Thursday 21 June 2018

Are you a pessimist or an optimist?

This article first appeared on Malta Today 

I recently watched an interview with Hollywood celebrity couple Kristen Bell and Daz Shepherd. The two could not be more different: she is a wide-eyed optimistic, always seeing the good in people, while he is a suspicious pessimist, aways expecting the worst. To describe their relationship, they gave as an example what happens when they come across someone asking for help; he immediately thinks, “what does this %^&$* want?” while her first reaction is “maybe this person will cure cancer”. Admittedly, they are two polar opposite views and most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes, but it got me thinking about how the way perceive the world is projected on to the way we deal with others. While those who are persistently chirpy tend to be annoying, those who are constantly sour-faced, moaning and frowning also make me want to run a mile.

Let’s face it, it is not the easiest time to be an optimist. Bad, depressing news is everywhere. If it weren’t for the fact that my job as a columnist means I need to know what is going on, there are times when I wish I could just hibernate and live a very small, sheltered life, only doing things which make me happy, oblivious to what is happening around me which is ugly and cruel.

But then once I a while, I read something which changes my mood and shifts my perspective, restoring my faith in this world.

Lately, I read two posts on the popular Facebook discussion group The Salott, which had me smiling for the rest of the day.

One was from a mother whose four-year-old son was encouraged by his school to do random acts of kindness for Lent, which she rightly described as “a wonderful initiative” So, the boy decided to leave a thank-you note for the postman. What happened next was so simple, yet so wonderful that the mother felt she had to share it. The postman not only read the note but sent the little boy a note back. “THANK YOU Postman Sean, my son was so happy. You made our day!” the mother wrote when she uploaded the photo of the note from the postman.

There are several aspects to this story which warmed my heart. First there was the brilliant idea by the school which took Lent from being just the usual Catholic ritual of giving up sweets, and made it more meaningful.

Then there was the mother (and father), who not only embraced the idea but urged their son to come up with ideas of kindness himself, which is something so fundamental to teach kids that it should be part of our educational system. Children can teach us so many things and this little boy reminded everyone that without postal workers, where would we be? And finally, there is the postman himself, only identified as Sean, but who was quickly traced and turned out to be a certain Sean Dingli. Such a little thing, one might say, to answer the boy back, but what a powerful message it sends to a child (and adults) that kindness and thoughtfulness towards others are so necessary in this world, and a little appreciation can go a long way.

The second post on The Salott described “the nicest bus driver in Malta”, an Italian national who was doing his best to say hello to each and every passenger in either English or Maltese. The man who wrote the post said that the Italian bus driver “had even learned how to say ‘Il-gurnata it-tajba’ with a huge smile to every passenger getting off the bus.” Like the passenger who wrote the post, many were also uplifted by this story and others also shared their experience of coming across very well-mannered bus drivers, so it ended up being a chain reaction of compliments rather than the usual griping.

These two instances once again reinforced my belief that by complimenting those who deserve it, whether it is a postman, a sales assistant or a bus driver, it serves to encourage better customer service in others. I think positive reinforcement is more productive in the long run and we will see more improvement that way. If we only keep harping on what goes wrong or singling out the bad apples, that doesn’t always work and it doesn’t bring out the best in people either. There is also a tendency to start nit-picking on frivolous things which are not really that big of a deal.

So while we are surrounded by a world where everything seems to be crumbling, and bad things happen every day, it might be better for our own well-being in the long term to focus on that which is uplifting rather than what brings us down. Who knows, it might just have a ripple effect.

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