The Pessimist’s Guide to Optimism: 3 Things to Try When Optimism Feels Inauthentic

April 1, 2020

You know that happy-go-lucky friend you have—the one who never seems phased by anything?  Spilled coffee?  No problem.  Important plans fell through?  Oh well, we’ll reschedule.  Acid is falling from the sky and the earth’s core is imploding? I’m sure it’ll get better…


You might think this person is just daft or gleefully oblivious to the hardships of life.  The truth is, this sunny disposition is an enviable asset.  In fact, this person just might live longer than you.  A recent study out of Boston University’s School of Medicine found that the most optimistic people live an average of 11 to 15 percent longer than their more pessimistic peers.  Women who considered themselves optimists were 50 percent more likely to live to at least age 85, and male optimists were 70 percent more likely to live that long! Researchers compared results from two independently conducted studies—one that followed 70,000 women for a decade and another that followed about 1,400 men for 30 years.  Participants self-reported their optimism by ranking themselves on statements like “In uncertain times I usually expect the best.”  Incredibly, the conclusion that optimists lived longer held true regardless of socioeconomic status, body mass index, social integration, and alcohol use, according to the study’s lead researcher, Lewina Lee.  It turns out optimists have some advantages over their more melancholy friends: they may be better at regulating stressors and bouncing back from upsetting events.  


So, what’s a "Negative Nelly" to do?  The good news is your dispositional optimism is only about 25% hereditary, according to Lee.  That means you can actually choose to increase those “best case scenario” thoughts and maybe even get that fountain of youth working for you.  There are a number of ways to do this.  The first step no matter what, is acceptance—as in, meet yourself where you are.  Try your best to release judgments about yourself and your perceptions. If you’re mad at yourself for not being as perky as Marcia Brady, you’ll be setting yourself up for failure before you even get started.  Nobody every shamed themselves into feeling better.  It’s very likely that some of your negative thinking patterns were triggered by some difficult life experiences, and you’ll be better off starting any new practice by first giving yourself some grace. Then, try building a negativity-busting habit that feels authentic to you.


1. Gratitude


The phrase “thank you” can be very powerful.  In Marie Kondo’s book-turned-reality show, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the first thing she does when helping flustered families organize their overwhelmingly cluttered spaces is kneel down onto the floor, close her eyes, and thank the house for being a safe haven for its inhabitants.  You can actually see the homeowners’ faces shift from mild amusement and annoyance to genuine appreciation for this messy, stressful space that has, in actuality, provided the family with shelter and at least a few good memories.  It can be hard to remember the good things, so making a regular habit out of it is important.  Try a simple “What Went Well” exercise: for 30 days list 3 things that went well each day in a journal.  This activity takes five minutes a day and will train you to look for positivity.


It’s important to note that happier thoughts aren’t a “fake it ‘til you make it” endeavor. You’re not trying to “trick” yourself into being happier (in fact trying to force yourself into believing something that doesn’t feel true can create additional resistance).  You want to find actual elements in your life that you are truly grateful for, to cherish or at least notice on a daily basis.  It could be the tiniest detail, like less traffic than usual on your commute to work, or a cute dog you noticed walking into the office.  On the really hard days, you might just be thankful that your body, a sometimes tired, disorganized, and frazzled vessel, has kept all your insides together and working.  Thank yourself, your surroundings, any shred of good you can reach for and see if you experience a shift toward maybe accepting that the world might actually be conspiring in your favor.


2. Visualization/Mindfulness


Imagining positive outcomes is an oldie but a goodie that your soccer coach or debate instructor may have introduced you to as a kid.  Beyond helping you get past your nerves, visualizing can increase your confidence and focus when taking on an anxiety-inducing task.  If you’re not a natural optimist, you might try taking a few minutes a day leading up to an important event to picture yourself acing it.  The key here is to find a quiet, calm space, close your eyes, and truly immerse yourself into the scenario.  Pay attention to the details: if it’s a speech you’re nervous about, think about what the stage looks like, what the podium might feel like, and what sounds you’ll hear in the auditorium.  Stay true to you, however—if you’re a gentle-natured person, don’t imagine yourself shouting with passion—the image has to feel authentic to you.  Then imagine each step, culminating with your success, and the subsequent feelings of relief and happiness.  Visualizing can be an integral part of a mindfulness practice, helping you to distance yourself from your “doom and gloom” thoughts and creating space for more positive possibilities.

For particularly puzzling problems you may be ruminating about, it can help to appeal to something greater—again working that gratitude muscle.  For the spiritually-inclined, it might be as simple as saying, “Thank you, Universe/Inner Guide/Mother of Dragons (whatever inspires you!) for helping me to see this problem in a different light.” Saying “thank you” implies that the world is already working to help you achieve clarity, calm, and whatever you visualize yourself achieving.


3. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy


One of the most frequently utilized tools for shifting thought patterns is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  A comprehensive explanation of this technique goes beyond the scope of this article, but at the heart of it is developing an awareness of false assumptions and distorted thinking.  Many of our anxieties stem from our perceptions of issues that may not be entirely accurate.  Examples of distortions include: jumping to conclusions, black-and-white thinking (believing in extremes and being unwilling to see grey areas), and disqualifying the positive (focusing only on negative details).  One major thought distortion pessimists are guilty of is catastrophizing, or magnifying any details that point toward a negative outcome.  


CBT essentially asks you to put your thoughts “on trial.”  To identify whether a negative thought is worthy of the “worst case scenario” treatment, you will first provide all the evidence in “defense” of the thought and all the evidence “against” the thought.  Compare these two sides, then decide on your verdict, being as neutral of a judge as possible.  You might find that your fear of the world ending tomorrow dissipates when you list all the times the world has, in fact, not ended over your lifetime.  Intensive CBT with a trained therapist can be incredibly helpful for those suffering with depression and anxiety.  However, for a simplified version you can practice yourself, try examining your negative thought(s) closely and ask yourself, “Is this true?” Focus on facts, not your opinion, to determine how rational the thought is or if you are perhaps making false assumptions about some parts of it.  You can also move from “Is this true?” to “Is this useful?” Some thoughts and problems do not have a clear-cut answer—but catching yourself in cyclical thinking may help stop pessimistic thought patterns in their tracks.


A Take Home Message

The best technique is the one you will use.  When I was trying to build a flossing habit, I remember asking my dentist if it was better to use traditional string floss or if the convenient flossing picks were acceptable—her response was: whichever one you will do regularly.  Change is hard, so trying to do too much at once likely won’t stick.  But if you choose one technique that you are naturally leaning toward already, or that you feel you can commit to without too much of a lifestyle overhaul, go with that. Shifting your thought patterns is not about perfection but practice.  Be patient with yourself and give it time. 


If you find that these relatively straightforward cognitive approaches aren’t helping you, it might be worth exploring any potential underlying trauma or unresolved issues that may be keeping you stuck.  Sometimes just appealing to “rationality” isn’t enough and it’s important to dig a little deeper. Remember: you are not alone, and you can always seek out support in those you trust or create a support system to help you reach your “sunnier thinking” goals.  


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