Sunday, June 3, 2012

Great Expectations

One of the things I learned the hard way was that it doesn’t pay to get discouraged. Keeping busy and making optimism a way of life can restore your faith in yourself.
- Lucille Ball
I chose to spend this first month of the year long Be More Childlike experiment by focusing on expectations in order to cultivate a childlike sense of optimism. It occurred to be when you have unrealistic expectations, you set yourself up for disappointment or more specifically in my case, guilt because I am rarely living up to my own expectations.  From there, your whole outlook on life can take a slippery slope from glass half full to..well you know.
I noticed last week that my daughter Hadley had starting declaring that this was the “best day ever” essentially every day. We go to the movies. “Best day ever!” We play in the backyard. “Best day ever!” We order dessert in a restaurant. “Best day ever!” I noticed that she has no expectations other than she is going to enjoy herself where ever she is.  She goes to a lot of Rays games. Last night, Evan Longoria threw her a ball. It was a thrilling moment (especially for my husband) and the entire section cheered. Her smile was contagious to just about everyone in the stands. Was this the “best day ever”? Absolutely! But so was today. Even though she didn’t get to do what we set out to do. I asked her what she would enjoy doing today and she wanted to climb a tree. I needed to run to the mall, so I said maybe we could climb after we shop and I sweetened the plan with an offer to go ice skating at the mall. We ended up not doing either. But she didn’t hold me to anything. Instead, she played hide and seek in the clothes racks and spun like a ballerina in front of the dressing room mirror with sheer delight..
At what age did I get to the point where my personal sense of satisfaction had to be compared and contrast? Why is going to a sporting event with my husband a tolerable experience, but not as fun as going to the movies? Why do I so rigidly hold on to plans made and than if plans change, become disappointed?  Or worse, impose guilt on the person who is changing plans or guilt on myself when I wasn’t able to follow through on a task or goal. Are these adult responses? If so, are they learned? Can they be unlearned? If your a parent, can you preserve that natural instinct of joyful acceptance in your children while instilling necessary social values like responsibility and ambition?
That last question reminds me of the 1999 superbowl commercial, “When I Grow Up” Where a series of children finish the sentence with comments like, “File all day long” or “Do anything for a raise”. While I don’t  fundamentally believe in lowering expectations, I do want to strike a happy balance between my 3 year old’s perfect state of detachment and being an impossible to please task master.
Expectations are so closely intertwined with a person’s capacity for optimism. Clearly, the children in the commercial didn’t start out with the dream of being someone’s “Yes man”. We will have to save the debate for another day on whether some people are naturally more optimistic than others or whether it is all a result of life experiences. Today, I want to recommend taking the optimism survey. 
Not surprisingly (to myself), I scored overall “very pessimistic”. According to researcher Martin Seligman, that means I am more likely to give up in the face of adversity and someday suffer depression. In Seligman’s 1990 book, “Learned Optimism”, he concluded that a talent for joy can be cultivated. Apparently, optimism pays big dividends with better health and greater achievements. In one related study, salespeople who scored as optimistic on the survey, sold 35% more. While pessimists were twice as likely to quit the sales job within the first year.
So what defines someone as an optimist or a pessimist? Optimists see bad events as temporary. They think good things will be permanent. They are able to compartmentalize helplessness. Optimists are confident and can easily take credit where credit is due as well as blame bad events on causes other than themselves. Pessimists tend to blame themselves when bad things happen while externalizing the good. Negative situations are permanent in the pessimist’s eyes. Failure in one area of life, means failure in life.
If that is the case, I choose optimism hands down. While it may not come as naturally as it does to my 3 -year old. Seligman insists it can be achieved. First through a person’s awareness of their internal dialogue and than a persistent willingness to duke it out with those self defeating thoughts.  For those of you who read my gratitude blog,, than you know it is named 50,000 Thoughts because the National Science Foundation believes the average person has 50,000 thoughts a day and the vast majority of those thoughts are the same ones we had yesterday. Looks like us pessimists are in for a lengthy discussion. 
I leave you with one question from the commercial.

 When I grow up, I want to be--------------?

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