To put this into perspective she is a retired 68-year-old woman with an advanced degree, two kids, who had a 40 plus year career and every weekend when I visit she is watching a sappy story on the Hallmark channel. She immediately changes the channel when I come into the room to anything else and acts a bit embarrassed. I have reached out to my brother to see what his opinion was. Is she depressed or lonely; is there something we should do?
Looking back at our childhoods this obsession was not apparent. She went to Star Wars movies, TMNT movies, soccer games, football games, concerts, and supported every interest we had. Even now she will watch Adam Ruins Everything and Declassified with my brother and I. So when and why is there a disconnection from then to now?
I have always accepted that my mom was an optimist. Not an unrealistic one, but always the person that helped you to solve any problem to achieve the best outcome possible. Thinking back to times that were challenging she always tried to hide her sadness while I railed at the world and my brother ran through his emotions on the track. In our family reality, it seems that we represent the aspect of social psychology that reflects the optimism-pessimism continuum.
Blame it on genetics, social cognitive learning, or simply a bad attitude but my brother and I rarely see the bright side. We are not unhappy; we just don’t expect things to work out. When we focus on our goals and are successful we are often surprised. Bring in the optimist and we are forced to reevaluate our actual experiences. According to Schneider, Gruman, and Coutts “Optimism has little to do with the objective characteristics of the situation that can range from dire to ideal. Instead, optimism is a largely subjective perceptual phenomenon” (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012, p. 384).
The question now is how did she develop that perspective. I know enough about her life to acknowledge that it had sadness, disappointment, and tragedy just like everyone. No silver spoon, just a girl growing up in the 1960’s that saw the world change. She knows where she was for three assassinations and Kent State protests and will freely admit that the experiences changed her. Applying the learned optimism theory, I would say that it was through this time period that she developed and acted on the need to see positive change. She wanted to see a future without war, poverty, and racism and she believed she could do her part. And it would start with her through her interactions at home and at work. It was a choice she made. As things happened in her world she tried to understand who was responsible. Assigning attribution for the world’s problems was easy, and on a personal level, her reactions were the classic optimist; able to enjoy internal attribution when things worked out and external attribution when things happened that were not in her control. That skill would become very important as she raised her sons.
As the son of an optimist, and I am here to testify that I am lucky. Her optimistic outlook, while sometimes annoying, helped support us all. It gave us a counterbalance to negative experiences, it reminded us that we had strengths and weaknesses, it provided problem-solving skills and supported us emotionally through the years of teenage angst. Optimism taught us balance; we are responsible for ourselves, our actions and our reactions and what we don’t have, which is control of anything else.
So why does my mother watch Hallmark movies? I asked her. Her response is that they are a guilty pleasure. Problems are solved, love wins, people help each other, having and being a friend is important, and attitudes can change; basically, these movies are optimism in a two-hour dose. And the one caveat – love takes work (way more than the 2 hours allocated in the movie). If I have learned anything about what is important in relationships’ from my mother, it is that optimism is vital. And to answer my question to my brother “Is there anything we should do about mom?” the answer is yes, make some popcorn and watch a movie with her and sink in the optimism!
Schneider, F., Gruman, J., & Coutts, L. (Eds.). (2012). Applied social psychology (Second ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.