Is being a pessimist bad for your health?

The short answer?


One famous longitudinal study looked at the health and wellbeing of a group of Harvard students who were examined and tested while they were in school in the 1940s and then every five years thereafter.  At age 25, they were all found to be in good health.  There wasn’t much difference at 30, 35, or 40.  

Then, something happened between around the time they turned 45. The health of the pessimists began to get worse. 

A separate 1998 study showed optimists increase the power of their immune system under stress.  Other research has shown optimists fare better than pessimists after coronary bypass surgery and live longer with HIV.    

This week we’ve been exploring how lessons from George Leonard‘s terrific book The Way of Aikido apply to our lives.  Aikidoists tend to be optimists.  Unlike other martial arts, the goal is not about fighting.  “Aikido is not a technique to fight with or defeat the opponent,” George writes.  “It is a way to reconcile the world and make human beings one family.”

The true optimist is someone who operates on the assumption that things will work out positively; the true pessimist takes the opposing point of view.  George suggests the pessimist might not be happy, but is rarely disappointed.  When things go wrong, he or she says, I knew all along it wouldn’t work.  

Being cynical or sarcastic can earn us laughs.  Being an optimist can seem “uncool.”

But optimists tend to be more successful, happier, healthier, and live longer than pessimists.  Various studies show optimists persevere when pessimists don’t, are more successful salespeople, bounce back quicker after failures, do better in school and in sports, are more likely to win political races, and are less likely than pessimists to be depressed.

Good stuff.  

The better news?  We can learn to become more optimistic.

How so?

Martin Seligman and others in the field of cognitive-behavioral psychology have shown we can learn to be more optimistic by paying attention to how we explain negative events.  Pessimist’s “explanatory style” is personal (“It’s my fault”), permanent (“It’s always going to be like this”) and pervasive (“It’s going to undermine every aspect of my life”).  

Optimists tend to explain bad events differently.  They see what happened as external rather than personal (“I dropped the ball because the sun was in my eyes”), temporary (“It was a fluke, I rarely miss”), and specific (“It had no effect on the rest of my play”).  


Reflection:  What is my default explanatory style?  Do I lean towards pessimism (personal, permanent, and pervasive) or optimism (external, temporary, and specific)?  

Action:  Choose to see an event today through an optimistic lens.

What the greatest spiritual teachers tell us

“Study hard so that you’ll get good grades.  Get good grades so you can get into a good college.  Get into a good college so that you’ll get a good job.  Get a good job and work hard so that you can get the good things in life.  By the time you get the ‘good things,’ you can barely remember how to play,” George Leonard observes in the The Way of Aikido.  “We are taught to do one thing to achieve another thing,” 

This week we’re continuing our exploration of some of the key concepts from George’s book about how lessons from the martial arts apply in all aspects of our lives.  

Yesterday, we looked at the important role deliberate practice plays on the path to mastery.  George believes there is a strong relationship between practice and play.

“What are we doing in the dojo?” he asks.  “We might have come to aikido for self-defense or fitness or training.  But after a few months, these considerations fall away.  We are doing it with all that it entails-strenuous exertion, pain, close calls, occasional injury, along with years of what you might call ‘hard work.'” 

Why do this?

“For the sheer delight of it,” says George: “We are playing.”

“How sad it is, as we leave childhood behind, that we are taught in countless explicit and implicit ways to work hard rather than to play joyfully,” he writes.  “Play is whatever absorbs us fully, whatever creates purpose and order, whatever involves us in as much meaningful interaction as is possible.” If our destiny as humans is to learn, George believes it is the happy, magical union of practice and play that allows us to realize that destiny. He suggests we re-frame (1) what we do in life, including our work, as practice; and (2) see practice as play.

“Aikido summons all of us, whether we do aikido or not, to play and keep playing from childhood to old age, to seek out the possibilities of play in every aspect of living – in what we call “work,” in love and sex, in relationships with family and friends, even in taking a walk around the block,” writes George.

