According to research by psychologists at the University of Illinois, no matter what happens, people tend to return to a genetically fixed level of optimism. David Tellegen and David Lykken at the University of Minnesota found that twins shared a “characteristic mood level,” even when raised separately. Tellegen noted that even actor Christopher Reeve, left paralyzed after a horseback-riding accident, seemed to have regained his naturally optimistic outlook.
Conversely, I grew up in a household where I was able to observe an opposing response. My mother and in particular my grandmother would counter any positive situation with negative remarks that prepared them for something to go wrong. If it was a beautiful day, one of them would remark, “It won’t last!” When the family was together sharing a fabulous meal they discussed the possibility that someone at the table would be dying sooner rather than later. Bad news was embellished to the point of catastrophe so that if there was a fire in the neighborhood both of them saw it as a sign that it was the beginning of the end. Thank God for my grandfather, who, despite the fact that he had only one arm due to having an infection that required amputation, was always looking on the bright side. He would look at me, shrug his shoulders and roll his eyes as my mother and grandmother shared their doom and gloom. Without saying a word I knew his message was “don’t buy into this.”
Much of the pessimistic behavior we witness in ourselves or others could have a genetic predisposition, but it is also based on fear.
Now, I’m not advocating being a Pollyanna. Pollyannas are passive and ineffective: Everything is just dandy; no problems anywhere. As the lava from Mount Etna is licking at their shoes, they say, “What a show! Isn’t this great?” The moderate and more healthy stance is to recognize a situation for what it is and then attempt to respond in a rational way.
My grandmother and mother turned much of life into a drama. As I’ve become more proficient at understanding the human condition, I realize that they needed the drama as a way to protect themselves from feeling too good. That may sound crazy, but if you take genetics and how they were parented into consideration, it makes perfect sense. I am imbued with an optimistic nature liberally sprinkled with pessimism which I have to counter on a daily basis. There may be a chance that optimists live longer so I keep working at it. Pessimists are accurate, but they don’t live as long!