The Awesomeness of Optimism

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What is Optimism
Benefits of Optimism
Simple Practices to cultivate Optimism
Overcoming challenges in your practice

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails” – William Arthur Ward

What is Optimism?

The glass is half full, not half empty! That pretty much sums up optimism. It can be described as a mental attitude, tending to lean towards a positive outcome. Oxford University professor and author of “Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain” Elaine Fox expands the conception of optimism to include having control. Pessimists can feel hopeless, as nothing seems to work in their favour, a loss of control. But optimists believe that their actions matter, and that they do have some control of the outcome. Furthermore, Fox includes the realist into the equation – the ‘optimistic realist’. Rather than just believing that good things will come if they simply think happy thoughts, the optimistic realist believes at a deeper level that they have some control over their own destinies.

“Pessimists let life happen. Optimists make life happen!”

Benefits of Optimism:

Optimism is more than just positivity. It’s about developing life skills which can be very conducive to recovery. Identifying meaning and purpose in one’s life can lead to feeling in control of one’s future. In recovery, people are overcoming huge obstacles, thus building resilience – first hand proof that one’s future can be shaped by their actions. In the realm of positive psychology, research is reporting following benefits of developing optimism:

  • the ability to accept the good along with the bad
  • feeling more in control
  • working creatively and persistently to achieve goals
  • more overall satisfaction in life
  • better mental health
  • better physical health
  • increased self esteem
  • more likely to try new things
  • increased confidence
  • less likely to perceive a ‘stressful’ situation negatively, therefor, less stress
  • improved romantic relationships
  • LESS LIKELY TO TURN TO SUBSTANCE ABUSE

In this short video Elaine Fox discusses how our fear systems and reward systems connect with higher centres to shape how positively (or negatively) we perceive life. She uses the analogy of a river carving out a valley to describe how it is that we end up thinking a certain way, and discusses ways that we can ‘change’ the way we think using some well established methods.

Simple practices to cultivate Optimism

Cultivating optimism isn’t quite as straightforward as gratitude. Other than the few minutes per week set aside for the practices below, you will need to be constantly aware of your thoughts – particularly pessimistic thoughts.

You might find it helpful to put up a visual reminder somewhere – perhaps a post it note on your desk – “turn the negative into a positive!”

Here are 4 simple optimism practices for you to try:

1. Best Possible Self

Imagine your self in the future. What would be the best possible life you can imagine? Elaborate on all pertinent areas of your life: health, career, relationships, travel, hobbies, and passions. Try to imagine what would change in these areas of your life to allow you the best possible future.

  • Now take just 15 minutes, and write continuously (don’t stop to analyze, overthink, or dispute) about what you imagine your best future to look like.
  • Be as creative and imaginative as possible, don’t worry about grammar or spelling.
  • Notice and become aware if your thoughts lead you to dwell on how much your current life may not match your future fantasy.
  • You may find yourself trying to sabotage this exercise by drifting off course, telling yourself a story about how difficult it has been for you to accomplish goals in the past. Or making excuses such as finances, lack of time, family obligations, etc.

For the purpose of this exercise, try to only focus on the future – the best possible future you could imagine. Not the past or present reality. Invite a ‘fairytale’ outcome.

2. Finding Silver Linings

The purpose here is simply to help you shift into a more positive state of mind about your overall life.

  • List five things that you find enjoyable, enriching, or make your life worthwhile in this very moment. They can be quite general such as ‘good health’ or as specific as ‘snuggling with my dog Max this morning.’
  • Next, think about the most recent time you were upset, frustrated, or annoyed.
  • In a few words, briefly write down and describe the situation.
  • Now list three things that can help you see the bright side of this situation.

Example: You are running late for work, and had to skip breakfast. Three ways to look on the bright side:

  • Lunch will taste that much more amazing
  • You are so fortunate to usually be able to eat breakfast. Many families are living in poverty even in your own country, and go hungry every morning
  • A year from now, you won’t even remember this morning

3. Meaningful Photos

  • For one week, take photos of things that hold special meaning or purpose to you. They can be people, places, objects, or pets.
  • If you are not able to take photos of these things, try copying photos from websites that remind you of things that hold special meaning to you.
  • For example, you went on a life changing trip, but cannot find the photos. You can look up the same location online, and copy another photo.
  • Try to produce at least nine images.

