The good news is that there is a lot of evidence that optimism isn’t fixed. It isn’t a commodity that you either have or you don’t. Optimism can be learned. And we know that the way we explain what happens in our worlds can have a big impact on our physical well-being, as well as our mental health.
Many people roll their eyes when they hear the word, ‘optimism’. For them, it equates with ‘positive thinking’ – in an unrelenting, indiscriminate, everything-will-be-ok-if-you-can-just-think-positively kind of way, and -if-it-doesn’t-work-out-then-you-are-doing-it-wrong. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
The path to optimism is actually strewn with pessimistic rocks waiting to trip us up. This is summed up by a great quote from Martin Seligman: “Building optimism is not a matter of thinking more optimistically, it’s a matter of thinking less pessimistically.”
As Polly Campbell says, “Pessimistic thoughts tend to cluster in sweeping generalizations that imply long-term troubles as opposed to temporary circumstances. The car stalling is downright annoying, and probably cuss-worthy, but it doesn’t mean you’ll end up living alone on a school bus with thirty-two cats.”
Pay attention to your thoughts and the words you use to talk to yourself. Do they tend to be pessimistic? Sweeping negative generalizations? Harsh self-judgments? Mostly doom and gloom? The way you might generalise from specific events matters.
Once you can identify these thoughts, examine them. Thoroughly check them out them. Then yourself these questions:
- What is the problem or setback that’s got me worried?
- What do I believe about that situation?
- Are those reactions, thoughts and beliefs true? Really true?
And when things don’t go your way or you make mistakes, forget the absolutes and sweeping generalizations. Avoid using words like “always” and “never.” Difficult incidents don’t mean an inevitable spiral that limits your life to mean that you will end up as a bag-lady or hobo.
Try to practice looking at situations from all angles and perspectives. As Campbell says, while a divorce can be devastating and trigger feelings of regret and guilt, it also can trigger “feelings of relief and excitement around your newfound independence and opportunity.” There is never just one side. Left to our own devices we can tend to focus upon how to fix what is wrong with our worlds, or doubting the motives of those who perhaps think differently from the way we do. Countering this tendency is a major goal in the process of learning to be more optimistic. Here is an exercise to try to set you on the path.
When cynicism or pessimism is overwhelming you, focus on what you can control: What you think, what you say, and what you do.Ask yourself: what thoughts can I think to help me change this bad situation for the better? What can I say that can change this bad situation for the better? What actions can I take that will change this bad situation for the better? When you work through this exercise, you may find yourself going from the realm of paralysed pessimism, or even cynicism, to actively becoming a part of the solution to the problem. Remember that you are a very important and active participant in this world—and that is cause for optimism.
Focus on what you can control, rather than what you can’t. Grounded optimism is about recognising the difficulties – rather than positively constructing them away – believing things can get better, and then making them happen.