Luck has nothing to do with optimistic outlook

DAYTON, Ohio -- A positive attitude throughout life can reduce your risk of a heart attack by up to 50 percent, according to research published in the April 17 edition of Psychological Bulletin. Investigators from the Harvard School of Public Health reviewed more than 200 studies and found a clear relationship between our mental and physical health.

These findings are consistent with decades of research in the discipline of positive psychology that an optimistic attitude results in all kinds of emotional, behavioral and physical benefits.

Research has documented that optimism is not an immutable trait determined by one's genetic code but rather a skill that can be taught to even a 10-year-old child.

An optimistic lifestyle is not based upon the mechanical repetition of positive statements or the silly efforts to enhance children's self-concepts. According to Dr. Martin Seligman in Learned Optimism, the focus should be to teach children how to think optimistically about stressful events.

In Dr. Seligman's ABC model of behavior, adversity is a normal experience that happens daily to most people. The beliefs that we hold determine the consequences or how we behave in response to an unpleasant situation. We can change our response to stress by altering the way we think about the world.

Optimistic people have a different explanatory style for understanding good and bad events, and children acquire such belief systems around age 7.

Permanence. People with a positive outlook view adversity as generally temporary. Negative people will frequently use terms like "never" and "always" to describe their situations. If a child has a bad day at school, you are more likely to hear "My teacher is always picking on me" from a pessimistic child.

Pervasiveness. When confronted with failure in one part of your life, do you generalize that to all other areas? When a teenage boy gets turned down by a girl for a date, does he think "No one likes me" or "This one girl doesn't like me"? People who catastrophize tend to develop universal explanations for their misfortune; positive people look for a specific cause.

Personalization. Positive people tend to view the causes of good and bad events as more internally determined, and thus within their control. After winning a basketball game, does your child refer to luck (pessimistic style since that is beyond her control) or the skill of the team (internal cause, and a positive explanatory style)?

Your belief system is the key factor in influencing whether you have a positive or negative attitude. A pessimistic attitude results from a belief system that interprets adversity as being permanent, pervasive and due to external factors. You can change your life by altering the way you think.

You are not the helpless victim of your genes, parents or life's circumstances. Change the way you think, and positive behaviors and feelings will follow.

Dr. Gregory Ramey is a child psychologist and vice president of outpatient services at the Children's Medical Center of Dayton, Ohio.