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‘Monsters University’ highlights power of optimism

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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. They are less likely to use responses that are characterized as avoidant coping, (or) trying not to deal with whatever the problem is. – University of Miami psychology professor Charles S. Carver

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

Billy Crystal is the actor who voices Mike Wazowski. Crystal’s career has spanned iconic films such as “The Princess Bride,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “City Slickers” and “Analyze This.” Yet Crystal recently told USA Today that “Mike is his favorite role in his entire career, partly due to the never-ending optimism seen in both films.”

“(Mike) is not the coolest-looking guy in the world and he's a little guy," the actor said. "But he's so much fun and he has such a range of emotions that I totally relate to him."

Even though Mike Wazowski exhibited plenty of optimism in “Monsters Inc.” by coping with mild-to-moderate crises in his personal and professional lives, his optimistic worldview is much more integral to the plot of “Monsters University,” a prequel that primarily focuses on Mike’s first year of college. In essence, Mike wants his major to be in the School of Scaring — even though everyone from the university president to his peer students keeps telling him he’s just not scary enough.

Approximately half of “Monsters University” revolves around the Scare Games, a weeklong event in which fraternities and sororities engage in series of competitions designed to measure their scariness.

By the time the Scare Games roll around, has Mike has already been booted out of the School of Scaring. But instead of bemoaning his bad luck, Mike joins a fraternity and negotiates a potential path back into the Scare School: If his fraternity Oozma Kappa can somehow win the Scare Games, he will be readmitted into the School of Scaring.

Just one problem with that plan: With the exception of Sulley (John Goodman), Mike’s fellow Oozma Kappa pledges are even less scary than he is.

Yet Mike is again quite unfazed by the adversity. He proactively pursues a Scare Week victory — the intermediary goal that will gain him re-entry into the Scare School — by reading every book about scaring that he can get his hands on. And in order to ameliorate the shortcomings of his teammates, happy-go-lucky Mike takes on the persona of a chirpy drill instructor while putting the boys of Oozma Kappa through drills like calisthenics and cardiovascular workouts.

Mike’s adaptable and diligent approach to pursuing his goal necessarily evokes something Carver said about optimists: “Of course, the expectation that things will work out for the best also helps them maintain emotional equilibrium. Being less stressed, they are less distressed.”

Scare Week is full of surprises that cannot be revealed here without spoiling plot twists. But suffice it to say, the underlying force fueling the film’s plot development is Mike Wazowski’s optimism — his confidence that good things are going to happen, his ability to adapt his strategy to evolving circumstances, and resiliency in the face of adversity.

When optimism fails

There may be times when optimism proves to be a hindrance to happiness. However, the notion that optimists will feel downright discouraged when things don’t go according to plan is actually very much a myth.

“If someone expects things to go well and they turn out badly, you’d think that person will be very disappointed,” Segerstrom said. “That actually turns out not to be true. People who are optimistic, when the bad thing does happen they either have no change in their psychological health or in some cases they’re actually a little better off, probably because they cope so effectively with stress.”

In order to illustrate one very slim downside to optimism, Segerstrom pointed to research that shows optimists may be susceptible to gambling addiction via slot machines.

“There’s a study that had people playing a fake gambling game like a slot machine, and people that were optimistic were more likely to keep gambling if they were given more ‘close calls,’ ” she said. “They felt like they were making progress — they were almost there, they almost had it.

“But of course there’s no correlation between your performance on one spin of a slot machine and your performance on your next spin. So in that one situation optimism is not good, even though in 99.999 percent of situations it’s an advantage.”

EMAIL: jaskar@desnews.com