The Benefits of Optimism Are Real

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A positive outlook is the most important predictor of resilience. It's not just Hollywood magic.

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20th Century Fox

One of the most memorable scenes of the Oscar-nominated film Silver Linings Playbook revolves around Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, a novel that does not end well, to put it mildly.

Patrizio Solitano Jr. (Bradley Cooper) has come home after an eight-month stint being treated for bipolar disorder at a psychiatric hospital, where he was sentenced to go after he nearly beat his wife's lover to death. Home from the hospital, living under his parents' charge, Pat has lost his wife, his job, and his house. But he tries to put the pieces of his life back together. He exercises, maintains an upbeat lifestyle, and tries to better his mind by reading through the novels that his estranged wife Nikki, a high school English teacher, assigns her students. 

Pat takes up a personal motto, excelsior -- Latin for "ever upward." He tells his state-appointed therapist, "I hate my illness and I want to control it. This is what I believe to be true: You have to do everything you can and if you stay positive you have a shot at a silver lining."

For many years, psychologists, following Freud, thought that people simply needed to express their anger and anxiety -- blow off some steam -- to be happier. But this is wrong.

Which is why the Hemingway novel, which is part of Nikki's syllabus, is such a buzz kill. When he gets to the last pages, and discovers that it ends grimly with death, he slams the book shut, throws it through a glass window of his parents' house, and storms into their room in the middle of the night, saying:

This whole time you're rooting for this Hemingway guy to survive the war and to be with the woman that he loves, Catherine Barkley... And he does, he does, he survives the war after getting blown up. He survives it and he escapes to Switzerland with Catherine. You think he ends it there? No! She dies, dad! I mean, the world's hard enough as it is, guys. Can't someone say, hey let's be positive? Let's have a good ending to the story?

Another best picture nominee, Life of Pi, employs a similar device. Pi finds himself aboard a lifeboat with a ferocious Bengal tiger in the aftermath of a shipwreck that has his entire family. Lost at sea in the Pacific Ocean for 227 days -- starved, desperate, and forced into a game of survival with the tiger -- Pi pushes forward, even though he, like Pat, has lost everything. Pi says, "You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better."

Pi's resilience is incredible once you realize what happens on board the lifeboat and how Pi copes with the tragedy that he witnesses and endures. There's more to the story than the boy and the tiger. Though what really happened is terrible, Pi chooses to tell a different story. His parallels what really happened, but is beautiful not bleak, transcendent not nihilistic.

"Which story do you prefer?" he asks at the end.

***

This questions turns out to matter a great deal if you are trying to figure out who grows after trauma and who gets swallowed up by it, a question that each movie addresses and that psychologists have been grappling with for years. Think back to the last time you experienced a loss, setback, or hardship. Did you respond by venting, ruminating, and dwelling on the disappointment, or did you look for a faint flash of meaning through all of the darkness -- a silver lining of some sort? How quickly did you bounce back -- how resilient are you?

The New Yorker's Richard Brody criticized Silver Linings Playbook for its sentimentality and "faith-based view of mental illness and, overall, of emotional redemption." The New York Times' A.O. Scott made a similar, if predictable, criticism of Life of Pi: "The novelist and the older Pi are eager...to repress the darker implications of the story, as if the presence of cruelty and senseless death might be too much for anyone to handle...Insisting on the benevolence of the universe in the way that Life of Pi does can feel more like a result of delusion or deceit than of earnest devotion."

But these criticisms miss the point. First, they fail to understand why these two strange and idiosyncratic movies, both based on novels, resonated with so many millions of people. Their themes of resilience speak to each of us -- and there is a reason for that. The key insight of each movie is, whether their creators realized it or not, grounded in a growing body of scientific research, which Brody and Scott overlook.

Positive emotions can, the researchers concluded, undo the effects of a stressful negative experience.

Far from being delusional or faith-based, having a positive outlook in difficult circumstances is not only an important predictor of resilience -- how quickly people recover from adversity -- but it is the most important predictor of it. People who are resilient tend to be more positive and optimistic compared to less-resilient folks; they are better able to regulate their emotions; and they are able to maintain their optimism through the most trying circumstances.

This is what Dr. Dennis Charney, the dean of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, found when he examined approximately 750 Vietnam war veterans who were held as prisoners of war for six to eight years. Tortured and kept in solitary confinement, these 750 men were remarkably resilient. Unlike many fellow veterans, they did not develop depression or posttraumatic stress disorder after their release, even though they endured extreme stress. What was their secret? After extensive interviews and tests, Charney found ten characteristics that set them apart. The top one was optimism. The second was altruism. Humor and having a meaning in life -- or something to live for -- were also important.

For many years, psychologists, following Freud, thought that people simply needed to express their anger and anxiety -- blow off some steam -- to be happier. But this is wrong. Researchers, for example, asked people who were mildly-to-moderately depressed to dwell on their depression for eight minutes. The researchers found that such ruminating caused the depressed people to become significantly more depressed and for a longer period of time than people who simply distracted themselves thinking about something else. Senseless suffering -- suffering that lacks a silver lining -- viciously leads to more depression.

Counter-intuitively, another study found that facing down adversity by venting -- hitting a punching bag or being vengeful toward someone who makes you angry -- actually leads to people feeling far worse, not better. Actually, doing nothing at all in response to anger was more effective than expressing the anger in these destructive ways.

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Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer based in New Haven, Connecticut. She is the Manners and Morals columnist at The New Criterion, managing editor of the Hoover Institution's Defining Ideas, and editor of Acculturated.

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