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'Monsters University' highlights power of optimism

Published: Thursday, June 20 2013 5:12 p.m. MDT

Character Mike Wazowski is pictured in the new movie "Monsters University."

Disney/Pixar

Early in the new Pixar movie “Monsters University,” a school bus full of elementary-aged kiddie monsters takes a field trip to Monsters Inc., the scare factory that was the setting for the 2001 film of the same name.

The last little monster to step off the bus is one-eyed Mike Wazowski, the shortest and smallest member of his class. Looking like a plump green pear with four toothpick limbs, Mike is immediately presented to the audience as a paradox: a monster with nary a scary feature.

The teacher tells her students to pair off so they can use the buddy system during their tour of Monsters Inc. Without delay, Mike enthusiastically sets off to ask various classmates if they want to be his partner. But each time, he meets with rejection, and with an odd number of students on the field trip, Mike finally ends up having to be partners with his teacher.

Despite the perceived ignominy of holding his teacher’s hand, Mike is unshaken in his belief that this is going to be the best field trip ever. And by the time everybody gets back on the bus, Mike’s signature enthusiasm will have set in motion a chain of events that ends with him receiving a special souvenir from one of the mythical Monsters Inc. scarers.

Indeed, that field trip is only the first of many instances during “Monsters University” in which Mike Wazowski’s optimism pays off in a big way. Throughout the movie, he repeatedly parlays an optimistic worldview into exceeding expectations and maximizing potential. In that context, Mike embodies the power of optimism to catalyze happier lives.

When optimism works

For 28 years, University of Miami psychology professor Charles S. Carver has diligently studied optimism through the prism of science. In 2010, he led a group of researchers that published “Optimism,” an article in the academic journal Clinical Psychology Review. That piece provides a bevy of handy definitions for optimism: “the extent to which people hold generalized favorable expectations for their future,” “anticipating good versus anticipating bad,” and “at the most basic level, optimism by definition is inversely related to hopelessness.”

Carver affirms that optimists are generally happier than pessimists and the people whose neutral outlook falls somewhere between optimism and pessimism. To that end, he posits that optimists tend to be happier because they cope better with adversity than non-optimists.

“Optimists tend to cope more effectively with stressors — that is, they use responses that themselves are more adaptive, coping responses that are often characterized as engagement coping,” Carver said. “They are less likely to use responses that are characterized as avoidant coping, (or) trying not to deal with whatever the problem is.”

In addition to coping better, optimists also benefit from sensing when to simply move on; that is, when something is truly beyond their control, they avoid becoming bogged down in prolonged battles that lack an endgame.

“Optimists are good at trying to change a situation when it can be changed,” said University of Kentucky psychology professor Susan Segerstrom. “And when something can be changed, then that is the right thing to do.

“But when there’s not anything that can be done about a situation, (optimists) are also very good with changing their reaction to it. They become more receptive to changing the way they think about something, instead of keep trying in a frustrated way to change something that can’t be fixed.”

As a matter of practicality, optimism also enhances one’s chances for success by cultivating resiliency.

“Optimists are very keen to perceive when they’ve almost got something,” Segerstrom said. “And when you’re almost there, that’s a great time to push through to the end and get something finished.”

At college, Mike finds himself

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