Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.

Keep the Faith

‘Keep the Faith’ by Bon Jovi is one of my favourite songs. In fact, obsessive though it undoubtedly sounds, and indeed probably is, there’s unlikely to have been a 24 hour period in the last twenty years when I didn’t listen to the song at least once. Why?

Well, in addition to the thumping bass and the driving i bIII IV chord progression, it’s the defiant passion of the chorus lyrics that have kept my compulsive attention for those two decades:

Faith: Know you’re gonna live through the rain…Lord knows you got to keep the faith.

Without fail those lyrics seem to stir such frenzied determination within me that if I set my heart on flying like a bird, I’d happily commit to jumping incessantly out of my bedroom window and dragging myself back up the stairs on broken ankles until I either miraculously sprouted wings or died.

In fact, Keep the Faith has contributed so tirelessly over the years to my dogged resistance and resilience in the face of adversity that really, I should be paying royalties.

But there’s one issue with those lyrics I’ve always mused over: – they’re not born out of optimism. Instead, they’re the war cry of a pessimist clinging on to hope – which pretty much sums up my personality (and maybe Jon Bon Jovi’s too.)

The ‘Virtue’ of Blind Optimism

The truth is that a natural optimist would never need to reassure himself that he’s ‘gonna live through the rain’. Thanks to his positively deluded mindset he probably wouldn’t even be aware that it was raining in the first place.

And in the rare event he did find himself caught in a shower, his childlike positivity would lead him to both underplay the significance of the problem, and fill him with the same blind sense of purpose that motivates a bird to repeatedly fly into a window in a futile attempt to escape captivity.

You probably think I’m exaggerating here…no one could possibly be so innately (and inanely) optimistic?

Well, you’d be wrong!

Green Lights

In his book ‘Authentic Happiness’ the eminent positive psychologist Martin Seligman notes how positive thinkers tend to significantly overestimate the level of influence they can exert over circumstance in just that way.

He notes a study in which two groups of undergraduate guinea pigs were placed in front of a green light and given a switch.

For one group, the switch provided total control over the function of the light. Just like a typical light switch, when they flicked the switch on, the light came on; when they flicked it off, the light went off. The second group by comparison, had absolutely no control. The light randomly went on and off regardless of what they did.

There were no surprises when it came to the group who had full control. Whether their mood was depressed or optimistic, they all accurately concluded that the switch gave them God like mastery over the behaviour of the light.

However, the distinction between perception and reality wasn’t quite as clear cut for the more optimistic members of the ‘no control’ group.  Here, the optimists believed the light responded to their use of the switch about 35 percent of the time.

In other words, the optimists, with their positively skewed perception of reality, believed they had a substantial level of control over an entirely random event.

These are the people who really will just hurl themselves repeatedly out of a window, spurred on by the belief that the bounce when they hit the ground was a positive indicator of their ability to defy gravity.

Isn’t that Bad?

At this point, you’re probably thinking that such mindless optimism is a bad thing – something that could lead you to overestimating your talents and skills, as well as your level of influence over circumstance, to disastrous ends: -

The single pilot on your undermanned long-haul flight dies suddenly of a massive coronary and the cabin crew panically ask the passengers, “Anyone here able to fly an Airbus A380”. “Oh yeah”, comes your chirpy response, “I was addicted to Microsoft Flight Simulator for the best part of a month, I can get us safely down no problem. Nothing to it, it’s all done electronically these days anyway.”

But ridiculous though it sounds, psychologists suggest that such self-delusion, although not on quite an insanely grand scale, may be a good thing; it may even be hardwired into our brains as a key component of our survival instinct.

A Vital Coping Mechanism

UCLA based psychologist Shelley E Taylor asserts in a 1998 research paper that ‘unrealistic optimism’ about the future, as well as overestimations of personal strengths and the ability to control circumstance are characteristics of ‘normal human thought’; and that such optimism is, “a valuable human resource to be nurtured and promoted, rather than an error-prone processing system to be corrected.”

