It is difficult to believe that a low-cost and “unsophisticated” movie like Slumdog Millionaire could win eight Oscars. However, there is one thing about this particular movie that made an indelible impact in the lives of its viewers, and millions of others who heard about it. The central message communicated in the movie was optimism. By virtue of being unpretentious about life and its challenges, the movie allows people to face difficulties with courage and confront the future with a positive attitude.
This corresponds to another interesting phenomenon that takes place at Harvard University. The most famous class at Harvard University, attended by some 900 students twice a week, is a class on Positive Psychology taught by a young professor named Taal Ben Shahar. This class focuses on providing insight that leads students to the path of happiness, optimism, and hope. There are more students enrolled in this class than classes that teach them how to make more money and become rich, i.e., Economics. This goes on to show that people value virtues and positive life experiences, even more than money and success in career.
Why do we need it?
Research indicates that optimistic people are generally healthier as a result of the harmony experienced between the mind, body, and spirit. On the other hand, being pessimistic significantly reduces longevity, increases stress, and deters achievement as well as productivity.
At school, the difference between an optimistic and pessimistic child is invariably noticeable. A pessimistic child engages in persistent negative self-talks to the extent that he believes that he is not “good enough.” This feeling discourages him from even trying to experience success. His abilities remain dormant because he refuses to let go of his incarcerating negative thoughts and their corresponding behaviors.
Surprisingly, this is the state of majority of students in schools. Pessimism does not care about nationality, race, socio-economic status, and gender. It plagues everyone equally, especially children and teenagers as their negative thoughts often go unchecked, hence uncorrected.
Optimism can be taught! Teachers have the opportunity to plan and deliver lessons on optimism, or they could creatively integrate optimism into all other subjects. Some educators believe that this kind of teaching is more important and effective compared to merely teaching of academic subjects. In the future, success will not determined by mastery of knowledge and/or skills alone. The increasingly complicated nature of our world and its requirements will severely punish and drain people’s sense of hope and meaning, unless they are prepared to see things positively. Only an optimistic person would succeed because he would consistently re-frame crises into opportunities through creative solution finding.
Optimism in action
Regardless of a child’s current level of performance, it is the moral duty of every teacher to design learning opportunities to enable him to experience success. Without the experience of success, students are not motivated to achieve. Without achievement it is impossible to become positive about present and future responses. Even the lowest achieving student could be helped to experience success by deliberately observing and acknowledging his progress over time. Praising and reinforcing the slightest improvement in such a case would help the child a great deal to strive to do better next time.
In the face of failure, it is more constructive to recall past successes and use them as a frame of reference to move into a more optimistic future. Teachers should avoid labeling and liberate students from limiting terms such as “high or low performers.” Rather, it is healthier to help an individual student to become engrossed in developing himself by comparing qualitative differences in his own performances across subjects, tasks, and cognitive engagements.