Category Archives: Optimism

Reflections on Marriage Part 2 – One thing to know

A colleague asked me recently about positive psychology lessons that could help people strengthen marriages.  I’ve written about this before (Reflections on Marriage), but his question reminded me of something very germane that I read in Marcus Buckingham’s book, The One Thing You Need to Know (pp. 16-24), based on research by Sandra Murray and colleagues at SUNY Buffalo.

The One Thing you need to know about marriage is

“Find the most generous explanation for each other’s behavior and believe it.” (p. 22)

Let me give an example of putting this to work.

To-do listMy husband is a very organized person. He has a system for making to-do lists that includes consulting several master lists — one for annual events like eye doctor appointments, one for monthly events, one for weekly events, and one for ongoing projects. Once he has made a list, he doesn’t like to do something that is not on the list unless it is of overarching importance. When I first knew him, I sometimes found it very annoying if I had an idea for a project, and he said, “It’s not on the list.”

So I could think, “I love him, even if he is sometimes really rigid about his lists.”

Or I could find a generous way to think about his list-making that includes it among the things I love about him. Buckingham says, “When you notice a flaw, recast it in your mind as an aspect of a strength.” In this case, I can think about how we never fail to pay bills or get the filters changed or shop for holidays or …. When we have a big event coming up, like giving a party or preparing for a hurricane, I can count on him to plan for it and execute all the things that on his list. His list-making has made my life easier and more secure.

So when I think about his list-making, my feelings are fondness and amusement and acceptance — even awe for how much he accomplishes. I haven’t compartmentalized a piece of him away hoping not to think about it. Compartmentalizing doesn’t really work. Those cordoned-off aspects of the person continue to be there, ready to generate irritation and resentment whenever you can’t ignore them. Besides, ignoring them takes energy.

I view this as a form of realistic optimism where I’m choosing how I want to deal with fuzzy meaning (a lovely term that I got from Dr. Sandra Schneider). There is no right or wrong interpretation of his list-making behavior. So I can choose an interpretation that increases my appreciation of him every time it becomes evident. It took a while to make this interpretation habitual, but it becomes easier all the time.

Aside: This approach is not suitable for violence or abuse of any kind. But it is helpful for the personality differences that lead to ongoing friction between two people who love each other and want to make marriage work together.

Source of to-do list picture

Murray, S., Holmes, J., Dolderman, D., & Griffin, D. W. (2000). What the motivated mind sees: Comparing friends’ perspectives to married partners’ views of each other. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 36(6), 600-620. First sentence of abstract: This article argues that satisfaction in marriage is associated with motivated and benevolent biases in perception. Link to place to order


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Filed under Good with the Bad, Marriage, Optimism, Relationships

Podcast – An Interview about Applied Positive Psychology

Karel Vredenburg has been collecting a set of podcasts called, Life Habits: Learn habits to optimize your life and stay sane in this crazy world. Most of the podcasts are Karel himself talking about topics ranging from anger management to career strategies to dealing with technology.

Recently Karel interviewed me over Skype and has made the interview available as one of his podcasts:

I’m not sure what exactly I talked about, but I gave him this list of possible topics and we hit a lot of them.

  • Four Ways to Build Self-Efficacy
  • Gratitude at Work
  • Learned Optimism and Resilience
  • Celebrating Successes Effectively
  • Establishing the Conditions for Flow
  • Broaden and Build: The Power of Positive Emotions
  • Meaningful Work
  • Strategies for High-Quality Connections
  • Discovering and applying strengths

I invite you to listen in.

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Filed under Coaching, Giving Feedback, Job Satisfaction, Optimism, Positive Interventions, Positive Psychology, Self-efficacy

Reflections on Voting

We just got back from voting in the North Carolina primary. Voting is an activity that brings back lots of memories…

  • About my paternal grandfather who claimed that he never missed an election, not even a local school board race, in his long adult life. As we face the difficult questions about how to end the war in Iraq, I think about his experience as an officer on the Western Front and the letter that he wrote my grandmother about jubilation as World War I ended..
  • Frank Church pictureAbout my maternal grandparents, one a Democrat, the other a Republican, who went to the polls every election to cancel each other’s votes out. Then the year my grandfather, the Republican, posted a sign in his yard for the Democrat, Frank Church, running for the senate in Idaho. Read about Frank Church who said in 1970, “Our long ordeal in this mistaken war must end. The gathering crisis in our own land, the deepening divisions among our people, the festering, unattended problems here at home, bear far more importantly on the future of our Republic than anything we ever had at stake in Indochina.”
  • About my mother cutting up a Nixon bumper sticker in 1960 to form the sentence “Nix on Nixon.” My earliest political memory is her disdain for Nixon’s Checkers speech.
  • About the passion I felt working for McGovern — I see the same passion in young people working for Obama today.
  • About the horrible ambiguity of the outcome of the presidential election in 2000, and yet the pride I felt that we could still have a peaceable transfer of power.
  • About the excitement of this election, that we have both a serious female candidate and a serious African American candidate for president. Much has changed in the United States since the 15th and 19th amendments extended the right to vote to African Americans and women. After 2008, when children are told they can be anything, even president, it will mean much more to little girls and children of color.

