As I discussed earlier, I have failed—a lot. Looking back, out of each of those failures came some new learning, new growth, new perspective, more resilience, more education, more humility, and, most importantly, more funny stories. So, what’s not to be optimistic about?
There is a downside to perpetual, blind optimism, though. It’s when you fail to recognize a large impediment or barrier because you’re so busy discounting its importance and looking only for the silver lining. However, don’t swing so far that you fall victim to the Chicken Little (a/k/a Henny Penny) Syndrome, crying, “The sky is falling,” whenever you encounter some minor mishap.
There’s a world of difference between having an optimistic outlook and having a pessimistic one. Winston Churchill described that difference well: “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” He made his own attitude clear with these words: “For myself, I am an optimist — it does not seem to be of much use being anything else.”
For Churchill, Britain’s prime minister during its darkest days of World War II, it was that attitude, perhaps more than anything else, that served him and his people well. As the nightly Nazi bombings threatened his nation’s very existence, it was Churchill’s “Never give up” attitude that would help his countrymen not merely survive, but go on to defeat the enemy.
“What is our aim?” he asked. “I can answer with one word: Victory— victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.” Under his inspiring leadership, victory was, indeed, finally attained.
The Choice Is Ours
What was it that made Churchill an optimist despite the terrible conditions he faced? He did the same thing every optimist does, and what you can do as well— he chose to be one! It’s simply a matter of attitude and you control your attitude.
A great example is that of the late American journalist, author, and professor Norman Cousins. Among his many achievements was serving for 30 years as editor-in-chief of the well-respected Saturday Review of Literature. When he began that assignment in 1942, its circulation stood at a mere 20,000. Under his leadership, circulation grew to 650,000.
Cousins had been plagued with a variety of serious illnesses for much of his life, including heart disease and a rare form of arthritis. Yet, he maintained a positive attitude and outlook on life, once commenting: “Optimism doesn’t wait on facts. It deals with prospects. Pessimism is a waste of time.”
At one point, he became seriously ill and was hospitalized. When he asked about his chance of survival, the responses were grim, with one specialist telling him it was about one in 500, while another commented that he’d never seen a patient fully recover from that particular condition. Such a diagnosis might bring terror to the mind of even the most optimistic among us, but it had no such effect on Cousins.
Instead of resigning himself to that fate, he decided to take action. “Up until that time,” he said, “I had been more or less disposed to let the doctors worry about my condition. But now, I felt a compulsion to get into the act. It seemed clear to me that if I was to be that one in 500, I had better be something more than a passive observer.”
Cousins promptly checked himself out of the hospital and moved to a nearby hotel room, treating himself with large doses of Vitamin C and of laughter, the latter by watching as many old Marx Brothers films as he could find. “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep,” he reported. “When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and, not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.”
Was this highly unorthodox form of treatment effective? Indeed it was! Cousins not only recovered fully, but he would live for many more years than his doctors had predicted.