There’s a paradox.

When we approach an activity in the spirit of “play”- fully, joyfully, and primarily for its own sake, we are much more likely to enjoy a higher level of success as well as satisfaction.  The person who gardens primarily for the love of it, as a practice, is the one who will experience long-term success.

He writes: “It is this feeling of being totally absorbed and entranced that joins play and practice in a marriage where both past and future fall away and we are privileged to exist if only for a while, in the present moment.  The greatest spiritual teachers tell us that this is the place where God is.”  


Reflection:  How do I view my work?  Is there joy and satisfaction in the doing, not just the results?

Action:  Look for an opportunity to turn something I do today into a practice.

Understanding the Plateau

The artist enters her studio at the same time each morning.  Five days a week.  Smelling the paint, she takes her seat at the easel.  She arranges her brushes.

“The routine is important to me.  When I get started, there is a wonderful sense of well-being,” she tells George Leonard in his excellent book The Way of Aikido.  “It’s the routine itself that feeds me.  If I didn’t do it, I’d be betraying the essential me.”

George tells us it is the same for him each time he climbs the stairway to enter the dojo: “I take off my shoes, go into the dressing room, and change into my aikido garb… I love the cool, firm pressure of the mat on the soles of my feet, the ritual bows, the warm-up exercises, and then my heart pounding, my breath rushing as the training increases in speed and power.  I love it all, the sameness, the reliability, the routine…”

Both the artist and George talk about the routine as well as the art and value of the practice. 

Mastery, George tells us is, “the mysterious process where what is at first difficult or even impossible becomes easy and pleasurable through diligent, patient, long-term practice.”

The research is clear.  Deliberate practice is the path to mastery.  Talent is important, but to achieve sustained high-level performance, diligent, high quality practice is far more important.  

And to practice well, we must understand the plateau.  

The mastery curve looks something like this:

Most learning happens on the plateau.  And, plateaus can be long, much longer than the moments when we experience progress – especially when learning difficult skills.  

Certainly, it is good to enjoy and celebrate the feeling that accompanies making progress. But to achieve mastery in any area of our lives, “between spurts of apparent progress, we continue practicing diligently while seeming to make little or no progress,” writes George.

We must learn to enjoy, to love, the plateau.  To take delight in regular practice for its own sake.

In our hurry up, get-it-done-yesterday world, this idea seems radical.  But to learn anything significant, or to make any lasting change in ourselves, we must be willing to spend most of our time on the plateau.  

“Beneath the remarkable efficacy of practice is the intrinsic joy practice brings,” observes George.  “In the routine of strong and beautiful practice, there can be continual renewal and deep satisfaction.”

We tend to think of routine as boring.  But George thinks we have it all wrong:  “Isn’t it the obsessive search for novelty that is the very essence of boredom?”


Reflection:  Consider something I am good at.  Did my learning reflect the shape of the mastery curve?

Action:  Commit to achieving mastery in a certain area of my life and learn to love the practice and the plateau.

Why the Olympic Athlete Quit Aikido

An Olympic gold medalist showed up at the dojo excited to learn aikido, George Leonard shares in his terrific book The Way of Aikido.  

He quit after three classes.

How come?  He certainly didn’t lack athletic prowess.    

Rather, the Olympian didn’t like the feeling of not making enough progress.

“Nobody – I repeat nobody – is going to look good after only a few classes,” George writes.  

The pattern is predictable and it applies whenever we try something new.  Initially, we may experience a blip of success.  Then, the progress slows and we get frustrated. 

With aikido, less than 50 percent of those who begin will be there a month later.

What gets in the way?

George identifies two mindsets that work against us.  First, when we show up as “the dabbler,” we love the shine of newness, the honeymoon, the first flush of new things, new experiences.  We are enthusiastic about the first wave of progress.  But, when the wave doesn’t continue, we become restless: “Well, maybe aikido isn’t right for me after all…  It’s too physical.  Or, too spiritual.  Or, too philosophical.”  With that, we’re off to something new and different.  

Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with trying new things.  Experimentation is a good thing!  But when the pattern becomes habitual, it prevents a long-term journey towards mastery.  For some, the dabbler’s pattern pervades all areas of his or her life – it’s constantly off to another job, another relationship.

A second mindset that can trip us up is when we show up as “the obsessive.” This approach is different from dabbling.  Here, we enter the dojo on an urgent mission: “How long will it take to master aikido?” we ask.  At the end of the first class, we want to know, “Can I stay afterwards and practice?  Are there books I can read or videos I can watch to learn faster?”

All too often, the obsessive drops out because of frustration or injury.  We are derailed by the “endless peak moments” fantasy where we expect constant progress.  George writes, “So much overreaching, so much forward energy, can lead to catastrophe – physical, psychological, relational, and financial.”

Again, there are times in life when we can be appropriately obsessive.  When we are on a tight deadline.  Or, in an emergency situation.  But when this mindset becomes habitual, our behavior works against us.

The secret to mastering anything in life?

Understanding the plateau.

 More tomorrow.


Reflection:  Think of examples in my life when I’ve shown up as a “dabbler” or an “obsessive.”  Do I see any patterns?

Action:  Choose one part of my life where I would like to achieve mastery.  Commit to engaging in deliberate practice.

Mindfulness in action

At his dojo, George Leonard would sometimes have his students practice a certain aikido technique.  Then, he would have them meditate for a few minutes.  Next, he would have them repeat the same technique as part of their meditation.  

The difference between the technique done before the meditation and after the meditation was readily apparent: the students movements were more natural, more flowing, less forced.

This week, we are looking at some of the key takeaways from George’s book The Way of Aikido and how we can utilize and benefit from these practices even if we never take up the martial arts.  

Yesterday, we explored the power of meditation or mindfulness.  One of the benefits of meditation is thought and action become one.  The meditative state is even more important in jiyu-waza (freestyle) and randori (multiple attack), says George.  In these advanced practices, one must be relaxed, grounded, centered, and energized in the present moment.  Rational thought (“Since the attacker is aiming a punch at my chin, I’ll step aside, blend and bring his arm down”) would be ruinous.(what does this mean? why ruinous?)

“I have enjoyed rare moments in jiyu-waza or randori during which,” George writes, “I find myself in a place of utter clarity and calm, where it is always here, it is always now, and there is only harmony.”

We often think of meditation or mindfulness as something we do by sitting still.  But we can bring this mindset and practice to other parts of our life as well, including walking, getting dressed, and bathing – essentially any repetitive task.

George shares washing dishes in a meditative state brings buoyancy and calm.  He states: “Rather than feeling rushed, anxious to get the job over with, settle into the task of dishwashing as if it were a meditation.”  George suggests we check our posture.  Relax our entire body.  Let our belly expand with each breath.  Do not hurry.  Be aware of and appreciate every motion.  Stay in the present moment.”

Pursuing this type of mindfulness practice has powerful benefits.  George writes: “During that magic interval, I’ve lived neither in the future nor in the past, but rather at the mysterious point of repose that exists in an entirely different realm: the eternal present.”

According to an old Taoist saying:

“Meditation in action is

A hundred times

No, a thousand times

No, a million times greater

Than meditation in stillness”


Reflection:  What has been my experience with mindfulness and meditation? 

Action:  Experiment with an activity that lends itself to meditation in action.

Taking the Hit as a Gift

In his book The Way of Aikido, George Leonard shares the story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  

George tells us early in FDR’s life he was characterized as bright but somewhat superficial and a bit of a snob. Then, when he was 29, he was struck by a terrible attack of polio that deprived him of his legs.  

That’s a hit.

