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The Optimism Series: The value and limits of resilience

Paul Kwon, Professor in the Department of Psychology, discusses how every person has a right to optimism, regardless of who they are or what their background may be

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, the College of Science has asked researchers across a range of disciplines to share how they remain optimistic in the face of the many challenges of today, particularly within the field of science.

For most of my career, I have studied how people can be resilient in the face of discrimination. This line of inquiry is in itself optimistic, as it assumes that we are not simply the product of our environment.

Optimism comes in many forms; some are healthy and some are unhealthy. My favorite sitcom is The Honeymooners, set in the 1950s and featuring an everyman bus driver Ralph Kramden who has grand schemes and all the optimism in the world. However, as his wife Alice would often tell him, these schemes are “hare-brained” and fall apart like a house of cards every single time. This is an example of an unhealthy type of optimism.

According to research in my field of study, the kind of optimism that matters and endures requires several ingredients: 1) willpower to achieve one’s goals, 2) the ability to persevere when obstacles arise, and 3) supportive people in your life. Think about a successful person that you admire. Chances are, you admire them for their unyielding hard work and sacrifice. Their plans to achieve success are detailed, well-researched, and well-imagined. They inevitably get kicked in the teeth at times, but they gather themselves and resume their journey with an attitude of, “One day, I’ll show them.” And they have people in their lives to bolster them when they need it.

One of my favorite human beings that I’ve never spoken to is Patti Smith, and one of my favorite songs of hers is “Piss Factory,” which details her determination to escape her oppressive circumstances to become a star. She wrote the remarkable lyrics to this poem/song well before she became successful, and you can see her fiery optimism. Among the lyrics are the following lines in which she contrasts herself with one of her coworkers: “And yes, we look the same, both pumping steel and both sweating. But you know she got nothing to hide and I got something to hide here called desire. And I will get out of here…. And I’m going to go on that train and go to New York City. I’m going to be somebody…. I’m going to be a big star…. Oh, watch me now.”

“Persevering when obstacles arise” comprises a short phrase that involves a complicated topic. There are some obstacles that arise in pursuing success that have workable solutions. If you get sick at school, you can talk with your professors and get notes from your friends. According to the science, it helps to plan in advance how you will surmount obstacles that you can conceive of perhaps coming up in the future. However, some obstacles come out of the blue and knock you down, and if you’re not determined enough to force yourself back up, you’ll be out of the game.

Perhaps the most oppressive obstacle of all, betrayal, comes in many forms – from family who reject you for who you are, from friends who turn out not to be true friends, from coworkers who stab you in the back, from supervisors who abuse their power over you, from politicians who advance legislation that communicates that who you are is unacceptable to them, from societal changes that limit your opportunities, and so on. The key piece of advice that I would offer is that it is absolutely critical not to allow betrayal to change your sense of who you are. This is difficult, as we were often conditioned as kids to think that other’s opinions of you are a reflection of who you are. Peer pressure and feedback from parents and teachers are powerful forces when we are still developing into autonomous beings. But as adults, it makes no sense to feel badly about yourself because you were unfairly treated by someone else. Research shows that if you judge yourself by the quality of your actions and your integrity, rather than others’ opinions about you, you will be more resilient to betrayal.

Resilience is important to overcome betrayal, but this idea in our country that “grit” and “resilience” allow people to overcome anything in life is hollow and dangerous. In her book Educated, Tara Westover points out that leaving success up to individuals’ “grit” is a cop-out when the opportunities provided by the state university system have been diminished over time by rising tuition and reduced financial aid. It is not fair to expect “grit” to carry the day for a teenager who has been kicked out of their house for being gay or transgender.

Optimism requires help from others. Social support helps us with our reactions to stress and also helps us with a sense of community and common purpose. As a society, we must continue to insist that we allow every person to have optimism, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ability status, religion, age, veteran status, and any other category that makes people who they are.

About the author

Paul Kwon joined the University of Nevada, Reno in August 2022 and is Professor and Director of Clinical Training in the Department of Psychology. Dr. Kwon's research investigates the role of resilience variables in how stigmatized individuals, particularly LGBTQ and ethnic minority individuals, cope with environmental stressors. His work examines the ways in which people can thrive and succeed despite prejudice and stigma, leading to interventions and prevention efforts to foster resilience in these populations.

Paul Kwon on a night lit street with colorful banners hanging around. He's wearing a red cap and staring off into the distance.
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