The Power of having a Positive Attitude
Several years ago, my husband and I traveled to Russia. Part of our Viking Cruise experience in St. Petersburg was a visit to Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace. As soon as we got on the bus, we were deluged with heavy rain. Our Russian guide, Olga, a middle-aged woman full of spunk, dry humor and spicy, historical anecdotes told us that she was not going to allow the bad weather to dampen our spirits. “It’s all about having a positive attitude,” she admonished those in our group who were worrying about getting wet walking through the palace’s much- heralded gardens. Following our cheerful leader, we forged ahead with our raincoats and umbrellas undaunted. About five minutes into the walk, the sun came out turning the water drops coating the plants and trees into a million tiny sparkles.
When we returned to the boat, Olga pointed out her new car with great pride as the bus entered the parking area. She explained that she was in the process of getting a driver’s license. ‘My adult children said it was about time!” as she showed us her compact, creamsicle-colored Lada. “Look at the back of my car,“ she said mischievously laughing. The Student Driver decal had been applied upside down.
Thinking back about this experience, I realized how much Olga’s positive attitude had affected our behavior with heavy injections of optimism, motivation and happiness throughout the day. We all benefited from being guided by an upbeat individual who helped us put aside our initial concerns of being miserable slouching around the gardens. Her attitude was contagious. Even with muddied feet, we ended up having a ball with Olga.
Trying to understand how some people are more optimistic than others, I asked Bibi, one of my husband’s care-givers, “How is it that you have such a sunny disposition? You are always smiling, Bibi.” His simple, honest response? “I have no choice but to be happy. I was born like this. Besides, it makes things so much easier in life,” he added with conviction. He then explained how his natural tendency was further ingrained in him thanks to his last boss. “He exemplified positive thinking. His optimistic outlook on life taught us that we could do anything we wanted to do, even things which were normally out of our comfort zone, and to do them successfully, as well.”
In contrast, I told him about my upbringing where my father was particularly negative and unlike his boss, dramatically short on constructive encouragement for his children. My father’s theory in life was that 20% of humanity was intelligent and the remaining 80% miserably dumb. Subsequently, being cynical and obsessing about my problems, was my mindset as a child. I typified the “glass half-empty” kind of person. Luckily, by the time I entered college, I realized how counter-productive being negative was. Gradually, I set aside my father’s 20-80 mantra and embarked on a new approach to life. I started seeking out friends who were content, resilient individuals with can-do attitudes. Through watching how they happily maneuvered their lives, I began to grasp the true value of a positive attitude.
How is it that some people are born with a positive attitude while others of us had to learn it growing up? I asked several friends of mine, all “glass-fullers.” Karen Olaf, my walking buddy, explained that she had always been like that. “The only time that dips down a bit,” she explained “is in the dead of winter when the lack of sunlight affects everybody’s mood.”
My second friend, and one of my spinning instructors, Dialo Gunnz, has a larger-than-life, positive demeanor, one which is so contagious that all of his classes are fully booked all the time. When I queried how and why, he grinned widely and answered, “I had a near-perfect childhood. Even though I was an only child, my parents did not spoil me. But I was much-loved and surrounded with their positive support as I grew up. I had not excuse to be negative.”
A third friend, and fellow CancerCare trustee, Audrey Bouton, told me her brother-in-law used to call her Pollyanna which she didn’t exactly take as a compliment. Her M.O. for maintaining a positive attitude is to “Appreciate whatever is just dimly good, and whenever possible, be useful to others.” Audrey further explained in her dry-witted way that, “I also try to avoid doing anything which might make me feel guilty.”
Audrey’s Pollyanna-ism means she has the tendency to remember pleasant things more accurately than unpleasant ones. Research has shown that even at the subconscious level, the mind of someone with a positive bias tends to focus on the optimistic. This positive outlook pushes back on difficulties not allowing them to affect one's happiness. It often also helps to produce more energy, enthusiasm and curiosity, all of which facilitates finding solutions to problems. Ultimately, it makes life easier and often more interesting, too.
Another benefit is that a positive attitude is the foundation for building success. Conversely, by projecting a negative attitude, you’re more likely to fail before you even begin. After all, we do have a choice. Either we can opt for self-defeat and self-pity—as I did growing up—or we can choose self-encouragement and self-motivation. In life, we all encounter difficult times, either through physical and emotions pains for ourselves or our loved ones, heartache, financial distress or a whole range of other challenges. Ultimately, it our choice how to respond.
For those of us who transitioned from a half-empty to half-full mentality, the benefits are even more striking as we can compare what our lives were like before and after the change of attitude. For me, the single most important benefit of being positive is that it allows me to focus on finding solutions to make things, be they big or little, better in my life. Learning this has been a game changer. Call it making lemonade out of lemons or better yet, as the quote from my favorite Papyrus note pad says, “If life gives you olives, make martinis.”