Doom and gloom are at an all-time high. Yet, many of us still have to go to work, lead our families, and sleep at night. It begs the question- how can we be optimistic- especially in the face of deep, turmoil?
Learned optimism is an idea rooted in positive psychology. It involves developing the ability to view the world from a positive point of view.
Don’t confuse learned optimism with being “unrealistic.” Optimism is not ignoring the (sometimes very real) potential downside; it’s making a conscious choice to not park your mind there.
So, how can train our brains to get there?
Famous speaker Jim Rohn once said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
Personally, I have to believe human beings are a bit more complex than that. However, we know our environment (and the people in it) makes a lasting impact on the way we think.
The people you surround yourself with are having an impact on your optimism (or lack thereof). Try forging relationships with people whose mindset you admire; call a friend who just took a great new job or spend time with a 5-year-old talking about Santa. Emotions are contagious and their optimism will start to rub off on you.
Unfortunately, continually telling yourself “don’t worry” does not actually do much do curb negative thoughts (speaking from experience).
Scheduling worry time is a cognitive-behavioral therapy technique where people are encouraged to set aside time specifically to work through the things that they are worried about. So instead of telling your brain “don’t worry about it,” tell your brain to worry later. Like “I’ll think about that at lunchtime,” for example.
This practice keeps worry from taking over your whole day. Plus, I’ve found that when you set something aside until it’s “time to worry,” by the time you actually let yourself worry about it, you come to the scenario with a more level head.
I wrote about this mental hack last year, in reference to overcoming fear. Fear and pessimism are cousins in the family of emotions; being worried about something can give rise to fear or hopelessness.
If you find yourself starting to think “what if it goes terribly?” interrupt that thought cycle, and challenge your brain to think “what if it goes great?” Pointing your brain towards the payoff (instead of the risk) helps you be more confident, courageous, and optimistic.
Our brains are hardwired to alert us to perceived risks and less instinctively inclined to examine the potential upside. But making a conscious effort to focus on (or at least acknowledge) the potential positive outcomes trains your brain to think differently over time.
According to Dr. Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, “Pessimism is one of the personality traits that’s highly heritable.” Further, research from the University of British Columbia has determined that your genetic makeup can influence your perception of life by amplifying negative experiences and emotional events.
All hope is not lost, however. Dr. Seligman also notes that while this trait is highly heritable, it is also modifiable. But not without work.
Acknowledging the linkage between our genes and our mindset is not an invitation to throw your hands up and succumb to your primal resting state. I bring it up to help you cut yourself some slack. Maybe you were born with inherited rose-colored glasses, or maybe, like the rest of us, you’re working on un-learning centuries of fatalistic thinking.
The world is up against a lot. Pandemic, war, rampant greed… I don’t know how to solve those problems. But I do know they won’t be solved if our collective spirit is broken.
Optimism is a choice. Even small actions, like temporarily parking a worry spiral or resetting yourself with a hopeful conversation contribute to a more optimistic world.