In the mid-1950’s, a Hungarian endocrinologist, Dr. Hans Selye, wrote a seminal book called The Stress of Life, in which he conceptualized the physiology of stress. One of the many findings that intrigued him involved individual differences in the reaction to, and coping adaptations to stressors. In one of his anecdotes, he relates the story of twin sons who grew up with a raging alcoholic father — one son was also a chronic alcoholic, but the other twin was a complete tee-totaler. He asked both sons a question, “Why did you turn out the way you did?” They both gave a virtually identical answer, “With an old man like that, what do you expect!”
His exemplary case illustrates the importance of “explanatory style” with respect to dealing with both positive and negative events in our lives. In order for an event or situation to be stressful, it must be appraised as such.
Viktor Frankl, Nazi concentration camp survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, observed a critical relationship in survivor rates in the death camps. At one camp, the guard would inform entering prisoners that they would never leave the compound alive. According to Frankl, those who bought into this belief died soon after.
Among those who were not killed, those inmates who rejected their captor’s ominous prediction of death and defeat and who believed that this horror would one day pass, survived this unbelievable ordeal. However, the moment the prisoner lost hope, according to Frankl, was the day that they did not rise out of their bunk bed — and this was the day of their death.
One of the most predictive variables of resiliency is one’s thinking style — how one explains adversity, especially as that relates to explanations of optimism vs. pessimism. As the cliché goes, the optimist sees the glass as half full, the pessimist sees it as half empty.
Study after study have shown that an optimistic approach to most of life’s challenges results in the most positive adaptations. Optimistic salespeople outsell pessimistic salespeople; optimistic managers outperform pessimistic managers, optimistic students make higher grades than pessimistic students, optimistic sports teams have better records than pessimistic teams, and longitudinal studies have shown that optimistic people even outlive pessimistic people!
We’ve recently survived a tumultuous political election, re-grouped after Hurricane Sandy, mourned the loss of innocent school children in the middle of holiday celebrations, were spared the Mayan apocalypse, faced the fiscal cliff, and mercifully saw the series finale of Jersey Shore.
In the mid-1990’s, I had the sad privilege of working with a crisis response team that responded to the Oklahoma City bombing tragedy. One of the best-known survivors was a young woman named Daina Bradley. That fateful April 19th, she and her mother, sister and her two young children were in the Federal building getting a social security card for her 4 month old son when the bomb went off. Floor after floor collapsed, pancaking down to the basement, eventually creating a body-crunching coffin in which Daina waited in the midst of moaning, crying, and pitch-black darkness.
When doctors finally reached her, they freed her arm but could not free her crushed leg that was pinned under a massive slab of concrete. With several scalpels, a surgeon took 10 minutes to amputate her leg. After her traumatic rescue, Daina learned that her mother and her two children were dead; her sister, Felysha, was recuperating at a nearby rehab hospital.
As she left the hospital, she paused on the hospital steps as some of the press corps asked her questions. One reporter asked her what she had learned from this tragedy. She replied, “Never take your parents or anything for granted; treat everything you have like precious china, because someday it will be gone.” So here’s to a new year, a new beginning, and renewed optimism and perspective about what’s important in life.