What Can Brits Learn from American Optimism?

30 Rock's Kenneth is the ultimate optomist. (NBC)

30 Rock‘s Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer) is the ultimate optimist. (NBC)

One thing Brits notice about Americans is their eternal optimism; there’s nothing that can’t be done. From running for President to getting sold out tickets for your favorite band, anything’s possible.  True story—years ago I was on a girls’ weekend in Boston and as usual, we were running late (this time for the Duck Tour). Half our group was English and the other half American and the attitude towards trying to make the Duck departure was hilarious. Brits: “There’s no point in running, it’ll have gone by now.” Americans: “No, let’s just run and see.” And sure enough, the darn Duck was itself running late and we had more than enough time. Motto for Brits: “Run for that bus/plane/train.”

Australians have a name for us—“Whingeing Poms.” But here’s the thing: most people calling the English that name were themselves descended from Whingeing Poms, and by all accounts, those whingers had every reason to whinge. (“Whinge” by the way, is pronounced “winj”, and is used to describe a whiner.) Before I get completely sidetracked, I must point out that Australians seem to have out-whinged us Brits if recent polling is to be believed.

CNN’s Zane Asher (a Brit) gave us some “half-empty” statistics on February 19 about Americans’ chances of winning the $400m Powerball Lottery. Interspersed with “Technically, there is a chance” … and “Doesn’t seem to phase people, I don’t know why” … Asher reported, we had a 1-175 million chance of the Powerball win, compared to a 1-11.5 million chance of experiencing a shark attack, a 1-6 million chance of dying by bee sting and a 1-3 million chance of being hit by lightening. And, American to the core, show host Brooke Baldwin bounced back with… ”Or, win the Powerball.” I mean, somebody has to right?

In the words of Winston Churchill, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” So here, fellow Brits are a few pointers:

When someone comes up with a suggestion, instead of “Ah yes but … ” followed by ten reasons why the suggestion is doomed, try “How would that work exactly?” (and mean it) or “Good idea, I’ll give it some thought.” You don’t actually have to follow through but don’t kill it immediately.

When asked how you are, (assuming the speaker has stuck around for a reply), try “Great thanks” or “Fine thanks, and you?” instead of the Debbie Downer-ish “Can’t complain” or “Mustn’t grumble.” And don’t bother giving an honest, medical response, TMI (too much information).

If someone’s looking glumly into the middle distance, “Penny for your thoughts” is probably a better option than “Cheer up, it might never happen.” (I said that once and the American did not get my meaning at all.)

But all is not lost, fellow Brits. There’s actually a popular book out called Learned Optimism by Martin E. P. Seligman, who believes we can unlearn our glass-half-empty dogma and embrace a life of “Yes, we can.” (It wasn’t directed specifically at Brits but my, it’s appropriate.)

Alternatively, there’s a more recent book out debunking the whole idea of optimism. The Antidote; Happiness for People who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Brit (natch) Oliver Burkeman, claims to be “the intelligent person’s guide to understanding the much-misunderstood idea of happiness.” Burkeman argues that “it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative—insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness—that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.”

Oh, well then, perhaps it’s overoptimistic Americans who have something learn too?

Which way do you lean, half-full or half-empty? 

What can “cynical” Brits learn from good, old-fashioned American optimism? Join @MindtheGap_BBCA on Twitter today (Wednesday, March 12) at 2 pm ET using hashtag #MindTheChat to discuss this question, and you’ll have a chance to win a DVD of the Doctor Who Christmas special “The Time of the Doctor.”

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