On the Sunny Side of the Street

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume CVII, No. 7/8July, 2007

Emma Ditrinco

Do you know people who always seem to be gloomy? They may or may not be depressed, but let’s say they’re definitely pessimists. These people could be in Hawaii with a drink in their hand and could still be worrying that it’s going to rain.

If you yourself are one of these people, you may be interested in knowing that it’s possible to actually learn how to be an optimist — and that it might be good for you to do so.

Most of us think of our outlook on life as an immutable fact, simply a matter of how we were born and raised.

Yet, there are many ways our worldview changes throughout our lives.

Our happy memories, losses, achievements and struggles all shape the way we look at the world.

“Positive psychology” is a field of study that has received much attention in recent years. One of the leaders of the positive psychology movement is Dr. Martin Seligman, who is perhaps best known for his book, “Learned Optimism.”

Dr. Seligman directs the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where many of the ideas and research in the field have been developed.

His center defines positive psychology as “the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.”

Positive psychologists suggest that psychology, as a discipline, has tended to focus its research on human problems, rather than human successes.

For example, they believe that just as it is important to study and understand causes of depression, it is equally important to study causes of contentment.

How is it possible that some people — even those who have suffered tremendous losses — seem to retain a degree of happiness in life, while for others finding happiness is a lifelong struggle?

Think about your own life.

Do you find that the things that have been difficult tend to occupy more space in your memory than the happy times? Does the power of the “bad” overshadow the power of the “good?”

Positive psychologists would argue that although it is important to look at and deal with life’s challenges, it is equally important to view your life through the lens of your successes.

One of the interesting aspects of positive psychology is its grounding in empirical research.

In other words, it is not simply about the “power of positive thinking,” a criticism often leveled at the movement by its detractors.

According to the Positive Psychology Center, research in the field has demonstrated some interesting findings that challenge our assumptions about how to find happiness.

For example, we’ve all fallen into the trap of thinking that our lives would be better if we just had more money.

Yet, a 1996 study found that wealth is only weakly correlated to happiness across cultures, once basic needs for food, clothing and shelter are adequately met.

A 2000 study found that people who express gratitude on a regular basis have better physical health and are more optimistic in the long term.

Another 2000 study found that activities like shopping or indulging in food, which make people happy in the short term, tend not to produce lasting results and produce diminishing returns over time, debunking the long-held myth of the power of “retail therapy”!

Of course, these findings cannot be taken as universally true, or as a prescription for behavior.

However, they can begin to lend some insight into how we develop as optimists or pessimists.

Taken in context with the substantial body of research in the field on the biological and social causes of depression, these findings can be useful tools for better understanding the full scope of human experience.

Dr. Seligman’s book, “Learned Optimism,” utilizes a number of techniques grounded in cognitive-behavioral therapy to begin to look at ways to shift one’s worldview from the pessimistic to the optimistic.

One central principle in cognitive therapy is the concept of “cognitive distortions.”

Cognitive distortions are ways of thinking that are often unconscious and automatic — yet are distorted and not based in a fair assessment of reality.

A common example is “fortune telling,” when we claim to “know” what others are thinking or how things will turn out without reasonable evidence in either direction.

How many times have you played for others and thought, “Everyone hated that,” only to find out that many people loved your performance?

Through practice, one can learn to identify common distortions and restructure one’s thinking so that automatic thoughts are more rationally based.

A more balanced thought might be, “I played well. Some people liked it and some didn’t.”

By visiting the Web site of the Positive Psychology Center at, you can participate in online research by taking dozens of short questionnaires which measure things like current happiness, enduring happiness, character strengths, capacity for forgiveness and work-life satisfaction.

By taking the questionnaires, you can contribute to the growing body of research in the field and learn something about yourself at the same time.

Your results are kept completely anonymous to the researchers, but may be interesting for you and a starting point for self-reflection about your own outlook on life.