Optimism, he stresses, is a vital ingredient of mental health – one which may lead us to spend our lives with our heads bobbing in the clouds – but which promotes tenacity, perseverance, creativity and enthusiasm; all the hallmarks of both good mental health and success.

Pessimists on the other hand, may be under no illusions of their inability to control a randomly flashing green light, but their grounding in reality makes them easy targets for defeat.

Learned Helplessness

Taken to an extreme, such pessimism can induce the psychological phenomenon of ‘learned helplessness’ – a mindset where an individual entirely discounts the possibility of finding a solution and simply resigns themselves to fate.

In a 1967 study entitled Failure to escape traumatic shock (that you might think verges on the inhumane; but hey, it was the 60’s) the positive psychologist I mentioned above, Martin Seligman, demonstrated just how corrosive ‘learned helplessness’ can be to solution seeking and motivation.

Seligman noted that certain dogs given electric shocks made no attempt to escape their torment, even when they were free to get up and leave. They just lay there, helplessly whimpering as non-lethal, but extremely unpleasant voltages surged through their trembling bodies. Other dogs however, would relentlessly try to escape, regardless of whether their attempts were futile or not.

The reason for the polarised forms of behaviour?

Well, it all came down to previous experience:

The dogs who’d previously been on the receiving end of electric shocks from which there really was no escape, quite literally gave up trying. The helplessness of those previous experiences had bled into their perception of the current situation, causing total motivational inertia.

Dogs however, who’d previously been able to short-circuit the shock by pressing a paw sized paddle, simply refused to give up the struggle – even when escape from their current predicament was futile.

The point of course, is not that the second group of dogs continued to bang their heads against the proverbial wall, regardless of the futility of doing so. The startling reality is that the first group had ‘learned’ not to try simply because of a previous futile experience; even when the solution to their current suffering was clearly within their grasp.

Humans Too…

As Seligman points out in his books ‘Learned Optimism’ and ‘Authentic Happiness’ these same characteristics don’t just apply to dogs, we too can sabotage our own success through learned helplessness. And at the root of that sabotage is just one thing: – self-belief.

Those who through their optimistic nature persistently attempt to influence their circumstances for the better, tend to end up doing just that. Their persistent focus on the solution instead of the problem fuels them with the resilience, creative solution seeking and motivation to move mountains.

They epitomize a ‘I shall either find a way or make one’ mode of thinking.

Pessimists, on the other hand, are more adept at accurately assessing the potential impact of their actions, but ultimately their ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ attitude leaves them vulnerable to crippling depression and demotivation.

Getting the Right Balance

Some of what I’ve written here makes me cringe because I know it could so easily be misconstrued. It may seem, superficially at least, that I’m advocating absolutely mindless optimism; the type where you’d shout at an amputee, “Cheer up…you might grow a new one.”

But I’m not. As I said at the beginning, I’m a natural pessimist and as such, I appreciate the sheer futility of playing such artificial ‘positive thinking at all costs’ games.

It doesn’t work, and in fact can be extremely harmful. It’s the sort of reckless thinking that leads people to take out mortgages they can’t afford, overtake on bends, rack up thousands in debt and pursue aspirations for which they have no talent or which are mainly based on luck.

You want to be a famous, very rich movie star, or retrain as an NASA astronaut? Well, I hate to bearer of bad news, but as the saying goes, you’re s**t out of luck. Unshakable optimism won’t get you there any more than it’ll help you to grow a new leg.

But hopefully, anyone with two brain cells to rub together can see the clear distinction between inanely ‘hoping for the best’ regardless of circumstance on one hand, and maintaining a solution focused, up-beat attitude on the other hand.

The fact remains that optimism turns out to be an extremely effective coping strategy; one that leads an optimist to strive in the face of adversity, whilst an equally capable pessimist facing a similar challenge would simply give up.

That’s a psychological advantage that simply can’t be dismissed.

How do you develop that positively skewed mode of thinking?

