Optimism is “not something you do, but rather a spirit you bring to everything you do,” keynote speaker Steve Gross, a clinical social worker and founder of the Life is Good Kids Foundation, told ULI members at a 2016 ULI Fall Meeting general session. Gross, the foundation’s “chief playmaker,” shared his thoughts on optimism and offered practical advice for cultivating an optimistic and playful spirit, based on his work with children who have experienced traumas including violence, poverty, and chronic illness.
The Boston-based Life is Good Foundation, a nonprofit arm of the $100 million Life is Good apparel maker, supports teachers, social workers, and others who help children heal from early childhood trauma by partnering with schools, hospitals, social service agencies, and enrichment programs across the United States. “What does this have to do with real estate?” Gross asked, engaging the large crowd. “We’re resilient people, but there are always lessons to learn from outside perspectives.”
He offered ULI members a few “pearls of wisdom” that he’d learned from children: “It doesn’t matter that I’m a social worker and you’re in real estate. We are bigger than our business cards.” Life is Good sells T-shirts, he said, “as a vehicle to achieve a mission: to spread the power of optimism. You’re in the same business when you develop and create spaces where people can live safely, happily, and productively.”
Gross called for “a new framework for optimism.” Being an optimist has nothing to do with seeing the proverbial glass half-full or half-empty, he said. All you need is the ability to see the good. That doesn’t mean you don’t see the bad, the unjust, or the painful. “Humans have a negativity bias,” he said. “We’re built to see the negative. We have Velcro for bad stuff and Teflon for good.” When you go to bed at night, he asked, do you think about the many compliments you received that day, or the criticisms? Probably the latter, he said, adding that we’re wired from earliest humanity to look for threats as a survival strategy. “The good news is you can bypass this, and you can practice looking for the good, the blessings.
“We need to focus on the good in ourselves, and see the good in the world. Can you sit in a meeting and focus on what’s good and human and right about that person?” he asked. “Can you use that to grow the good?” His response to young children affected by the Boston Marathon bombing who asked why there was so much evil in the world: a few people involved were bad, but there were many more good people who ran to help. “The good outweighs the bad,” he said.
“We all possess world-changing superpowers, and we find them in our children,” said Gross. Inviting audience participation, he enumerated children’s superpowers, such as courage, exuberance, honesty, innocence, energy, and resilience. These qualities are “capable of changing the world, of changing communities,” he said. To heal, kids need to be surrounded by the best human powers, such as love and compassion. “They also need to be allowed to have fun. People think that’s fluff, but it’s the real stuff. You have to open the door for love, fun, humor, creativity.
“The kids we work with get punched in the mouth all the time, and when that happens you have a hard time being optimistic, and you close yourself off,” said Gross. “An optimist sees the world in terms of opportunity. When we lose that, we see the world of obstacles.”
Our worst enemy, he said, is “overwhelming fear—that we’re not enough, that other people will harm us. If fear overwhelms our system, it’s impossible to be open to the world.” Children exposed to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; substance abuse; mental illness; homelessness; neglect; or other traumas that child care experts call adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) “keep their alarm systems on,” and are more likely to exhibit risky behaviors and to suffer from chronic physical and mental health problems. The goal of treatment, he said, “is not to make them fearless, but to make them fear less. If fear overrides our system, it’s very hard to be positive.”
The effects of ACEs are the biggest threat to public health in the United States today, he said. To heal children and help them become healthy and well-adjusted adults, he said, we must provide healthy, comfortable, and safe places as shelter from the storm, as well as opportunities to play and explore the world.
Gross summarized the four ingredients of what he called “O’Playsis”: 1) internal control, or a sense of being safe, capable, and worthy; 2) active engagement, or “being here now,” which is difficult for traumatized kids, who tend to be overwhelmed; 3) social connection, since quality of life is directly connected to the quality of relationships; and 4) joyfulness, or converting life’s responsibilities from a negative “I have to” mind-set to a positive “I get to” mind-set that allows people to appreciate life. In closing, he urged ULI members to build communities that are open, creative, and filled with gratitude and fun and to share these qualities with clients and others around them.
Kathleen McCormick, principal of Fountainhead Communications LLC in Boulder, Colorado, writes frequently about healthy, resilient, and sustainable communities.