Increasing Optimism

Posted by Steve Baskin on Jul 3, 2019 2:00:00 PM
Steve Baskin
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For most of our lives, we have learned (either explicitly or implicitly) a certain model of success and happiness: Become Successful and You Will be Happy.

Vast amounts of research are revealing that this model is flawed.  Instead, it seems that happiness leads to success.

We, like you, want to provide experiences that will help your children be both successful and happy in their lives.

This article is about doing that very thing.

Much of what I am sharing comes from Shawn Achor, a former professor at Harvard who co-taught the most popular class there for 3 straight years who wrote The Happiness Advantage.  You may have seen him on one of the PBS fund drives (I know, I don’t watch those either, but his program was used as one of the feature shows during the pledge week).

He is also a friend of Camp Champions, having visited several times and suggested ideas to make help make camp more helpful to our campers.

We met him when I was the chair of the Tri-State Camp conference (the largest gathering of camp professionals in the world) and Shawn was one of our keynote speakers.

He showed us studies that showed that happy minds have greater access to the full capability of the brain.  They are in fact, “smarter”. Positive people also make those around them more positive, productive and content.   Teams (in sports and business) with happy and optimistic individuals outperform those with similar skills but more pessimistic outlooks.

In short, one of the best things we can do for our children is to foster an optimistic and positive outlook.  For this article, I am using the technical definition of “optimism” and “pessimism”:

  • A pessimist thinks that problems are systemic and that he or she can do little to nothing to mitigate the problems.
  • An optimist thinks that problems are temporary and that she has the ability to minimize them through his or her actions.
Using this definition, optimism is seen as psychologically healthy while pessimism often leads to depression.

Here are some additional tidbits.

Much of the research is very new, but it is incredibly exciting.  For example, they have found that people can increase their “baseline of optimism”.  Basically, we all tend to have an emotional or attitudinal baseline.  We have happier days and sadder days, but they tend to relate to this baseline.  Some people are very optimistic and their bad days do not seem that bad since they start from a positive place.  Similarly, a really good day for a highly pessimistic person might not seem that positive since the baseline is low.

Their studies have revealed that a person can do certain activities that increase the baseline of optimism – even in subjects over 60 years old.  Put differently, someone that has tested as a pessimist for his entire life can develop habits that will have him test consistently as an optimist after only 3 months.

There are many activities in these experiments, but let me share 5 and the reasons that they believe they help:
  1. Exercise.  Exercise has been shown to be as effective as anti-depressants  in fighting depression and is less likely to result in relapses.  Exercise releases endorphins that improve mood.  Also, a successful exercise session gives the exerciser a feeling of accomplishment and control, which correlate with positive outlooks.
  2. Meditation.  The human mind is not designed to multi-task and doing so creates some levels of stress (in the form of cortisol) in the brain.  People who meditate (or pray) for 5 minutes a day manage to undo the effects of multitasking.
  3. Doing 5 random acts of kindness a day.  Doing kind acts with no expectation of reward connects with a very deep part of our minds and social instincts.  We are at our best when we are part of a community.  Cooperating and caring are the glue that holds communities together.  Also, doing kind goals help create a positive self-image.
  4. Journaling for 5 minutes a day about something positive.
  5. Writing 3 things that you are grateful for each day.  Both of these last two activities work on the same principal.  When you know that you will be writing about positive things (or things to be grateful for), you prime your mind to “see” more things that are positive.   In essence, you are training your mind to “sort” for the uplifting and happy aspects of your life, thus making them more real.  Your filter shapes your worldview.

Having read this research, we want to incorporate some of its lessons into camp.  We have already told you about “Grateful Deeds” and modeling gratitude.  We also plan to incorporate elements of the research into the Senior Camper (high school leadership) program.  Every cabin has created a nightly ritual that incorporates elements of this research.

From the kids point of view, they do not know that we are tweaking our program based on research.  For them, the key is to make every activity fun and engaging.  But I thought you might appreciate the many ways that we strive to make camp not only delightfully fun, but also highly helpful for your child!

Steve Sir

Tags: Camper, General