Critical Discussions in Cognitive Science

Motivation and Optimism:
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

by Aaron Dobbs

Stress is an odd emotion. Just like fear, it can prove to be paralyzing or invigorating, depending on one's personality type and general outlook. Some people see stress as an obstacle to overcome; a problem to be solved. If they push forward, they can conquer anything. The stress motivates them to take action and do whatever necessary to conquer what is, in fact, causing the stress. Others, however, will let this wave of stress crash over them, resulting instead in a state of near-paralysis where nothing can be accomplished and motivating factors simply disappear.

Pierce J. Howard, Ph.D., discusses motivation in Chapter 13 of his book The Owner's Manual for the Brain: Everyday Applications From Mind-Brain Research (Austin: Leornian Press-Bard Press, 1994, 168-174). He discusses Martin Seligman's concepts of the difference between the "optimist" and the "pessimist" (170-171) as well as Norman Cousins' concept of "hardiness," a proactive method of keeping oneself healthy. These ideals of optimism and hardiness go hand-in-hand, and much of what they preach, I imagine, would have very positive effects. On the other hand, there are a couple points raised by Seligman and Cousins and expanded upon by Howard that prove to be not only narrow-minded, but in fact also potentially dangerous to anyone who chooses to follow such advise.

Howard provides a basic and simple definition of motivation: he calls it "goal-oriented behavior" (168). He further describes that, "The problem with motivation comes when individuals who have a good chance of success choose not to pursue a highly valued goal" (168). What can cause a person to sabotage himself and not complete the goal set-upon, particularly when he has a "good chance of success" (168)? Unfortunately, this is where we start running into trouble.


According to Howard, Seligman places everyone into two groups: optimists and pessimists. The optimists are positive thinkers; they are the people, previously described, who are able to take the bull by the horns and translate adversity into success. The pessimist, on the other hand, will sabotage himself by having the opposite outlook as that of the optomist. While there is certainly validity in this argument, there is at least one specific trait in Seligman's argument as summarized by Howard that common sense would tend to dispute.

In explaining both the optimist's and pessimist's outlooks on adversity, Howard summarizes Seligman saying the pessimist would blame himself for all his problems while the optomist would decide this adversity is simply someone else's fault (170). Howard makes it very clear that the optomistic outlook in this case -- and every case, for that matter -- is the "healthy" way to explain adversity. However, is it truly that healthy to never take responsibility for oneself? Is it truly healthy for people to blame everyone else for their own hardships? Of course not. In fact, a crucial element to being able to overcome adversity is having the strength to recognize when you have done something wrong yourself and how to fix it. It certainly is not to simply blame the problem on external forces.

One of the "applications" -- or prescriptions -- Howard presents to the reader to help put into practice the lessons of Seligman's optimism begins by stating that a certain study by Michael Lewis of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School has shown "that girls grow up with a pessimistic explanatory style" (172). He continues to say that boys tend to receive greater accolades than girls, and the way to solve this problem and help create a more optomistic outlook in young girls is "to encourage (them) to attribute their successes to their ability and their failures to bad luck" (172).

Can Howard be serious? While success is a powerful force of encouragement and reinforcement, should children, regardless of sex, be told to just forget about all their failures because they are simply the result of bad luck? Such a suggestion is ludicrous and dangerous because it can reinforce the idea that people are not responsible for their own actions; the failure was simply a result of bad luck.

One extreme example could be a drunk driving case. If a person drives drunk, gets into an accident, possibly injures another eperson and goes to jail, one would likely consider this situation a failure in life. Was it caused simply by bad luck? Maybe getting caught was bad luck, but the drunk driver's own choices -- getting too intoxiacated and still getting behind the wheel -- are what placed him or her in that situation in the first place.

Let us take another hypothetical situation: a young girl is encouraged to think that all adversity is someone else's fault and any failures are simply bad luck. She grows up to graduate from a great school and becomes a major success in her chosen field. She gets married, and life continues to be wonderful. Eventually, however, the relationship begins to turn sour. She realizes she is not getting enough out of her marriage, and she decides to have an extramarital affair. One day, her husband walks in on her lover and her in the middle of one of their trysts, and he sues her for divorce. Her marriage is over, and one should certainly consider it a failure. Should she be allowed to simply shrug the entire affair off as bad luck, simply to be comforted by the notion, or would she become a better, stronger person by examining what she was not getting from he marriage in the first place that led her to have an affair? Again, common sense states the latter would be the better path to choose.


