Optimism isn’t rose-colored glasses, unicorns or eyes-and-ears-closed denial. It isn’t merriment every minute of the day, or utter delight on most days. And it isn’t a trait only some of us are blessed with while others are doomed to a deep, undying pessimism.
Optimism actually can be learned. And it actually helps us be more resilient. Optimism helps us bounce back when we’re facing trials and tribulations and stress strikes, writes author Polly Campbell in her book Imperfect Spirituality: Extraordinary Enlightenment for Ordinary People.
Optimism keeps us well. “Doctors, like positive psychology guru Martin Seligman, rank optimism right up in line next to exercise and good nutrition when it comes to good health-building behaviors,” she writes.
So what is optimism exactly? Campbell notes that optimism is “a flexible mindset and focused action.”
Optimists persevere, persist and problem-solve. “They are willing to shift, adapt, change their goal if necessary, but they keep going,” she writes.
In Imperfect Spirituality, Campbell shares several ways we can become more optimistic. Essentially, most of her advice focuses on our thought process, which is key in fueling optimism.
For instance, how often does a molehill become a mountain in your life?
Challenging Pessimistic Thoughts
When I was in high school and college, getting a few incorrect answers on a test only confirmed my incompetency. Snoozing and scrambling to get ready meant the entire day’s productivity was scrapped. Being tired in a workout class corroborated that I was never an athlete anyway.
It’s these pessimistic thoughts that can truly derail our days, and paralyze action. Getting a handle on these negative ruminations is important.
That’s because the path to being more optimistic is actually paved with less pessimistic thoughts. Campbell cites this great quote from Martin Seligman: “Building optimism is not a matter of thinking more optimistically, it’s a matter of thinking less pessimistically.”
As 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? Mean-spirited self-judgments? Mostly doom and gloom?
Once you can identify these thoughts, examine them. Interrogate them. Campbell suggests asking yourself these questions:
- “What is the problem or setback that’s got me freaked?
- What do I believe about that situation?
- Are those reactions, thoughts and beliefs true? Really?”
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.”
Remember that “Difficult things don’t have to signify a downward spiral that will limit your life,” Campbell writes.
Look at situations from all angles and perspectives. There’s never just one side. 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.”
According to Campbell, “Reframing allows you to see the situation from all sides, and then you can focus on the one that feels more helpful, more optimistic.”
Optimism is empowering. When difficult moments arise, optimism reminds us that we can still move forward. “Grounded optimism is about recognizing the difficulties, believing things can get better, and then making them so,” Campbell writes.