday, Principal of the Shanghai Rego International School