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How to be an optimist

By: Steven Campbell
February 23, 2018

 When our youngest daughter Sarah was born in 1978, she was barely breathing. 

After she was rushed to the Children’s Hospital in San Diego, her pediatrician told me she had a 40 to 50 percent chance of living. (My wife Mary was back at the hospital recovering from the delivery.)

Although I was convinced pessimistically that Sarah was not going to live, my older sister Sallee was optimistically convinced she was.

Sallee had been a perinatal RN (registered nurse) for 13 years and met me in the waiting room at the children’s hospital. 

“I want to tell you something, Steve. You can’t give up on this child! You must stand next to the isolette and talk to her and touch her the whole time. You must tell her about Tobe, your wire-haired fox terrier and Abbey her sister. You must sing to her and describe her room at home and about the park where you’ll be going for walks. You must paint such a wonderfully vivid picture that she WANTS to come home.”

“But Sallee, she is only four hours old and she’s dying!” 

“No, Steve! She’s nine months old and learning how to breathe.”

Eight days later, we brought Sarah home.

Mary and Sallee and I had different ways of looking at the world. When Sarah was born, I imagined the worst. (I would tell myself that I was just being ‘realistic.’) On the other hand, Mary and Sallee saw hard events in their least threatening light. To them, hard events were (and are) temporary and surmountable challenges to overcome.

Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, the author the seminal book “Learned Optimism,” has been studying optimists and pessimists for the last 53 years. 

“The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do and are their own fault. The optimists who are confronted with the same hard knocks in this world think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.”

These two habits of thinking have consequences. Dr. Seligman sights hundreds of studies which show that pessimists give up more easily and get depressed more often. They also show that optimists do much better in school, their health is unusually good, they age well and some studies suggest they may even live longer.

Can you switch from being pessimistic to being optimistic?

Absolutely; but not through mindless devices! (“Every day, in every day, I’m getting better and better.”)

Pessimists can learn to be optimists by learning a new way of thinking (which Seligman calls “cognitive skills.”). “Far from being the creations of boosters of the popular media, these skills were discovered in the laboratories and clinics of leading psychologists and psychiatrists and then rigorously validated.”

Three steps to becoming more optimistic:

First: realize that your feelings are not coming from what is happening to you, or how you were raised, or the mistakes you have made, or the successes you have had, or events in your life.  In fact, my own pessimistic feelings did not come from Sarah’s chances of living. 

Do you know where your feelings are coming from? They are coming from:

Your BELIEFS about what is happening to you

Your BELIEFS about how you were raised

Your BELIEFS about the mistakes you have made

Your BELIEFS about the successes you have had

Your BELIEFS about the events in your life and 

My own BELIEFS about Sarah’s chances of living

In other words, (and this incredibly powerful discovery came out of the 1960s, along with the flower children) our FEELINGS COME FROM OUR BELIEFS.

Second: we can CHANGE THOSE BELIEFS! Sallee had always been optimistic about Sarah’s challenges to live because she had witnessed so many other children flourishing through the same challenges. 

Third: when we CHOOSE to change our beliefs, OUR FEELINGS FOLLOW!

Around the fourth day in the hospital with Sarah, her pediatrician informed us that the hospital had been giving her 100 percent oxygen, in contrast to the 30 percent that you and I breathe. He then informed us that if they continued with this high level, even if she survived, she would be profoundly damaged. “Tomorrow morning, we are lowering her oxygen intake.” 

By that time, I had witnessed Sarah’s determination to live and had chosen to believe differently. “Yes, she is indeed 9 months old and is simply learning how to breathe.” 

In other words, my beliefs began changing and I felt more optimistic.

So that night I brought my guitar to the hospital and sang children’s songs to her all night long. When they took her blood-gas the next morning, it had gone from 100 percent to 50 percent in 12 hours. Her pediatrician exclaimed, “I think Sarah wants to go home.”

And four days later she did!

What happened? I think that Sarah herself, when she was only eight days old, changed her beliefs, became more optimistic and said to Mary and me, “Take me home now. I want to meet my sister.”


Steven Campbell is the author of “Making Your Mind Magnificent” and conducts “The Winners Circle” every two months at Sonoma Mountain Village in RP. Contact Steven at 480-5007 or go his website at to ask about his one-day free monthly seminar.