"Lean Toward the Sunny Side, but Don’t Overdo It"


Readers of this blog might expect this to be a post dissing the latest article from the Science section of the NYTimes, but no! This is the title of an inane article from the Business section [of the NYT], from September 23rd, so there. Its author, Alina Tugend, has combined a 2007 article by Profs. Puri & Robinson of Duke Business School, with Positive Psychologist Martin Seligman’s 1995 book, The Optimistic Child, adding contradictory [undated] “findings” from Prof. Sweeny of UC-Riverside and Prof. Phelps of NYU, to make rather a dog’s dinner of the topic, The Efficacy of Optimism. Her high-concept title says it all. Her experts would all [probably] agree, that [to use her own metaphor] being a bit more like Winnie-the-Pooh than like Eeyore [more optimistic than pessimistic] is often [not always] a better strategy for success [at least, in financial affairs, getting hired & promoted, and in managing stress while waiting for test results, whether academic or medical]. She has the grace to point out that all the research she cites was published long before our current all-bets-are-off economic predicament.

Quibbles about murky research and comparing apples to oranges, aside, she kinda has a point.

The Duke biz-whizzes were trying to say that both wild optimism and profound pessimism often result in an individual’s doing a whole lot of nothing: the Pooh bears, because everything will be all right anyway; and the Eeyores, because no personal effort will make things turn out all right anyway. One could say that both character types manifest external locus of control. Enter a more resilient character [Who, Piglet? Or maybe Tigger because of his bounces…], who is Cautiously Optimistic. He believes that most circumstances are temporary, not permanent (Where have you heard that before?), and that his personal efforts might affect them, thus manifesting internal locus of control. This character is willing to expend Therbligs galore, in the guarded hope of Good Outcome. He knows that Life offers no guarantees of success, but he likes his odds.

This weekend, we flew up to Boston to watch our elder daughter expend Therbligs galore, in her first ever half-marathon. Since her previous sporting triumphs have involved rowing boats over water and riding horses over fences, she and we were Not Sure of the Outcome. Her stated goal was to avoid being scooped up by one of the “Lame Gazelle” wagons that hounded the back of the pack of 7000 runners. My secret goals were that she avoid humiliation [however she chose to define it], and that she not incur an injury resulting in chronic pain & suffering. To counter my fear, I willed myself into a mindset of Cautious Optimism.

And it worked! My biggest challenge, as we scuttled from the 3-mile point to the 7-mile point, was the intrusion of desperately needing a restroom [which a kindly native informed me I would find at the boathouse in the park]. By the time we had found a legal parking spot (What are the odds?) on a side street not far from to the Zoo, just in time to see her make her way down the home stretch into the stadium, we were all in floods of joyful tears.

Meanwhile, remember Ruth [our spindly 21-y.o. Maine Coon]? Having spent the last few years as a howling Banshee on the top floor of our house (like a feline Mrs. Rochester from Jane Eyre), she has decided to venture down (into the realm of the Big Dog), just Looking for Some Touch, which I am giving her every few minutes, as I type this blog. Somewhere in that tiny cat brain, the fear of the dog is trumped by the Need for Affection; and with Cautious Optimism, she expends the Therbligs to get her arthritic 5-pound body downstairs and onto the couch, where purring (not howling) ensues.

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Filed under locus of control, murky research, therbligs

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