OPTIMISM, THE SAVING GRACE
Optimism, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary is “the tendency to take the most hopeful or cheerful view of matters.” It is a belief that things work out for the best. The opposite of optimism is pessimism: the view that things work out for the worst, and that events are to be seen in their most negative and critical light.
In essence, optimism and pessimism represent opposite ends of a continuum upon which all events in life are interpreted. How any particular event is interpreted varies greatly from person to person. Some people can interpret almost any event in a positive light; others interpret virtually any event in it’s most negative light. As the old adage says, it’s the difference between “seeing the cup half-full or half-empty.” But when it comes to happiness, this difference makes all the difference in the world.
Optimism, as we shall come to see, is indeed “the saving grace” of happy people.
THE “MISSING LINK”
These two volumes of Human Happiness have, so far, largely placed a great deal of emphasis on objective circumstance when it comes to happiness in life. In reviewing the major research findings, as we did in Volume I, it was clear that “happy people have it made!” There we saw that happy people — on a broad statistical level — tend to enjoy higher incomes, good health, greater occupational success, better marriages, social acceptance, higher educational attainment, optimal mental health, personal competency, and many other fine things. In the present Volume, dealing with the attainment of happiness, we have reiterated many of the same themes regarding happiness, but have focused our discussions on the specific areas of the kinds of fun, social, and meaningful activities in which happy people typically excel.
Overall, the collected data would appear to elect only the most popular and accomplished individuals as the best candidates for being happy. But, in fact this has never been the case. By in large, the “model” of happiness researchers have built has been primarily a statistical one. Therefore, when, for example, we state that “higher income correlates to happiness:” in general, this is true. But it does not mean that all wealthy people are happy, nor does it mean that all poorer individuals are unhappy. The statement is merely a “statistical trend.” It means that in most cases, the statement is true, but in a few cases it doesn’t apply. It means that, for the most part, wealthy people are happier than poorer people, but the statement doesn’t preclude the fact that a substantial fraction of rich individuals are actually quite unhappy while a significant minority of poor people are remarkably happy.
Income is just one small example. There appear to be relative large statistical exceptions to every one of the major findings in happiness research. Although educational attainment, marital status, social involvement, occupational level, personality make-up, and the many other factors we’ve examined in these Volumes all show substantial contributions to happiness — no one of them, alone, appears to consistently distinguish a happy from an unhappy person.