One of the many things I loved about Miss Procunier, my Grade 4 teacher at Annette Street Public School, was her slightly restrained yet unwavering commitment to our musical education. Twice a week she would distribute a dog-eared booklet of song lyrics, remove her pitch pipe from its case with great care, and lead us in a warbling sing-a-long of hits from the 1920s right up to . . . oh, at least the 1940s. I still remember every word to “Easter Parade” and sang it merrily for many years without ever knowing what a rotogravure was. “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”, “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “This Land is Your Land” were definite favourites. And I believe she included “I’s the By” as a nod to our Canadian heritage. Many years later, I found myself teaching these same songs to my young daughter, often on road trips or long drives to the cottage. (If any students are reading this, the time I’m referring to was long before the invention of the iPad and cars with video screens built into the headrest, so in-car-entertainment systems were also referred to as parents.)
That year in Miss Procunier’s class was important to me. In her slightly old-fashioned but gentle schoolmarm way, she provided me with routine and security when I most needed it. My parents had separated the summer before and my mother had moved back home to live with her parents. Suddenly and with little discussion, my sister and I found ourselves saying good-bye to old friends, navigating a new school and living in a now multi-generational household that was doing its best to adjust, in that stiff-upper-lip way endemic in families that share my British heritage. (Why talk about feelings when a good cuppa and a wee bit of Coronation Street will do?)
Such times are difficult for all families, but in the 1960s divorce was not common and an element of unspoken shame added to my grief. I didn’t know anyone whose parents weren’t together and thus found myself trying to navigate this new path without a roadmap. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of my favourite sing-a-longs from that year in Miss Procunier’s class was “Sunny Side Up”. The lyrics of this 1929 ditty made me smile and fed into what was arguably a natural positive disposition that I was likely born with and felt determined to hang on to despite my new circumstances. “If you have nine sons in a row, baseball teams make money, you know!” What a great line. It reminded me that every cloud has a silver lining (and taught me that baseball teams do need nine players).
I’ve always been a “glass is half full” kind of person despite or perhaps because of challenges I faced throughout my childhood and into adolescence. I don’t ignore adversity and work openly to process difficult emotions, so I wouldn’t say that I live in blissful ignorance. But somewhere early on in life I realized that I have a natural inclination to gravitate toward the positive. It helps during difficult times, and it’s definitely something that I tried to instill in my daughter.
Some people see the glass as half full. Some people see the glass as half empty. And some people see the glass as half empty, cracked and filled with arsenic. Each and every one of us travels up and down the hope to despair continuum at different times in our lives, and each of us has a natural starting point on the line – a predisposition that locates us somewhere on that spectrum.
Is it good to be optimistic? Absolutely. The evidence is clear on this. Optimism benefits our physical and mental health. Researchers, for example, find that athletes with higher rates of optimism experience fewer injuries. But can we simply will ourselves to be optimistic? It turns out it’s not quite that simple. There is a growing body of research that points to the role of genetics in determining how we perceive our circumstances. A 2005 study of twins found that 50% of life satisfaction is the result of genetics and 10% is caused by external events beyond our control. The remaining 40% of happiness depends upon the intentional actions we take.
Does that mean that we can learn to become more optimistic? Thankfully, yes. Despite research showing that we enter the world predisposed to hold a more or less optimistic viewpoint, the role of preventative measures is clear. Children do not have to become victims of their genetics. According to research done by Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, children can be taught strategies to become more optimistic in their outlook, thereby reducing the likelihood that they will experience depression.
Last week in assembly, the Upper School girls and I talked about the importance of optimism. We watched an excellent TedX talk by psychologist Dr. Alison Ledgerwood of UC Davis, and learned that the way we first perceive a situation, either through a gain frame or a loss frame, is important. We learned that it’s easy to shift from good to bad thinking but much harder to move from bad to good. According to Dr. Ledgerwood, teaching ourselves and supporting each other to identify the positive side of things is important. She’s not suggesting we deny our emotions when true loss or tragedy strikes. But she is encouraging us to view day-to-day occurrences as opportunities to adopt a positive versus a negative perspective.
Rachel Simmons, my all-time favourite guru for girls, has a series of short videos entitled BFF 2.0 that I encourage parents to watch with their daughter. Episode 5 is entitled, “Don’t Assume the Worst” and cautions girls against misinterpreting online interactions with friends. Too often, Rachel notes, social drama happens because everyone automatically assumes the worst and goes quickly to the negative. Her message to girls? “Maybe she didn’t actually ghost you. Maybe she lost her phone privileges for the weekend and that’s why she didn’t text you back.” (Ask your daughter if you need a translation for the term “ghost”.) Staying optimistic and assuming the best in people is helpful, we’re told, especially when trying to navigate today’s social media landscape.
I think I am a born optimist. Despite temporary and very normal descents into sadness and despair, I seem to be able to keep my sunny side up. Perhaps part of my positive outlook is the result of genetics. (Thank you mom and dad). But much of it, I believe, is the result of the encouragement and support I found growing up – support from home, from church, from school, and of course, from Miss Procunier. When feeling down, I learned that things would likely be better in the morning, and if not, then surely the morning after that. And on those rare occasions when the difficulty persisted, I learned to stretch my head above the storm clouds to find the sunshine that is always there.
There’s much in the news these days about the mounting pressures faced by adolescents, and particularly by girls. The causes are complex and the solutions multi-faceted, and while optimism might not be a total panacea, cultivating it within our children will help. Acknowledge and validate your daughter’s difficult emotions but also help her to move on. Ask her what she’s grateful for on a daily basis and express gratitude for what you yourself hold dear. And most importantly, be mindful of what you model. Are you a glass is half empty kind of person? Or do you look for the silver lining in the cloud? If you struggle at times, I’m a big proponent of breaking into song. So just remember, “Stand up on your legs, Be like two fried eggs, Keep your sunny side up!”
1. Seligman’s work in the area of positive psychology and his theory of learned helplessness have significantly
shaped our understanding of cognitive and emotional development in childhood. He continues his work in the
Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
2. “The Optimistic Child: How Learned Optimism Protects Children From Depression”