Cousins' ideas, as described by Howard, also have some great value. He describes Cousins' ideal of "hardiness" as "wanting to play an active role in curing oneself (which) is the essence of the motivated person" (173). Hardiness is composed of four components, which Howard summarizes as positive vs. negative expectations, relaxation vs. stress, positive vs. negative emotions, and active vs. passive or "being a doer, not just being done unto" (173).

Each of these ideals are positive concepts that can only help one motivate oneself, but placed in the context, once again, of Howard's "applications," they seem to disregard external factors completely, and certainly do not allow for different people of different personality traits.

Howard suggests that laughter is one of the most healthy things a person can do. He is not wrong. Laughter obviously relieves stress and enhances relaxation. This effect is probably because laughter is a natural relex to an enjoyable situation. Sure, some people also laugh or giggle at times of extreme embarrassement or nervousness, but once again this is usually an unintentional reflex to the situation. In both cases, it should come as no surprise that the act of laughing is having a positive effect on the body. That is why the reflex exists.

However, in his very next "application," Howard suggests that people, "Focus on positive emotions. See fewer horror films, more inspirational films" (173). Once again, Howard has managed to make a broad generalization that is not only incorrect but potentially unhealthy. He supports this argument by quoting a study that showed students who watched a documentary on Mother Teresa had a better functioning immune-system than a group of students who had been watching films of the Nazis. This comparison has absolutely nothing to do with the effect of horror movies versus romantic comedies or any other type of "inspirational" film, and in fact is as ludicrous as comparing apples and oranges. Of course people are going to show some effect of depression after watching films of Nazis; they would have just been exposed to documentary footage of crimes against humanity that really happened. The propoganda of the Nazis is disgusting. Take it one step further and compare those films to the work of Mother Teresa? There is no comparison.

In fact, a more valid argument could be made that horror films are a healthy, even cathartic, release of stress and emotions, which is why they have remained so popular over the years. People like to be scared, but only when they know they are safe. All of us go through life each day with thousands of fears swimming around in our minds. Those who bottle up such fears and try not to think about them, let alone confront them, are the same people who go to scary movies and have nightmares because they do not want to tthink about such dangers. They are also people who, generally, scare easily and potentially often walk through life always afraid that something will jump out at them from around every corner.

However, the people who enjoy such films, consciously or not, enjoy being scared. They like sitting down in the comfort of a dark movie theatre, tubs of popcorn in their laps, cups filled with soda on the armrest, watching to see what will happen next while always knowing that whatever happens is part of a make-believe fantasy world. They know all the danger is on the screen, and within the confines of that dark theatre, they are safe. They know the actors on the screen, even the ones who have been slashed to pieces by the insane serial killer, are more than likely out in Hollywood making tons of money portraying a completely different character in a completely different type of movie.

Positive thinking, visualization and happy emotions should definitely be the majority of one's experience and practice, but it should not be all-encompassing. In fact, to discuss the Nazis briefly once again, it is likely that all the Nazi leaders -- Adolph Hitler in particular -- were very proud of what they were doing and saw the extremination of the Jews as a very positive event in the history of the world. They all probably took a step back for a moment and visualized a world without Jews, a world dominated by Germany and the Aryan race, and to them, this looked pretty damn good. Luckily, their positive thinking was not powerful enough to overcome the rest of the world.

Examining fear and testing its limits has been part of the backbone of entertainment for years. Audiences did not start flocking to horror movies and thrillers until long after Mary Shelley had written Frankenstein and Bram Stoker had completed Dracula. No matter what the medium, human nature has always held an attraction to danger and fear, particularly from within the safe confines of a living room or movie theatre.

While Howard's Chapter 13 "Optimism and hardiness: Two sides of the motivation coin" proves interesting and makes some very good points, it unfortunately does not look at the bigger picture through enough of a wide-angle lens. While each of the techniques he suggests would certainly contribute to a healthier outlook and a more motivated and proactive person, it is foolish to think that either the disposal of self-responsibility or the exclusion of all negative images and ideas would solve everyone's motivational dilemmas. In fact, such extreme action would probably contribute to doing more harm than good.

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