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The A to Z's of Teenagers: O Is for Optimism

Photograph by Getty Images

I used to think that optimism meant always looking on the sunny side of life, that optimists were those incredibly annoying people who made “glass half-full” declarations when it was so damn obvious that the glass was half-empty. You know, those clearly deluded Hakuna Matata, o-bla-di/o-blah-da, “no worries, man” people who were out there delightedly making lemonade out of lemons.

I used to think that optimism was something you were born with. (And clearly I wasn’t.)

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I was wrong. On all counts. Optimists are not the brainless Pollyannas I thought they were. They are (as the research I recently did on this subject makes very clear) confident, resilient, self-empowered people who believe good things can happen—not that good things will always happen, not that good things are meant to happen ... just that good things have the possibility of happening. And here’s what separates optimists from, well, dreamers: Optimists believe that they can help make these good things happen, that they can have a significant impact on their future, that they are the authors of their lives (and not the victims).

I was also wrong about optimism being a congenital trait. It turns out that optimism can be learned, which, in itself, is an optimistic statement. Given my new understanding of the situation, I would like to make two proclamations:

1. I am proud to say I am, indeed, an optimist (even though I wasn’t born one and even though I came from a family who, when seeing an entirely full glass would figure it was either about to shatter or it was put there by someone trying to fool them into thinking everything was OK ... which it most assuredly was not).

I believe I have helped (and will continue, forever, to help) my daughter inhabit a world in which good is possible.

2. I believe that optimism—as correctly defined—may be the single most important attitude, trait, behavior, way of seeing and being in the world that I can help instill in my daughter.

Oops. And one more proclamation, as I’m on a roll here:

3. Because I am an optimist, and I believe I have some power over how things turn out, I believe I have helped (and will continue, forever, to help) my daughter inhabit a world in which good is possible if you embrace that possibility and take responsibility for that possibility and work hard to make it happen.

These days, Lizzie and I are both volunteering at a free meals program for the homeless in our city. This is an act of optimism. It’s not just that we think, with the few hours a week we devote to the program, that we can help make a difference in some people’s lives. Yes, we do think that. It’s also that we exist within a community of volunteers and activists who also believe they can help. So we are surrounded by optimists. More than that—and this is a huge life lesson for both me and Lizzie—the people we serve, the homeless folks—often show themselves as optimists. It’s easy to be an optimist when life is pretty good. Not so easy when you live under a bridge and carry what you own on your back.

And yet.

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Yesterday Lizzie and I were serving and talking to a particularly malodorous, grizzled older man who had come for a hot dinner. He was—like many of the diners we serve—just the sort of guy you’d avoid eye contact with if you encountered him in the street. And that would be a gross misjudgment. He was a gentle soul.

And, against all odds, he was an optimist. He had just finished his meal, and as Lizzie and I looked on, he hoisted his overstuffed, ragged pack on his back, straightened up and gave us a big, mostly toothless grin. “You don’t know how much lighter this pack feels now that I have a full stomach,” he said.

He had opened himself to the possibility of something good happening. We helped.

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