The Benefits of Optimism Are Real

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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

Even more effective than doing nothing is channeling your depression toward a productive, positive goal, as Pat and Pi do. James Pennebaker, a psychological researcher at the University of Texas in Austin, has found that people who find meaning in adversity are ultimately healthier in the long run than those who do not. In a study, he asked people to write about the darkest, most traumatic experience of their lives for four days in a row for a period of 15 minutes each day.

Analyzing their writing, Pennebaker noticed that the people who benefited most from the exercise were trying to derive meaning from the trauma. They were probing into the causes and consequences of the adversity and, as a result, eventually grew wiser about it. A year later, their medical records showed that the meaning-makers went to the doctor and hospital fewer times than people in the control condition, who wrote about a non-traumatic event. People who used the exercise to vent, by contrast, received no health benefits. Interestingly, when Pennebaker had other research subjects express their emotions through song or dance, the health benefits did not appear. There was something unique and special about the stories people told themselves. Those stories helped people find a silver lining in their adversity.

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Barbara Fredrickson, a psychological researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has looked more closely at the relationship between being positive and resilience. Her research shows how important one is for the other.

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For starters, having a positive mood makes people more resilient physically. In one study, research subjects were outfitted with a device that measured their heart activity. After their baseline heart activity was recorded, they were presented with a stressful task: Each was asked to quickly prepare and deliver a speech on why he or she is a good friend. They were told that the speech would be videotaped and evaluated.

Heart rates rapidly increased. Arteries constricted. Blood pressure shot up.

Then, participants were shown a short video clip that either evoked negative emotions (like sadness), positive emotions (like happiness), or a neutral condition of no emotions. The participants were also told that if they were shown a video clip "by chance" that they were off the hook: They did not have to give the speech after all. That meant that their anxiety would start to subside as the video clips started.

Here was the interesting finding: The heart activity of the participants who viewed the positive clips returned to normal much quicker than their peers who were shown the negative or neutral clips. Positive emotions can, the researchers concluded, undo the effects of a stressful negative experience. The researchers found that the most resilient people were also more positive in day-to-day life.

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It turns out that resilient people are good at transforming negative feelings into positive ones. For instance, one of the major findings of Fredrickson's studies was that resilient people took a different attitude toward the speech task than non-resilient people. They viewed the task as a challenge and opportunity for growth rather than as a threat. In other words, they found the silver lining.

With that in mind, the researchers wondered if they could inject some positivity into the non-resilient people to make them more resilient. They primed both types of people to approach the task either positive or negatively. The researchers told some people to see the task as a threat and they told others to see it as a challenge. What they found is good news for resilient and non-resilient people alike.

Resilient people who saw the task as a challenge did fine, as predicted. So did, interestingly, resilient people who were told to view the task as a threat. Resilient people, no matter how they approached the task, had the same cardiovascular recovery rate.

The people who benefitted from the priming were non-resilient people. Those who were told to approach the task as an opportunity rather than a threat suddenly started looking like high resilient people in their cardiovascular measures. They bounced back quicker than they otherwise would have.

Resilient people are good at bouncing back because they are emotionally complex. In each of Fredrickson's studies, resilient people experience the same level of frustration and anxiety as the less resilient participants. Their physiological and emotional spikes were equally high. This is important. It reveals that resilient people are not Pollyannas, deluding themselves with positivity. They just let go of the negativity, worry less, and shift their attention to the positive more quickly.

Resilient people also respond to adversity by appealing to a wider range of emotions. In another study, for instance, participants were asked to write short essays about the most important problem that they were facing in their lives. While resilient people reported the same amount of anxiety as less resilient people in the essays, they also revealed more happiness, interest, and eagerness toward the problem. For resilient people, high levels of positive emotions exist side-by-side with negative emotions. Think of how Pi responds to his seemingly hopeless situation aboard the boat: "I tell you, if you were in such dire straits as I was, you too would elevate your thoughts. The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar."

When your mind starts soaring, you notice more and more positive things. This unleashes an upward spiral of positive emotions that opens people up to new ways of thinking and seeing the world -- to new ways forward. This is yet another reason why positive people are resilient. They see opportunities that negative people don't. Negativity, for adaptive reasons, puts you in defense mode, narrows your field of vision, and shuts you off to new possibilities since they're seen as risks.

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This calls to mind one of the best scenes from Silver Linings Playbook, in which a bad situation nearly consumes Pat. He is at a diner with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), when he hears "Ma Cherie Amour" playing in his head  -- the song that was playing when he found his estranged wife naked in the shower with another man -- and has a traumatic flashback.

Tiffany helps him work past the episode: "You gonna go your whole life scared of that song? It's just a song. Don't make it a monster... There's no song playing. There's no song. Breathe, count backwards from ten. That's it." He recovers and their interaction sets the stage for the rest of the movie. 

Like Life of PiSilver Linings Playbook is about how we can tame our inner demons with hope and a positive outlook on life. By finding meaning and love in terrible circumstances, as Pi and Pat do, they overcome their suffering and, in the process, reveal how uplifting silver linings can be.

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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