I Will Not Despair
Trust me on this: I’m a public health professional. The world is not coming to an end. At least not in the next five billion years, which is a pretty long time.
Don’t get me wrong. The planet is overheating; children are freezing sleeping in cars; racism kills people every day. A lot of bad stuff happens.
But I won’t despair. I won’t give up on hope. None of us should. Here’s why, and how. I promise: no preaching, no rose-colored glasses. Just cool logic.
Before we dive in, however, I want to make a point about professionals. If depression or anxiety or hopelessness is affecting your daily life, please find help. In an emergency, you can call the Pierce County Crisis Line at 1 (800) 576-7764; otherwise you can talk with your family doctor, or call 211, the universal number for United Way’s Information & Referral service.
Hope is healthy. That’s the number one reason to be optimistic. The Harvard Men’s Health Watch reports lots of links between optimism and better health for everybody: lower blood pressure, and so less susceptibility to coronary disease; lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol; and in women, lower levels of two markers of inflammation (C-reactive protein and interleukin-6), which predict the risk of heart attack and stroke. Other benefits include reduced levels of adrenaline, improved immune function, less active clotting systems, and faster recovery from injury and illness.
Better health isn’t enough? How about success? Countless research studies show better achievement among optimistic people in sports, sales, school. No matter what we do, we’ll be more successful if we expect to succeed.
Besides, upbeat people are more enjoyable to be around, right? Whether you want dinner with a friend or an activist army solving a problem, sharing optimism is essential.
I know, optimism is hard when the sky is falling. And every one of us has actual bad, hard things to deal with. I know. I have a few. But we can take specific steps to be more hopeful. Consider these.
First, screen what you learn from other people, social media, or mass media. That doesn’t mean isolating ourselves; but we should reduce the poison we let in.
For a while I watched as much broadcast news as possible, and I felt horrible. I wasn’t learning anything; I was simply becoming drained and upset. I was choosing to absorb toxins.
So I changed my habits. I rely on facts and data, not screamed opinions. And I look for root causes and large patterns, not the latest incident or rumor.
Another prescription comes from Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association. In his book “Learned Optimism,” Seligman says that the way we interpret events determines how optimistic or pessimistic we become. He offers a trio of research-based screens to help us choose optimism. He calls these techniques “the three Ps.”
The first P is “personal.” When we consider an event – a driver cutting us off in traffic, for example – we make a snap decision: did I do something to cause being cut off, was I the specific target; or was the other driver in a hurry and indifferent to my identity?
The optimistic choice is the second one. It helps us shrug off the negative event.
The next P is “permanent.” Continuing the driving example, we can tell ourselves, “I’m always cut off; it happens whenever I drive.” This doesn’t make us too hopeful about driving.
The alternative? Tell ourselves that this was a fluke, that usually nothing bad happens. Do this even if we have to deceive ourselves, Seligman says. The key is to make the optimistic interpretation.
His last P is “pervasive.” Cut off in traffic? Just another example of our wretched life, how other people disrespect us, how we’re surrounded by danger. Ever respond like that? I have. It’s like the last straw, when we decide everything we touch turns bad.
The optimistic play is to isolate the incident. “How weird,” we’d say. “Everything else is going so well.” Don’t generalize the bad. Don’t let it take control.
Of course, we always have to balance optimism with reality. For example, if members of majority populations explain away things like racism, homophobia, sexism and anti-religious behavior as an “exception,” it can cause even worse outcomes for members of those communities.
If any of us are going to maintain hope we first have to catch ourselves interpreting an event. Sometimes this means backtracking hours or days. But, if we can develop the skill of making positive interpretive choices, we can solve problems more effectively as well as make ourselves healthier, more effective, and more enjoyable. And help our friends and kids and colleagues be more hopeful too.
Laurie Jinkins is a public health official from Tacoma who serves as a member of the Washington House of Representatives from the 27th district.