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Nurturing Optimism

There are a lot of misconceptions about what is “optimism”. 

Optimism is not blind faith in the good and it’s not simply seeing the glass as half full. It may be understanding that the glass is actually more than half empty, but choosing to focus on what you have, rather than what you don’t have. 

How we feel about things is less about the reality and more about our perspective. If it’s raining, it’s neither good nor bad. Your perception may be that it’s good because you enjoy staying indoors on a rainy day reading a good book or binging movies. Your perception may be that’s bad because you had planned a picnic with the family that day. The rain is not personal, it just is.

But as humans we take everything personally. We are fortunate and unfortunate to be confined in a physical vessel. As such, we think of this vessel, this body, as being the centre of the universe. It’s true that your body is the centre of youruniverse, but not the universe. Forgetting this fact means that whatever happens feels personal, even when it’s not, it’s just life.

It’s natural to want to control whatever happens in your life. But it’s not realistic to think you can control everything. War, pandemic, natural disaster, global financial crisis, recession. None of these are in your control. But your response to them is. Just because we can’t control them, doesn’t make us victims. We choose our perception and we choose our response.

There are three main differences between an optimist and a pessimist.

  1. An optimist is future-oriented and hopeful, understanding that both good and bad can result from a difficulty. If you focus on believing that the outcome will definitely be bad, then it already is. Living in fear of a bad outcome means that you behave as if it has already happened. An optimist has an open perspective and can see both the possible good and bad outcomes. This allows them to set their sights on the good and actively move towards it.
  2. An optimist is solution-focused. When bad outcomes occur, a pessimist is resigned “I knew that would happen”, whereas an optimist’s open perspective allows them to be clearer about what to do next to resolve the difficulty. Science tells us that a positive perspective helps to remove the “blinkers” that hide us from potential solutions. Dwelling on how bad something is, ruminating, doesn’t allow you to move forward and can lock your mindset into dwelling on what has already happened rather than what to do next.
  3. Some difficulties have no solutions. Death, grave illness or injury cannot be undone. Research has confirmed that when irreversible bad things happen, optimists are more accepting and resilient. A pessimistic attitude doesn’t allow one to accept and move forward, and it’s easy to get stuck in rumination and self-pity. An optimistic attitude may include self-compassion, but not self-pity. 

Research done at the Great Good Science Centre at Berkley University, California, suggests that the practice of Finding Silver Linings done 10 mins each day for three weeks, may help increase your optimism. 

This is because looking on the bright side of life in general, or of a bad situation in particular, can increase happiness by boosting your sense of self-worth, motivating you to go after your goals and enhancing your enjoyment of life. Regularly completing the silver linings exercise can help you get in the habit of recognizing positive aspects of your life and seeing the upside to challenging situations rather than fixating on the downsides. With repeated practice, you may find that it comes more naturally to look on the bright side, even when faced with difficulties in your life.

Finding Silver Linings

We all tend to ruminate on things that have gone wrong in our lives—a mistake we made at work, an evening that didn’t go as planned. We might even think about them so often that our lives seem filled with these mishaps and disappointments. Focusing on them too much, however, can cast a pall over our lives and even be associated with depressive thinking. Looking on the bright side even when things go wrong is a key component of optimism, which research links to benefits such as lower rates of depression, a better ability to cope with stress, and more relationship satisfaction.

1. To start, list five things that make you feel like your life is enjoyable, enriching, or worthwhile at this moment. These things can be as general as “being in good health” or as specific as “drinking a delicious cup of coffee this morning.” The purpose of this first step is to help you shift into a positive state of mind about your life in general.

2. Next, think about the most recent time when something didn’t go your way, or when you felt frustrated, irritated, or upset.

3. In a few sentences, briefly describe the situation in writing.

4. Then, list three things that can help you see the bright side of this situation. For example, perhaps you missed your bus this morning. Three ways to look on the bright side of this situation might be:

  • Even though you missed the bus, you got some good exercise when you were running to catch it.
  • You’re fortunate to live in a city where there was another bus just 10 minutes later, or where buses run reliably at all.
  • Ten years from now, you likely won’t remember what happened this morning.
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