5 Ways to Become Optimistic

“Every day is a good day” - Zen Koan

Walking down a dimly lit suburban street on a Friday night used to provide me with enough ammo to launch a full assault on modern life. The houses were too big, the cars too expensive, the people were “sheep” and their lives were fake. With my hood up, eyes glaring down, and a permascowl, nothing could escape my judgement. Life didn’t  seem to make sense and the universe appeared uncaring and unfair. I was like Schleprock from the Flintstones: always accompanied by a black cloud hanging overhead.

Optimism has been a recurring topic lately. It’s a perspective that takes great effort to hold, especially if the scenario above is our starting point. We find advice on the benefits of positive thinking and optimism filling the self help book section and plastered across the walls of offices and clinics. However, the process can feel contrived and sometimes as irritating as pessimism if mishandled. Constant optimism strikes us as inauthentic or half-hearted. We can smell it.

This is in part due to the fact that extreme optimism can be as misguided as pessimism. Both are missing certain aspects of reality and shield us from experiencing both negative or positive emotions because of their discomfort. That being said, viewing the world in a more welcoming manner allows us to open up to the variety of experience life has to offer. Rooting our beliefs is a well rounded perspective based on reasonable assessment helps us to become more open and to cope better with the darker side of life.

The following five techniques have proven effective with clients and in my personal life. Hopefully, they’re as useful for you.

1. Remember, You Are What You Think. There is some validity to the “think positive” movement, to an extent. Positive affirmations and “positive thinking” are all the rage and prescribed by therapist and guru alike. However, what I’ve found with my clients is that affirmations don’t work a lot of the time because they don’t believe them. This is especially true if using quotes dug up on the internet with no personal connection or context to tie them to personal experience.

What I have found is that the way we think directly influences how we feel about ourselves and our relationship to the world which affects our behavior. If we  define ourselves as a “loser” or “idiot” we tend to feel a variety of bad feelings and develop harmful habits to cope with them. In many cases, we become a self fulfilling prophecy and end up as the person we fear because we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s inevitable, regardless of fact.

Nonetheless, there’s good news. This also means adopting more useful and less extreme beliefs will a similar effect, only in the opposite direction. By taking an objective look at ourselves, counting both positive and negative aspects, we can create a new definition of self. Even if we can only come up with one positive aspect, it’s enough to build on. Making a list works wonderfully here. List one positive thought, action, quality or emotion experienced each day. Next, increase it to two, then four, and so on each week. After a month you’ll have over 30 positive, helpful ways of defining yourself!

2. Be OK With Grey. Another way of transforming our outlook is to watch for black and white thinking. Like when we define ourselves as a “loser” or “idiot” we’re jumping to extremes without considering the whole picture. We may feel we’re of little worth because we lost our job, were dumped, or haven’t reaching the expectations of others. However, by comparing ourselves, we miss the uniqueness of our own talents, needs and desires. The world is not black and white and if we think in this format, it creates a great deal of tension and frustration.

Exploring our values and generating goals unique to our own needs can help resolve this. When we define ourselves as a “loser” we are implying that there are winners without questioning the game itself. Is a big house, six figure career, fame or multitude of friends important to us? A lot of the time we’re not looking for fame and fortune, but rather acceptance, appreciation and acknowledgement that we matter. Money and fame are valued by their quantity rather than their quality. You either have it or you don’t. Either black or white.

If we become comfortable with the grey in between, the game becomes less daunting. Success can be fluid and open to interpretation. It can be completing your first painting, telling someone you care about them, eating fruit instead of potato chips, or deciding you deserve to be happy. These success stories do not make the papers, but they change lives every day. Before jumping to an extreme, challenge yourself to consider it’s opposite. You’ll be surprised what you come up with.

3. Misery Loves Company. Take a moment to think about the person you are most afraid to share your fears with. Chances are it’s someone who has made strong judgements about you or others in the past. It may also be that you’ve caught yourself imitating this behavior  when around them and carried it to other aspects of your life. Now, consider that you may be that person to someone else. It’s not a reassuring feeling.

One of the most difficult parts of changing our outlook is to examine our inner circle. Friends, family and coworkers can have a huge impact on our attitude and how we feel about ourselves. I struggled for years with breaking ties to negative and hurtful friends because I felt I owed something to them. It’s difficult because we fear their judgement and put stock in their opinion of us. This is a personal and difficult process. However, taking a objective count of who in our life makes us feel better about who we are and the world around us and who holds us back is essential if we’re pursuing a more optimistic outlook.

4. Kill Em’ With Kindness. As we begin to shed the our harmful thoughts, black and white thinking and toxic friends the fact is we will still encounter people who will test our patience. This can either cause us anxiety or work in our favor by providing practice and an outlet to help others. I’m not condoning preachiness here, as it tends to turn people off. Rather, kill em’ with kindness.

Kindness is the best weapon we have against harmful thinking because it not only reinforces our own outlook, but also benefits others by challenging their curmudgeon ways. Have you ever had a bad day brightened by a kind word, a random gesture or unexpected gift? Have you ever been irritated by the same events only to later ponder why it irked you? This is the power of kindness, it diffuses the situation and causes a positive conflict within the agitated. Responding to negativity, hatred, anger with the same emotion will only add fuel to the fire. Help calm the situation like an antacid to heartburn.

Caution: Avoid passive aggressiveness, it is not kindness, it’s contained hostility and can be as toxic to you as to those on the receiving end.

5. Try Total Acceptance. One of the most helpful yet challenging tasks is to take a leap of faith. Adopting a new outlook is an uncomfortable process at first. We’re uneasy about the change because it’s unfamiliar territory. Likewise, making large strides is exponentially more uncomfortable as smaller steps. My leap of faith took the form of a belief posed by Chris Prentiss in Zen and the Art of Happiness:

“Everything that happens to me is the best thing that can happen to me.”

He states that acting as if this were true is essential to happiness. This does not mean it is true, rather, acting as if it were so has a positive effect on our well being. This makes sense, if we treat each situation as a learning experience and a stepping stone towards a better, wiser self then our greatest misfortunes are transformed into privileges. However, this can be a hard pill to swallow. He’s asking us to believe cancer, death of loved ones, heartache, war, struggle, bullying and addiction are the best thing that could happen to us. It’s a radical shift in perspective.

Think of it this way, viewing these events as catastrophes does not make them go away. It does not allow us to learn from them, nor make us feel better about experiencing them. Instead, we bury them, hide from them, and allow our misfortunes to haunt us as anxieties depression and guilt. Prentiss is asking us to accept these misfortunes, fully. By doing so, we are accepting the entirety of our being. Acceptance is a powerful tool and without it we will carry life’s burden’s long past their usefulness to us

Life is full of ups and downs, strikes and gutters as well as spares and splits. We are the architects of our own attitude. This can either free us from our self imposed shackles or become the shackles themselves. If we are gentle with ourselves and others we can change how we experience the world and our own minds. We can ask ourselves with each new habit and thought -- is this beneficial to myself and the world?

Photo by Charles Dobie