Well, you could take on board Robert Louis Stevenson’s sage advice: “Make the most of the best and the least of the worst”; or you could take a leaf out of my pessimistic book and play ‘Keep the Faith’ on repeat until the laser melts the CD.

But you may be glad to hear, there are more scientifically validated routes to a more optimistic outlook that you may find even more helpful; and which I’ll be writing about next. :-)


Go on, broaden your horizons…

I’ve spent all of zero minutes online this week, thanks to an irresistible urge to make the most out of transient blue skies; so I’m a bit out of the loop at the moment. But Pauline’s blog at Reach Financial Independence is usually on my online reading list. Although I’ve mastered the art of total indifference when it comes to my finances, for some reason I still find her blog compulsive reading. Whether it’s the updates on her quaint and seemingly idyllic lifestyle on the shores of a Guatemalan lake or her shrewd financial advice I’m not sure, but regardless, I find her writing and her lifestyle pretty inspirational. I’m sure you will too…

If you were kind enough to mention me this week and I’ve left you off the list, rap me over the knuckles and let me know. I’ll put it right.

Comments

  1. Thank you very much for the mention and your kind words Gareth!
    I think I fit in the optimistic category, but not totally blind. Optimistic people will bounce back instead of drowning in failure. Even on a terrible day, I try to find three positive things, and put trouble into perspective: will I care about this in a year? in five?
    While you won’t be an astronaut on optimism only, at least you can try instead of giving up before you started like negative people do.

    • Pauline, you’re spot on the money; there’s a massive divide between absolute negativism whereby one simply gives up in the face of perceived failure; and a positive mindset with a focus on opportunity (and then learns, adapts and grows stronger from any arising failure).

      Daily gratitude and putting things in perspective; I’m impressed. These are strategies that are so easy to implement, and so effective if one just takes the time to put them into practice; but yet how many make that small effort? I’m glad you’re a natural optimist, no need for you to listen to ‘Keep the Faith’ then :-)

      Thanks for the great comment!

  2. This was exceedingly fun to read, Gareth. As I think on some of the pieces I’ve played, I realize I had no business playing them. Just as I really had no business composing counterpoint for the classical guitar. It is just my inner-optimist told me it was ok to try anyhow. Thank goodness since both prospects are incredibly daunting.

    I am sure sure though I am much of an optimist. I simply get pissed enough to push myself through adversity. Perhaps this is angry optimism?

    And within the last few weeks I’ve taught both Livin’ On a Prayer and Dead or Alive. These tunes too may have implications for your post or future ones on the topic. You may have been spot on when you suggest J Bon Jovi may be a pessimist. I suppose that in the very end we are all pessimists clinging to hope.
    cj recently posted…The Life Blood of Our MarriageMy Profile

  3. Ah, sorry I forgot about and being a theory nerd, could not let go of the i-III-IV analysis!!! A wonder what can be done with those three little chords. Even the French composer Erik Satie managed to make excellent music by oscillating between a I and a IV. I look forward to more tid-bits like these, Gareth!
    cj recently posted…The Life Blood of Our MarriageMy Profile

    • CJ, once again you come to my rescue: – I meant i bIII IV. Yes indeed, I find i IV quite haunting; with Donnie Darko / Mad World springing to mind. ‘Wanted’ will certainly inspire a future article – it’s another song that stirs strong emotions in me. It’s nice to know that people still want to learn that stuff 27 years later – I hope you make it mandatory learning :-)

      You certainly have business composing and playing, having listened to your great original works at http://www.cjrenziguitar.com/ – and I have to admit your theoretical knowledge far outstrips my own – Susurrations in particular was beyond my theoretical comprehension by far. Enjoyed listening to you play.

      Sounds like you’re a ‘Keep the Faith’ kind of fella too CJ. I like the way you put it as being an ‘angry optimist’- that’s me to a tee too! It’s that Rocky like trait that relies on a bit of adversity to fire us up, and then turns us from pussy cats of passivity into unstoppable war machines. :-)
      Gareth Mitchell recently posted…Not Your Typical Advice for Overcoming ProcrastinationMy Profile

      • Gareth, your reply and mention of my site and comps are much appreciated. Yes, bIII indeed, the Bb, of course. Right you are. Cant get enough of the theory stuff!

