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English Detective #26, The Value of Optimism: Nov. 19, 2013
November 19, 2013

The current investigation (Introducing this issue):

Researchers have found that attitudes like hope, optimism, and happiness show a clear connection with a lower chance of having a stroke or getting heart disease, according to the New York Times Well Blog (April 23, 2012.)

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot reported in a TED talk that her research team had also found real benefits to the “optimism bias.” They found that a large majority of people expect things to go better for them than for people in general.

People think that they personally are less likely to get cancer or a divorce, and more likely to find success, than the average.

Ms. Sharot goes on to explain why that bias, though inaccurate (we can’t all be better or luckier than average!), is useful to people. It often leads to choices that make their expectations come true. (That is, they become “self-fulfilling prophecies”—much more likely to happen because a person believes they will.)

Watch and listen to that talk here.

Jane Brody’s New York Times’ article on “seeing the glass half-full” also presents very interesting research on optimism. They found that optimistic people were more persistent and more motivated, since they believed they had a chance to succeed.

They also found that people who were not naturally optimistic could make themselves optimists by acting as if they were. By focusing on the positive, they will act in ways that bring positive results. That New York Times article is here.

The rest of the newsletter includes vocabulary and a few explanations, a link to some vocabulary practice on personality traits and attitudes (including optimism), and a discussion of the Latin root of integration and integrity.

Your First Clue: Vocabulary Emphasized in this Issue

Review (Academic Word List) Vocabulary: adjust, alter, attribute, bias, estimate (as well as overestimate or underestimate), focus, integration, negative, persistent, positive, research, statistics.

New (not on the AWL): optimism, pessimism, and setback.

Optimism is an attitude of hope for the future; an expectation that things will work out for the best. We may call it “looking on the bright side” or “seeing the glass half-full” when pessimists would describe the same glass as “half-empty.”

Pessimism is the negative opposite of optimism. Pessimists expect and prepare for the worst, or at least for things to go wrong. They often believe they are more realistic than optimists, though true realism should have no bias or expectation either way.

A setback is any event that hinders or reverses progress (“sets things back” to near where they were before beginning to do something.) Brody said optimists are less likely to be stopped by setbacks. They see them not as defeats but as challenges to overcome so they can keep moving forward.

I also want to point out the word ‘neurotransmitters,’ since we studied ‘transmit’ recently. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit or send nerve messages across the gaps (synapses) between nerve cells (neurons)in the brain.

Follow the Clues (Vocabulary Practice):Practice Attitude and Personality Vocabulary

Click here to practice words useful for resumes and job interviews, as well as for discussing people's attitudes and individual traits.

Word Family Investigator:

Integer is the Latin word for whole or entire (from ‘in’ meaning ‘not’ and ’tangere’--to touch. So it literally meant untouched, just like our word ‘intact’ from the past participle of the same root.) Now we call whole numbers (numbers that are not fractions) ‘integers.’

‘Integral’ is an adjective meaning ‘complete’ or a necessary part of something for it to be complete. It comes from the same root via French, (as do ‘integrate,’ ‘integration,’ and ‘integrity.’) We might say that an outgoing, friendly personality is an integral part of political success in a democracy.

Something is well-integrated when all its parts work well together as a whole. In the U.S., integration usually refers to all races and ethnic groups being able to work together. In the 1950s, transportation facilities and schools were ‘segregated’ by law in many southern states. Black people could not use the same restrooms in bus terminals, ride in the same railroad cars (although black porters were allowed to serve passengers in the ‘white’ cars!) or go to the same schools.

There was a major campaign of protests and sit-ins to change those laws. Now integration is the law in the entire U.S., although many cities are not well-integrated in fact. (Schools and neighborhoods are often predominantly one race or another, though in some areas people of many origins work closely together.)

Integrity is the quality of being honest and upright. A person with integrity will keep their promises and will do what they believe is right even when no one knows.

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Coming in the next issue: Better Work through Better Motivation

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