04.03.2020

Optimism Feels Better Than the Alternatives

By Peter Hubbell

This article was originally published on Media Village

While our COVID-19 circumstances haven't improved a great deal in the past two weeks, hopefully, my last post encouraged you to at least smile a bit more to improve your spirits, as well as the spirits of those you're with. There's a whole lot of room for positivity right now, so I thought I would divert us from the front-page despair by shedding some insight on a special kind of positivity that we need most now: optimism. Our circumstances, challenges, and choices are not insignificant, but a hopeful and confident outlook for the future sure feels better than the options.

When it comes to optimism, no one does it better than the boomers. They were the generation born into one of the most prosperous eras of our country's history, a time when anything seemed possible. Worries about the outcome of the war quickly gave way to a victorious spirit that fueled unwavering confidence for the future. The boomers' life-long values were molded during these formative years in a context that was extremely bullish about the future. Although many traits — favorable and unfavorable — have been assigned to this iconoclastic generation, their optimism continues to be one of their most enduring trademarks.

Boomers' optimism had its origins in an era of post-war positivity, but it would be put to the test time and time again as they were forced to gird for ongoing threats to national and personal well-being. There was the Cold War and the risk of nuclear extinction, the assassination of a popular president, rampant civil unrest, a mandatory draft to fight an unfavorable war, eight economic recessions, and the hellacious terrorist attack on 9/11. Despite the inevitable presence of life-altering threats, boomers and their fellow Americans have proven their resilience and the right to be optimistic in the face of future uncertainty.

Now, we have a new and unprecedented challenge in the form of a global pandemic with many boomers designated "at-risk" by virtue of their age. Has their relentless optimism finally met its match in COVID-19? In the face of a very real and serious threat to their physical and financial wellness, most of the boomers I've polled are being characteristically positive about the future. Some of this reaction is rational, but the balance of their response is exhibiting the same irrationality that they're bringing to another undesirable development: aging. While the outcome of each approach is the same — an optimistic outlook — the ways they get there are different:

Rational Optimism

Regardless of their circumstances, it's reasonable for boomers to be positive and hopeful about what's ahead. Medical science tells us that, in general, optimists experience better mental and physical health and, thus, better quality of life. While optimists have a natural tendency to take a favorable view on situations in life, boomers have the bonus of having lived more life. By virtue of their age, they've seen more of what life can dish out and they've become conditioned by experience to believe that things will be OK in the end.

Optimists also tend to be more grateful for the good things they have, while also appreciating the little things. And of course, they tend to complain less and are not as prone to place blame. That's good perspective for times like this, when most of the news reports seem obsessed with assigning blame for the spread of this unwanted pandemic. Does it really matter who's at fault? It is what it is, so let's pull together to get through it as soon as we can.

Irrational Optimism

On the flip side is the tendency to react to serious circumstances in a way that defies reason. This is when the brain starts working overtime to counteract undesirable reality with a more a positive scenario that's more compatible with one's desired outlook for life. For aging, this explains why boomers believe that they're living the best years of their lives and are convinced that they'll actually get better with age.

When novel viruses arrive, these are the same people who believe that despite what the CDC says, they're not really old enough to be at risk. Even if they accept that their age puts them at risk, they're quick to rationalize that they're going to be OK because they're in better health than their age peers. We can choose to shake our heads at this irrational approach to real risk, but in the end, these are just normal folks who are going out of their way to live life with a positive attitude.

Count me among the many eternal optimists out there. As a result of my boomer upbringing, I've spent most of my life practicing the art of being positive and hopeful while always trusting that things will turn out OK. In my daily search for good news — which is really hard right now — I found some very relevant inspiration in my Instagram feed. One of the people I follow is an internationally renowned mountain climber who lives his life seeking risk. His latest post reflected on all of his self-imposed isolation events over the years, the endless hours spent waiting out storms within the confines of a tiny bivouac tent dangling from a wind-ravaged cliff face when all you can think about is getting off the vertical and making it to the horizontal.

Speaking from his personal experience, his words of advice for our current isolation were quite apt: "Be there for your fellow humans as we are in this together. Banish negativity and find positivity in the details. Keep in mind that it could always be worse, and above all else, remind yourself to hold fast as all storms pass."

I hope these musings on optimism are making you feel better already. Please stay well and, now more than ever, find time in your day to focus on the things that bring you happiness and joy.

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