At the end of the week, set aside a few minutes to go over your photos. Take time to look at each and every one, and reflect on it’s meaning. For each image, ask yourself “what does this photo represent, and why is it meaningful to me?”

4. Get a friend to insult you…seriously!

It can be very challenging to dispute the ever so clever pessimist that lives inside each and every one of us. The voice that tells us we are not good enough, smart enough, attractive enough, etc. But it is much easier to dispute the cruel comments that come from other people.

  • Recruit a willing friend or family member to spend a few minutes telling you all the negative, unfair, pessimistic things you usually tell yourself.
  • It can be difficult for a loved one to think of these things themselves – as they might feel they are truly insulting you. It can be helpful if you give them a brief overview of the most prevalent things you’re typically pessimistic about.
  • As they ‘insult’ you, your task is to defend yourself, argue back and debate them. It should be easier than disputing the voice in your head.
  • You can go back and forth, as they respond to your responses with more pessimistic points.
  • Be gentle, maybe even avoiding serious traumas. Assure your loved one that this exercise will help you, and you won’t take offense.
  • Follow up with some positive affirmations, reminding each other what you appreciate in the other.

Overcoming challenges in your practice

Problem: You’re feeling pessimistic

Suggestion: Fortunately for most of us, research has shown that the majority of people do possess an optimism bias – a cognitive bias that causes one to believe that they are less at risk of experiencing a negative event compared to others. But unfortunately, most of us also have a negativity bias – specially attuned to negative information. Negative experiences leave such strong imprints on our brains, that we require several positive experiences to make up for a negative one. This is then compounded by people who are pessimistic.

We all have bad days

Distracting from or disputing our pessimistic thoughts can seem like a futile exercise. So how do we shift our perspective? By accepting that we are simply having a bad day, and not trying so hard to change it. We know from experience that tomorrow will bring different perspectives. Allowing ourselves to have a bad day can foster acceptance of ourselves, just as we are. Of course, if this goes on for a prolonged period of time, we should seek help and support.

On the bad day, try to be gentle with yourself, and also try to avoid making important decisions. Try to sit in meditation, or do a body scan, and notice your negative thoughts. Try to notice where in the body these feelings are manifesting. Acknowledging them can lessen their power. ‘Caring’ for them can help them dissipate. Try to distance yourself from these negative thoughts by realizing that since you are noticing the thoughts, you are an observer. Which means that you can’t possibly BE the negative thoughts. You are not a negative person. You are simply observing some negative thoughts.

This too will pass

Problem: You think optimism is unrealistic

Suggestion: Hmmm…this is a tricky one. Depending on your perspective, anything can be realistic; and anything can also be unrealistic. Ack! Studies have actually found that pessimists do have a slightly more accurate view of reality. While optimists display some degree of delusion. Wait, what? This doesn’t sound like it’s supporting our cause here…

But there is hope! Optimistic illusions of being in control and more skillful than others may just be the things that get you out of bed in the morning and keep you working toward your goals. Furthermore, research shows that optimists do not possess an unreasonable level of delusion. While pessimists more often show higher levels of unreasonable fear, worry, anxiety, and are more likely to develop depression and have worse health.

Perspective is totally subjective. Even reality can be argued as subjective. Therefor, it could be argued that perhaps we all live under a certain degree of delusion? What we do and think is influenced very heavily by our cultural upbringing. Why is it that people have such opposing views of that is right, and what is wrong? Who is actually right? Many of us believe that WE are right, and others with opposing views are wrong. Which views are reality? Which are delusions? Is there a governing body? Even laws can be opposite in different parts of the world. Take a look at this photo. Attempt to argue both angles for yourself – realistic versus unrealistic:

It is a beautiful sunny day. Or is it too unbearably hot? Which statement is realistic? Unrealistic? True? False? Based on reality or delusion? I love working in the garden, I feel useful to my family. I don’t like working in the garden, I feel hard done by. As you can see, it is difficult to deem one perspective realistic, and the other unrealistic. We have all been in similar situations, and we all have the power to allow ourselves to view the situation as positive or negative.

Which kind of experience would you rather have?

What’s the most ridiculous, rewarding way to make a major motion film? Guy Browning tells the story of how he enlisted his small village in Oxfordshire into making a comedy, that premièred in London’s West End, with nothing more than outrageous optimism.

Article by Marisha

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