Back to the List

The Paradox of Optimism and Gratitude

By Lavjay Butani

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to listen to the recording of a presentation on the subject of gratitude and optimism, by Dr. Robert Emmons, a professor of Psychology at the University of California Davis. Being a very logically minded person and someone who is temperamentally prone to probing and questioning, I can come across as being a doubter and a pessimist at times. This, compounded with having a skeptical personality, I sometimes find myself being more negative than I perhaps should. And so it was with great interest that I listened to Dr. Emmons talk about the physical and emotional benefits of gratitude..benefits that the grateful person experiences, in addition, of course, to the goodness towards others that results from such an attitude.

What was even more interesting to me was the gratitude (affirming that goodness exists and that it is attributable to things/events outside of us..not to imply that we ourselves are not good) should be thought of as a behavior, in that it can be learned and deliberately practiced. Yes, some of our attitudes are hard wired into us, but only to the extent that they make us less or more ‘likely’ to act in certain ways (they determine our temperament) but in no way do our proclivities restrict the repertoire of our behaviors. Can you imagine that? That a ‘thank you’ is not only the right thing to say, but that it can actually help you have a more positive outlook in life and be healthier? I imagine that this is only if you really mean it, as opposed to going through the motions, but what a simple way to make yourself and other better!

For those like me, who at times gets into a negativity spiral, there is a great solution: a gratitude journal! Journaling about various aspects of our lives allows us to express our thanks in a more tangible manner (writing brings life to thoughts and makes them real), relish them and reflect on them. Over time, this attitude can become internalized such that reliance on external drivers may become unnecessary except in times when our optimism is waning.

But then comes along this article in the New York Times in October of 2014 by Dr. Gabriele Oettingen, another psychologist, this time from New York University, stating that ‘positive thinking often hinders us.’ Her studies suggest that being optimistic takes energy and that this energy directed towards being ‘optimistic’ may take away from the ability to direct one’s effort towards the task at hand. While interesting, these studies, to me, focus more on the ‘dreamers’ among us…those who imagine ‘positive’ things in their future that are grandiose and unrealistic and then continue to dream on, not focusing in a deliberate and thoughtful manner on their actual goals, the obstacles and the strategies to achieve those goals.

Optimism, as a value, has the ability to inspire one’s own self and others…inspiration that has the power to heal and to promote leadership. So slow down, ‘smell the roses,’ cherish the goodness around you and pass the sentiment around. And thank you for listening!