But, was it also a gift?   The polio gave FDR, George writes, “a depth of understanding and an uncommon compassion for human suffering that helped make him perhaps the greatest American president of the twentieth century.” 

Misfortunes are a part of life.  How can we learn to “take the hit as a gift?”

Insight #1:  Though unpleasant, setbacks and challenges are generally energizing.  They provide us a gift of additional energy. 

Insight #2: The aikidoist understands this additional energy through the concept of “ki.”  Ki is the energy created that we use to deal with the hit.  But, the big takeaway is: there is additional ki left over which we can put to positive use.  Ki can transform our lives.

So, what exactly is ki?!?

George tells us ki is “the activity of life, the essence of spirit…  Sunlight is ki, thunder is ki, and the wind is ki.  It is tinier than an atom and more awesome than the galaxies.  It is the vital essence of the universe, the creative energy of God.” 

Very cool…  

Let’s bring it back to misfortune and the challenges in our lives.  Our common reaction is to fight back.  Often, we make a bad situation worse. Or, perhaps we whine.  Play the victim.  Worst of all, we can deny it is happening.  A dangerous path, indeed.

Instead, what if we:

1: Experience and acknowledge what we are feeling.  As aspiring aikidoists, we consider not only what we’re feeling, but where in our body we are feeling it.  We describe (aloud or silently) the specific location.  Benefits include: (i) makes denial impossible and (ii) doing so mitigates or eliminates the tension or pain.  

2: Next, we center and ground ourselves and breathe deeply.  We bring our attention to our physical center.  If we are standing, we also focus on the soles of our feet and experience a deep and powerful connection with the earth.  We breathe deeply several times.

3: Now, we become aware of all the available energy.  Through the act of returning to our center, we’ve assembled this energy and brought it to a much higher level.

4: Use this vital energy wisely.  Ki can be spent for any purpose we desire.

George tells us that ki is viewed as an essential element in every aikido technique and ideally in every aspect of the aikidoist’s life.  Aikidoists will risk their lives to master it. 

O Sensei, the founder of aikido, said he only understood the essence of aikido at age 70 after he had lost his muscular strength and had to depend almost entirely on ki. 


Reflection:  How have I responded to the biggest setbacks in my life?  Reflect on the energy that was created inside me.   

Action:  Prepare to capitalize on this energy when confronted with my next obstacle.

Owning our World

Before we enter the training mat, we briefly center ourselves. Our feet are firmly connected to the ground.  We are aware of the power that emanates from the physical center of our body.  

This week we are looking at the some of the lessons from The Way of Aikido by George Leonard.

We start walking onto the mat. George writes: how we walk will have a lot to do with how the match turns out. We move in a way that is both “relaxed and powerful, both well controlled and open-hearted.”

We’ve come to an important moment in this process.  As we step onto the mat, we say to ourselves: “This is my mat.”

We pause and let our eyes take in the entire area.  As we do so we take ownership for everything involved – the condition of the mat, the temperature, the light. Since we “own the place,” we can be “a gracious host” – welcoming everyone present. We are especially welcoming to our opponent.  “He or she is our guest, someone who has come to help us play the game.”  

The better the opponent, the better our game.

This mindset has its obligations. We must be all-in. George quotes Elizabeth Barrett Browning who said of love, “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height/ my soul can reach…”  

Taking ownership applies to all aspects of our lives. From entering a restaurant, a performance hall, an adversarial business meeting, or a courtroom. Taking ownership has bigger implications – for our relationships, our finances, our health, and our spiritual life.

We don’t deny challenges or obstacles. Instead, we center ourselves in a way that represents true strength. We blend, extending through or past the attacker, toward the possibility of a positive outcome.

George tells us when the match is over, the experience has less to do with winning or losing than with the quality of the game.

But, don’t be surprised if we win.


Reflection: When in the past have I taken total ownership for a situation? 

Action: Experiment today with owning my world.