        Mandatory Bon Jovi it is! But I must consider some Maiden and Van Halen then too!!! Ah, my metal-head past comes out;)
        cj recently posted…The Life Blood of Our MarriageMy Profile

  4. Ok, first I had to go to YouTube and play “Faith” while I read your post. I, who profess to be a BonJovi fan, am so ashamed to admit I’d never heard it. While I’m playing it, I have CJ stumbling over the coffee table to get to his guitar to check out the chords. Amidst the flurry of activity which is rare in this house at this time, I did read and glean much from your post!

    I kept asking myself if I am an optimist or pessimist. I suppose I am both – a pessimist stemming from my anxious personality and wanting things to “just fit” into some box, so I can get on with things. I am also a learned optimist. After many years of being surrounding by complaining and negativity, I removed myself from those situations and began focusing on how I could improve myself. I am now under no illusions that I have control over anything but me, but I suppose that is all I need to be in control of. My life is truly a wonderful one, and I think it’s only getting better, but not because of some luck or anything of the like!

    I love how you analyze what you read and learn and are able to synthesize it into these thought-provoking posts from which we can get a better look at ourselves and our world, Gareth. CJ and I were just wondering when you would next post, and we are so happy to see you in our Inboxes! Many thanks for your wit and wisdom!

    • Thanks Tammy; my wisdom is limited but I do try. :-)

      It sounds as if you, like me, have developed a kind of stoic indifference to all the things beyond your control. The realisation that we have so little control over events; and that therefore we might as well just ‘let go’ and focus on the one thing we do have control over – our thoughts – brings such relief and peace of mind, just like you say. It’s far from luck Tammy, it takes hard work – particularly if you’re predisposed to anxiety as we both probably are. So you can feel a great sense of pride and achievement for accomplishing that; and it seems that that tranquillity is radiating throughout your life.

      I think the sad truth is that an anxious personality is also a naturally pessimistic one – one which is both inclined to dwell on the worst that could happen and then catastrophize its significance. Over the years, it was only by nurturing that exact same stoic indifference to everything beyond my control that I became liberated from gripping pessimistic fear (and of course listening to ‘Keep the Faith’ helped a lot too.)

      Every night now Tammy, demand that CJ sits down with his guitar, knocks out G5No3rd-Bb-C and sings, ‘Faith: Know we’re gonna live through the rain…Lord knows you got to keep the faith.’ :-)

      • I love that term “stoic indifference.” Now I have a name for it. I am aiming for a life of tranquility, but oh the day to day challenges are so fun that I loathe to give them up. ;) All kidding aside, it has been great to find like-minded people of all personality types to share and grow with.

        Your comments are as fun to read as your posts! Thank you, Gareth.

  5. Great post, with convincing scientific input!

  6. I find that optimists are very rare around where I live. It seems to be much easier to live with pessimism and optimism is treated like a disease by most. No, not a disease, but perhaps something close to an infection that no one wants; it’s a non-contagious infection. People are okay with the fact that you’re infected with it, but they’re glad to not be the one with it. Not sure why that is.
    Vincent Nguyen recently posted…The Value of BanteringMy Profile

    • Thanks for the comment Vincent.

      Some people for sure, seem to like revelling in pessimism; they seem to derive a strange form of solace from a ‘life’s a b***h and then you die’ kind of attitude.

      How much of that is down to a misinterpretation of what it means to be optimistic though? I myself am adverse in the extreme to the nauseatingly blind, artificial type of optimism that some people try to masquerade behind – the type that simply refuses to acknowledge that problems exist.

      But true optimism – the proactive, resilient, persistent type; in my mind only a fool would turn their back on that.
      Gareth Mitchell recently posted…The Art of OptimismMy Profile

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