Optimism in the face of adversity

"Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as on the pessimist, but the optimist weathers them better." (Seligman, 2006)

A Time for Pause

As we come to the end of our first week of this Stage Four lockdown, it is a good time to stop and reflect on where we are and where we have come from.

Images from the final rehearsals of 'The Crucible' prior to lockdown. Tickets available here.

Our Campuses have become a bit like ghost towns as the skeleton crew of onsite staff and permitted students arrive each day to ensure the School can maintain its online operations and continue to learn. As I drive into School, I listen to the strange, sometimes mildly dystopian descriptions of society presented on the radio. As the day progresses, we wait patiently and with anticipation as the latest figures come through, describing our success or failure as a community. I note that numbers which just weeks before seemed very high, now appear acceptable and even positive.

Lessons From My Grandparents

My grandparents were young children during the First World War and middle-aged adults during the Second World War. During their lifetimes, they experienced wars of a catastrophic nature, the Spanish Flu pandemic and the Great Depression. They weren't wealthy people; they valued every resource, and nothing went to waste. Unfortunately, this often translated into unidentifiable casseroles, boiled meat and vegetables and the strange tasting trifle that appeared to make everybody happy. My grandparents were hesitant to spend money, and camping on the Rosebud foreshore was the annual highlight of their year. They cherished and cared for everything they owned and valued a bargain. When my grandfather passed down to me his beloved HK Belmont, on the eve my eighteenth birthday, I was given lifelong lessons on how to care for my first car. This included servicing and even repairing the odd dent. What my grandfather had forgotten was that he had left the homebrew kit in the boot of the car, which led to other lifelong lessons regarding perfecting the world's most delicious beer.

Despite hardships and tragedy on a scale that we cannot imagine, my grandparents were the most positive people I have ever met. I loved our visits to their home in McCrae and would arrive with a sense of excitement as they waited on the front verandah with smiles that would light up a room. I have great memories of childhood visits that were full of love, fun and positivity. 

After many hugs and kisses, we were ushered into the house, where we would wait in anticipation as my grandmother would give us each two bob (a 20c piece) and access to the lolly jar. My grandparents were the most optimistic people I have ever known, and they brought their positivity into all of our lives and instilled a strong sense of connectedness and belonging that you just can't replicate with material objects or possessions.

On Optimism

I wonder what they would make of our current situation and the manner in which our society is handling the pandemic. I'm sure they would find humour where humour has no right to belong, and I know they would turn the lockdown into a time to be cherished and show gratitude for the opportunity to be together – an opportunity that is increasingly rare in our busy, contemporary lives. 

In short, my grandparents were optimists.

Martin Seligman is an American psychologist who is best known as the father of the positive psychology movement. Positive psychology is a theory and philosophy that underpins Woodleigh's approach to wellbeing and has always, informally, been a pillar of the School's philosophy. Dr Seligman believes that optimism is a trait that can be taught and is not necessarily a genetic characteristic or part of a person's personality. It is a mindset that when practised regularly, can strongly influence how we interpret the world around us, positively impact our lives and reduce the risk of depression and other mental illnesses. It is not about creating a false sense of self-esteem or shielding our children from anything negative in their lives or rescuing our children when things go wrong. It is about how we interpret the events that surround our lives. It is an explanatory style that provides a narrative for how we interpret and shape our experiences. In his book, 'The Optimistic Child', Seligman describes our narratives in terms of three dimensions.

  • Permanent vs. Temporary: Events either change across time or remain stable.
  • Pervasive vs. Specific: Events are universal or specific to a particular domain.
  • Personal vs. Impersonal: Causes of an event are within oneself or outside of oneself

Optimism describes events as being either temporary, specific or impersonal. The current pandemic is temporary, and we will eventually recover. Within the context of my family and friends, it is not pervasive, and we will find new and creative ways to connect and communicate, and this event isn't bad luck that is happening to me. 

The big question remains – can we teach our children to be optimistic? According to Seligman, this is certainly possible. As the adults in our children's lives, we must model the behaviours and attitudes that we desire for our children. We must believe in what we say and walk the walk in an authentic and genuine manner; otherwise, our children will become sceptical and cynical. Some practical things we can all develop in ourselves and our children are:

1. Identify your own explanatory style. 

One of the primary ways to help you and your child to become more optimistic is to increase your awareness of your own explanatory style. Next time you face adversity, log your internal and external explanation of the events. Evaluate these thoughts against the three facets of explanatory styles to see if you tend to lean toward an optimistic or pessimistic mindset.

2. Teach your children about explanatory styles. 

Open a conversation with your child about how they perceive themselves, how they perceive difficult and challenging situations and how they resolve problems to give you a more comprehensive picture of their worldview.

3. Teach your children about the link between thoughts-actions. 

The automatic ideas which pop into your mind are what most consistently cause your reactions or to feel and behave in certain ways.

4. Remember that optimism is a skill. 

This awareness can change the way you view the world. Optimism is the embodiment of engagement with the world, whereas pessimism is a loss of opportunity.

Seligman, M. (1996)

Connectedness and Belonging

I think back to my grandparents, and I wonder why they were so optimistic. Was this a deliberate mindset? Was it their personalities? Or was it something their parents taught them? As children, I know that they both came from big families, with lots of friends and a strong community. The lessons of life were taught to them by the many adults in their lives. They were loved, and they felt connected and a true sense of belonging. 

Their life experience was much like those Michael Norman spoke of in his 1980 book, "Woodleigh". "Where, in slowly evolving, stable communities, folk wisdom, tribal lore, a rich and accessible natural environment and harsh necessity (once) provided the opportunities and occasions for young people to make their way into adult life and full citizenship."

I don't think my grandparents had access to the theories of great psychologists; however, their simple lives created the mindset that Seligman describes and a strong sense of resilience, responsibility and connectedness. In many ways, this is the very lifestyle and philosophy that Michael Norman sought to rediscover when establishing this School.  

Stay safe, stay connected,