In a previous post we discussed the three promises of optimism: new beginnings, hard work, and abundant blessings of life. Now that we know what the promise of optimism is, we explore the source of the promise. Just what is the source of the optimism promise and can we find and identify it?
In Kalamazoo, Michigan there is a program called the Kalamazoo Promise which guarantees that any child who completes all four years of their high school education in the Kalamazoo public school system will receive a fully funded four year scholarship to college. An anonymous group of donors put the Promise Package together, but do not wish to be known. Thus, we do not know and nor can we find or identify the source of this optimistic promise.
Finding the source of optimism is akin to trying to understand the source of the Nile River. European explorers began looking for it in the 15th and 16th centuries. In 1858, a Brit named Speke declared the source to be Lake Victoria. The famous explorer duo of that era, Livingstone and Stanley, confirmed Speke’s discovery with the sighting of the powerful Ripon Falls on the north shore of the lake.
Livingstone and Stanley’s discovery stood the test of time until more modern technologies, geographical explorations and satellite imaging have confirmed the Nile River has two major tributaries and hence two sources: the Blue Nile and the White Nile. We know the source of the Blue Nile is Lake Tana in Ethiopia. While the White Nile does appear to come from Lake Victoria, we know Lake Victoria itself is fed by many major river sources with their own tributaries, and the source of the longest of those, somewhere near the modern Rwanda-Tanzanian border, remains undetermined even today.
We like the Nile River as a metaphor for optimism and its source because the Nile is the longest river in the world, and it was the life-giving source for the ancient Egyptian civilization. Like the Nile we believe that optimism has two sources, psychological and spiritual. The psychological source is more akin to the Blue Nile as we know the psychological scholars who are the source of the positive psychology literature serving as the foundation for the science of optimism. The spiritual source of optimism is more like the White Nile, deeper, longer, and not entirely understood through rational logical-deductive reasoning strategies.
According to Seligman, Dweck, Beck and other “positive psychologists”, the psychological source of optimism is a set of rational thinking strategies that are learned and applied to day-to-day events. Seligman’s seminal experiments with dogs in the 1960’s provided the foundation for the concept of “learned helplessness” and “learned optimism.”
In those experiments, one group of dogs was taught to jump over a small fence while another group was never taught this skill. Both groups of dogs were placed on a mild shock grid with the only escape, jumping over the fence. The dogs who had been taught fence jumping quickly exercised their learned skill with a quick leap to escape the shock. The dogs that had not been taught the skill simply sat on the shock grid and quivered. (Seligman is quick to point out that in today’s world of ethical treatment of animals in research this methodology would likely never have been approved).
If we take a moment to anthropomorphize the dogs, we conclude that one group had learned to escape pessimism by mastering a skill to get out of a negative moment. The other group engaged in what Seligman and colleagues called “learned helpless” behaviors that left them without any option but to remain in a state of inaction called pessimism.
Since the middle of the last century, the field of positive psychology has spawned numerous theories about how human beings can learn to be “the masters of their destiny.” Many of these theories were used to explain the great social problems of the time, especially differences in motivation among social and economic classes. Julian Rotter’s, 1954, “Locus of Control” theory was one of the first such lines of study.
According to this theory, individuals had either an internal or external locus of control. A person with an internal locus had learned they could take action to overcome difficulty and adversity and so achieved and accomplished more in life while never holding a pity party for themselves. The opposite was true of a person with an external locus who found themselves, like the untrained dogs of Seligman’s experiments, unable to manage the challenging circumstances of life in order to live up to their fullest potential.
Since the 1960’s these theories have evolved into more detailed accounts of how optimists versus pessimists think on a moment-to-moment basis. They all agree that the source of optimism is a set of thoughts that have been identified in carefully controlled, psychological research studies. Once identified, they can be taught and hence learned.
Stay tuned for more exploration an explanation about the source of optimism. Next up, we will discuss the power of the spiritual source.