Wanted: Optimists. Must enjoy challenges, appreciate possibilities and possess a deep belief in your ability to master a situation. Hope for the future a must, and confidence in that hope a strong plus. If your motto is “try, try again” and your glass is always half-full, you’re perfectly set to make the most of this — or any — opportunity.
There are excellent reasons for anyone — nations, businesses, schools — to seek out the optimistic. And it’s even truer for parents who wish to see their children succeed both as kids and as adults. Optimists are more resilient. They make better entrepreneurs, experience better health outcomes, live longer and are more satisfied with their relationships. Optimism enables people to continue to strive in the face of difficulty, while pessimism leaves them depressed and resigned to failure — even expecting it.
I want that hopeful, optimistic outlook for my children. I think most of us do. But when it seems like everything from our headlines to our entertainment options suggests a dystopic society careening towards catastrophe, I’m finding it tough to set a positive example — even as I think it’s more important than ever.
We live in especially pessimistic times. We’re pessimistic about the environment, pessimistic about America, pessimistic about the government and education. The resulting stew of negativity makes me worry that the future — my kids’ future — will be even more grim than the present. Pessimism, here I come — and yet, how can I expect my kids to practice what I don’t preach?
Fortunately, research suggests things we can do help our children grow up with the resilient “can-do” attitude that’s the mark of the optimist — and maintain a happier outlook ourselves. Here’s what I’ve learned, and what I’m trying.
Pay more attention to the positive, and help your kids do the same.
There’s one problem with the pessimist’s perspective: it’s wrong.
That negative dystopian soup is an illusion, the result of an unfortunate collision between a 24/7 news cycle and the brain’s tendency to hone in on any possible danger and ignore everything else. Overall, things on planet Earth are pretty good — or at least, in many ways, they’ve never been better. No country in the world has a lower life expectancy now than the countries with the highest life expectancies in 1800. More people around the world believe in gender equality than ever before, and more value religious freedom. Poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labor and infant mortality are all on the decline.
Humanity has made enormous progress by almost every measure, but that progress has become the water in which we swim, and like fish, we take the water for granted. We focus on the beasts that are still out there in the deep rather than on those we have tamed because that’s what we’re designed to do. As neuropsychologist Rick Hanson described in his 2013 book Hardwiring Happiness, our brains naturally put greater emphasis on the negative. “Just a handful of painful experiences of futility can rapidly become a sense of helplessness,” he writes, while “most good news has little or no effect on lasting memory systems in the brain.”
In other words, it’s natural to let the bad news overwhelm us. Fortunately, with practice, we can help our brains to give the good stuff equal weight. Dr. Hanson’s advice: when you hear a great story, achieve something in your own life or just find yourself in a beautiful place with those you love, deliberately rest your mind on that experience and stay with it. Sink into that feeling, he writes, “as it sinks into you.” Describe what you’re doing to your kids, and encourage then to dwell on their joys and pleasures as well.
Change the language you use to describe current events.
Optimism can be developed. Researchers found that when even people with a more pessimistic outlook use positive language to describe situations they find traumatic, their feelings about the situation become more positive, and their more generalized sense of optimism increases. That’s something we can try at home.
Stuck for some ways to approach depressing current events with a more hopeful tone? Consider this: what we call “hate speech” today was just “speech” not very long ago. Bad behavior by corporations was rewarded with higher profits; hunting animals to extinction was sport; dumping pollutants into rivers was an efficient way to get rid of a mess. The event that’s driving the news may be bad, I tell my kids, but listen to all these people trying to do something about it. That’s a change for the better. Our pessimism, ironically enough, derives in large part from our collective expectation that we can do better.
Moderate your news intake.
On any given day, ugly things have been said and done, violence has ended lives and, somewhere, justice has not been served — and in our 24/7 media cycle, there are vast forces aligned to ensure that we don’t miss a minute of it. When Paris was attacked in 2015, I couldn’t hold back my gasp when my phone started to ping. With events still unfolding, it was hard to reassure my kids that it was all “a long way away” when the chance that it could come closer was at the top of my mind.
Those moments, however short, of fear and anxiety were pointless. It didn’t serve anyone for me to ignore my family to click and refresh to learn more. I may need and want to know what’s going on in the world, but news delivered in that manner evokes fear rather than informs — including for our kids. I’ve found that it’s difficult for our children to feel secure when they see us reacting constantly to outside events that are often invisible to them. I turned my news notifications off, and I’ve never brought them back.
Involve yourself in your community.
Passionately following the “big scary” news can not only leave us feeling helpless and distraught, it can distract us from the smaller issues where knowing the facts, and then acting, voting or volunteering as a result might make a difference. Instead, put your energy towards making sure you and your family are a part of the world immediately around you. That might mean volunteering, but it might also mean simply joining and being part of local institutions and clubs that feed our natural human need for connection (not of the digital kind). Find something in your area that makes you feel hopeful, and make it a part of your family life.
Raising optimistic kids is hard, in part, because it demands that parents relinquish the cynical perspective that’s the easiest response to pessimistic times. It’s tempting to dismiss the challenges that bombard us daily with a hopeless shrug. It’s even reasonable. I don’t know what I, or you, or our kids, can do to make any of that better.
But I do know that we need to find ways to try — and that means answering the “optimists wanted” call, and raising our children to do the same. Hopeful, resilient problem solvers needed. No application necessary. Just show up, and make the best of it.
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