Gratitude vs. Cynicism, Sappy vs. Sophisticated: Who Wins?

I am glad to be alive. It’s normal to take this for granted, but it’s wonderful to really feel it. Yes, life is complicated, life can be hard, and there are few easy answers. Loss is inevitable. I had a rough year.  But it’s good to be alive – very good.  And it certainly beats the alternative, if you pause to think about it.

So I’ve been thinking about attitudes. And I’ve come to believe that attitudes are not only important, but can be chosen. Consider this: The 1913 children’s book “Pollyanna” has become a cultural icon (a.k.a. cliché) because of the eponymous character’s insistence upon looking on the bright side, finding the silver lining in every cloud, always looking for something to be glad about. To call someone “a Pollyanna” nowadays is considered insulting, a reference to naïvete and being out of touch with reality. And yet… I don’t see anything wrong with these two quotes from Pollyanna: “I found something to be glad about!” and “If you look for the bad in people you’re sure to find it, so look for the good in them instead.”  Are those just the words of a naïve child quoting her missionary father? Or are these ideas the stuff of wisdom? Who’s right, the sophisticated pessimist or the childlike optimist?

To me, here’s the bottom line: Optimists live longer and have a measurably higher quality of life. In fact, I wrote a chapter in my medical school thesis about optimism, and here’s what I found: The scale of Optimism-Pessimism, as measured by the MMPI psychological test, is an accurate predictor for overall health and quality of life!  Pessimism is a predictor for depression, poorer physical health, and lower levels of achievement. 

Pessimism, and its bosom buddy cynicism, are fashionable these days.  We all know that disaster-mongering is a key to success for the news media.  Pessimists are comfortable with their “never wrong and rarely disappointed” attitudes, always fretting, expecting the worst from other people, even anticipating disappointment from life itself. If you expect the worst, then you can’t be disappointed, right?

But consider this: If it’s true that we can’t control what happens to us, only how we respond to it, then maybe it’s worth choosing the point of view that is associated with greater happiness and better health. Some lucky people are born with a sunny disposition. For the rest of us, it’s something we can learn.  In fact, “learned optimism” is just as powerful as innate optimism, as explained in a best-selling book 20 years ago by Martin Seligman, PhD: Learned Optimism: Change Your Mind, Change Your Life. Many people are led into depression by their own thought patterns, what Dr. Daniel Amen calls the ANTS, Automatic Negative Thoughts. Choosing to interrupt negative thought patterns by substituting calmer, more uplifting thoughts can be done – and it has tangible benefits.

Psychologists describe this as a person’s “explanatory style” – the habitual outlook of either making the worst of things (“People are no good… Other drivers always cut me off… There’s never enough money/time/whatever… Why bother trying, I’ll just make a mess of it anyway…”), as compared with the habit of looking on the bright side (“Several people did me favors today… I think this is a normal bump in the road… There’s always enough money/time/whatever to do what must be done… I can take pride in doing my personal best…”) These habitual internal dialogs are powerful! They shape people’s lives, for better or for worse.  And I’m happy to report that internal dialogs can and do improve, sometimes rapidly, in the face of overwhelming circumstances.

Overwhelming circumstances bring out the inner mystic in most people. I’ve heard that faith is based on experience. And if your everyday experience, even during trying times, is that there are sufficient resources for that day’s needs… then why worry? Why not just be grateful for it all?

Lately I’ve been told that I’m a Pollyanna – often in response to my attitude that I’m actually rather grateful for the difficulties of this past year. I wish this “Pollyanna” remark would be delivered with the humble gratitude that I feel in my heart, rather than the typical patronizing snub.  Within the past year I’ve experienced pain, cancer, financial setbacks, loss of loved ones, surgical menopause, chemotherapy, loss of faith, the nearness of death – and I know I’ve had the company of thousands of other brave souls enduring similar or worse ordeals. 

As a result of this series of setbacks, life has more clarity for me now than before: What I love, I really love! As for the rest, I don’t have time for it any more. I’m on borrowed time now, and I need to make it count. Most people are unaware of being on borrowed time; but in fact, each of us is born with a death sentence – doesn’t that mean we are all on borrowed time, all the time, anyway? So why waste precious time with negativity?

Recently the kindness and unexpected generosity of oh-so-many people and circumstances have piled up to a mountain of overwhelming gratitude for me. While I would not wish such a series of setbacks on anyone, the payback has been tremendous.  Clarity of purpose, and clarity of gratitude, are precious gifts in this life.

So call me a sap. I’m a happy sap who is glad to be alive.

-Deborah McKay, ND 

Dr. McKay is a weight-loss specialist, a cancer survivor, a wife and mother. This essay was written in 2010 as she was recovering from her ordeal with uterine cancer and a death in the family.