Your Cheat Sheet to Becoming an Optimist

by Cynthia Kane

The other day a friend of mine said, “I’m just over everything. What’s the point?” She was referring to love, but also life in general. “I just don’t care anymore, nothing ever comes of anything anyways.” Of course we’re going to feel off kilter sometimes and unsure if anything good will ever happen, especially if we’ve been hurt or gipped in the past. But, believe it or not, for good things to happen, we have to believe that they will. “If you assume in favor of yourself and act as if it is possible, then you will do the things that are necessary to bring about the result,” says Jack Canfield in his book The Success Principles. What that means is that the more we believe we are capable of achieving our dreams, the more right actions we take to make them happen. The belief that good things will happen is also known as optimism.

Positive Psychologist Marty Seligman and others have researched optimism and pessimism over the years, and they’ve found that being an optimist boosts our overall well-being, which includes our physical and emotional health, achievement, stress levels, and life expectancy. And the best part is that optimism can be learned, which means that any one of us at any time can start believing we have the right stuff or that good things are on their way. Here’s how:

Learn to Believe

Trusting that the world will come through for us isn’t something that we can accomplish in one day. It’s a daily practice. What it involves is enhancing our self-esteem, self-worth, and confidence. If we don’t believe in ourselves, how can we even begin to think good things are in our future?

To take responsibility for our own beliefs, we have to first recognize that a lot of our limiting beliefs or pessimistic reactions toward the world may have been passed on to us from our parents, friends, and the media. Identify the voices in your head: maybe one’s your mother who fears new experiences, and the other is your father who believes everyone’s cheap. Now you can begin to challenge them and see where your voice fits. What do you believe? Is the way you’ve been reacting to the world how you truly want to live in the world? Do you want to roll your eyes every time someone tells you their dreams? Do you want to tell yourself you’re stupid for having forgot to pick something up at the grocery store? Or is that someone else speaking?

Once you take responsibility for your own self-concept, believing in yourself becomes a bit easier. There are different guided meditations that can help get you more comfortable in your own skin, and sitting for even ten minutes will help you appreciate who you are as you are. My favorite guided meditations are Susan Piver’s Open Heart Project, Gabrielle Bernstein’s Meditation Albums, and Terri Cole’s Meditation Transformation CD. Another great resource is The Desire Map by author and speaker Danielle Laporte.

Focus on The Good

What would your world look like if you woke up in the morning and focused only on what is right? Instead of placing your attention on problems, it was on opportunities, or swapped counting your weaknesses for your strengths, or put your attention on what can be done instead of what can’t. What would that world feel like?

In their book, Change The Way You See Everything, Kathryn D. Cramer, Ph.D. and Hank Wasiak write that “When you decrease your focus on what is wrong (deficit-based thinking) and increase your focus on what is right (asset-based thinking), you build enthusiasm and energy, strengthen relationships, and move people and productivity to the next level.” Pessimistic thoughts keep us stuck in the problem. They keep our attention on what we didn’t do, making it easy to get lost and never find our way out.

To focus on the good, you have to notice when you start talking, thinking, or fixating on the negative. When you start to be more mindful of your thoughts, you’ll then be able to choose a different direction to go with them. If you catch yourself complaining about your job, your weight, your partner, or anything, stop and start again, thinking about what’s good in these areas of your life, and what do you want to have happen instead of what’s not happening.

Be Flexible

In my Aikido classes, I’ve learned that the more I resist an attack, the easier it is for me to lose a fight. If my muscles are tense, it only takes a second for me to fall off balance, but if I let my body move with the other person’s force, I’m more likely to regain control and push an attacker off balance. The same is true in daily life. The more I stew because there’s a long line at the grocery store, I can’t find a parking spot, my friend is late to meet, or I didn’t get a response from a prospective client in a day, the more I say things like this “always” happen.

Optimists know that there will be a series of ups and downs. They see the downs as learning opportunities, ways to improve their performance for the next time. In her book Imperfect Spirituality: Extraordinary Enlightenment for Ordinary People, Polly Campbell writes that optimists “are willing to shift, adapt, change their goal if necessary, but they keep going.”

The next time you feel yourself giving a closed or rigid response, pause, and do the opposite. In the beginning, it will feel like you’re holding yourself back, but the more you practice the more you’ll see you’re actually moving yourself forward.

See Events as Temporary

“Pessimistic thoughts tend to cluster in sweeping generalizations that imply long-term troubles as opposed to temporary circumstances.” Campbell writes. “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.” While pessimistic people view negative events as expected, Seligman says that optimists tend to see negative events as temporary and atypical.

Cutting out words like always and never helps us see situations as temporary. Because both of these words are finite, what they do is imply that nothing will ever change. If I’m always late, what option does that give me to ever be early?

Expect the Best

If people, in the face of difficult situations, believe that a goal can be achieved, then they are optimistic. That's the conclusion psychologist Michael Scheier at Carnegie-Mellon University and Charles Carver at the University of Miami reached in a 1992 study. They measured optimism with the Life Orientation Test (LOT) where to answer, you only have to agree or disagree with the question. Some of the questions included, "In uncertain times, I usually expect the best," and "If something can go wrong for me it will." If you expect the best, you're much more likely to reach it because it will seem attainable. Christopher Peterson writes in A Primer in Positive Psychology. “Optimism leads to continued efforts to attain the goal, whereas pessimism leads to giving up.”

Watch How You Respond to Bad Events

Where Scheier and Carver’s studies focused on goals, Seligman focused on how one explains the causes of bad events (Buchanan & Seligman, 1995). Seligman concluded that those “who explain bad events in a circumscribed way —with external, unstable, and specific causes — can be described as optimistic, whereas those who favor internal, stable, and global causes can be described as pessimistic.” You can measure your explanatory style with the Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ).

To move out of a pessimistic response mode, you have to catch yourself in the moment before you react. For example, if you don’t get into the program you applied, the pessimistic response is to think things like, "I’m a complete loser. I’ll never be able to get into another program." Before you down that road, ask yourself, "What other ways could you make sense of this? The program may not have the resources I was asking for, or maybe they were looking for other topics." The goal is to react in a way that not only doesn't make you feel worse about yourself but also suggests ways you can improve.

Know When to be A Pessimist

It may sound strange, but knowing when to be and when not to be an optimist is actually a characteristic of being one! Seligman calls this flexible or complex optimism. In Learned Optimism, Seligman writes, “You can choose to use optimism when you judge that less depression, or more achievement, or better health is the issue. But you can also choose not to use it, when you judge that clear sight or owning up is called for.” So optimism doesn’t wear away your values or judgment. “…Pessimism has a role to play, both in society at large and in our own lives; we must have the courage to endure pessimism when its perspective is valuable. “

When you're making an effort to be more optimistic, the fundamental change that needs to occur is mental. See if you can incorporate some of the above techniques into your days. It only takes 28 days to form a habit, so try changing your response patterns for 28 days and see if you notice a difference.

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