A few weeks ago, I met with my Positive Psychology Discussion Group to talk about negative campaigning – why it occurs, whether it serves a purpose. Evolutionarily, the negative is more salient than the positive to people. So for a given budget of ink and robocalls, negative messages may have 3+ times the power of positive messages. Of course there is always the possibility that they may boomerang, like the game we played as children: “I’m rubber and you’re glue. Everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you.”

I personally think it is better to get the possible negatives out of the way so they don’t dog the elected officials, distracting them from the work of forming the necessary compromises that go into governing. That’s one thing about Clinton – we’ve had Clinton dirty linen in front of us for so long that it is hard to believe there is any more. Reverend Wright is a test for Obama. How well does he define his own position rather than letting himself be forced into a “Have you stopped beating your wife?” position.

Benjamin Franklin portraitI’d like to close with Ben Franklin’s words at the end of the Constitutional Convention. He starts, “I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right but found to be otherwise.” He ends with this plea, “On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”

I never expect unanimity in our country, but I do hope that however the election turns out, we may all doubt our infallibility, open our ears to other points of view, and find ways to act in common cause.

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Filed under Good with the Bad, Meaning, Optimism

Realistic optimism

Sandra Schneider, PhDI am very fond of a paper by Dr. Sandra Schneider about realistic optimism, not the least because she works the words “warm fuzziness” into the title of an academic paper. How’s that for courage!

Schneider, S. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: Meaning, knowledge, and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist. 56, 3, 250-263.

She bases her model on a clear distinction between fuzzy knowledge (“you don’t know the facts”) and fuzzy meaning (“you have latitude in interpretations”).

Optimism is not a good way to deal with fuzzy knowledge. If you don’t know your cholesterol numbers, it doesn’t make sense to just assume you are safe from cardiac disease. Dealing with fuzzy knowledge by assuming the best possible set of facts is dangerous — and why we sometimes equate optimists with ostriches who hide their heads in the sand.

However there are many things that happen in life where people have a range of possible interpretations, all of which may be reasonable ways of making meaning out of the circumstances. Someone walks past me in the hallway without greeting me. I could choose me-centric interpretations: He doesn’t like me. He doesn’t think I’m worth acknowledging. I’m so easy to overlook. Or I could choose other-centric interpretations. Perhaps he was thinking about something else. Maybe he didn’t remember my name and didn’t want to risk being embarrassed. Maybe he doesn’t like to greet people in general. In this instance, selecting a me-centric interpretation would make me miserable, while selecting an other-centric interpretation has no emotional load for me. Realistic optimists make a practice of selecting interpretations that contribute to their own well-being.

Here’s another example of fuzzy meaning based on a situation that is discussed in the context of cynicism in Dr. Joel Wade’s blog:


Written by Dr. Joel Wade

Friday, 03 February 2006

The other day, my wife and I were having lunch, and an acquaintance from our kid’s school came by. The first words out of her mouth were: “How unusual, a husband and wife actually sitting together and talking with each other.”

The acquaintance has chosen to interpret the situation as something odd — an exception to the rule — and thus highlights the opposite — separation and distance between spouses — to herself. Alternatively, she could have interpreted it as yet more evidence of marital warmth — and thus highlighted what was before her, rather than the opposite.

Dr. Schneider makes a strong argument that realism and optimism do not have to be in conflict. When you have interpretative latitude, you can realistically choose more positive interpretations. She suggests three ways that can work:

  1. leniency toward the past (the benefit of the doubt principle)
  2. being alert to what’s positive in the present (the appreciate the moment principle)
  3. choosing to see the future as a challenge and opportunity instead of chore or problem (the window of opportunity principle)

I guess I’m fond of Dr. Schneider’s argument because I find that the distinction between fuzzy knowledge and fuzzy meaning really resonates with my friends, family, and clients. They can see the distinction between not knowing the facts and not knowing the meaning. It makes sense to them that they can’t assume facts line up just they way they want, but their choices of meaning make a difference to their outlook on the world.


Filed under Meaning, Optimism