Why optimism is your best strategy
Everyday reality seems to leave little room for optimism. Television and newspapers report mainly on failure and misery, terrorism, violence, intolerance and climate change. People everywhere are under a continual onslaught of negativity. No wonder more and more people are depressed. Under these circumstances, how can you stay positive and optimistic? In an exhaustive cover story, the French magazine Psychologies (January 2005) explains that optimism is a quality that anyone can learn. True optimism isn't about denying reality against our better judgement. And optimism is not the same thing as idealism, which reflects a tendency to push against harsh realities. The idealist is chasing after a big ideal and runs the risk of big disappointment.
Psychologies calls for "intelligent optimism". Intelligent optimists don't deny problems, but adjust to them, while still seeking an opportunity for progress. Intelligent optimists don't allow themselves to get carried away by circumstances they can't change, but focus on things that are within their grasp and that they can enjoy. The magazine quotes the diary of Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew who wrote a journal describing her life in a Nazi death camp: "Today we walked along little German roads past lilacs and roses."
You learn to become optimistic by concentrating on things that give you a sense of satisfaction, and you remain an optimist by feeding those things to make them grow. Intelligent optimists also know that for every problem there is at least the beginning of a solution and that the search for that solution can be inspirational in itself. They are also not afraid of negative thoughts, which they realize offer some protection and help them stay realistic.
The sad truth is that very little research has been done into factors that influence optimism because "science is not interested in happy people". Nonetheless, the psychologists and psychotherapists quoted in the magazine believe that the aptitude for optimism is not genetically determined. In other words: anyone can learn to be optimistic. All it requires is intention/desire and practice, along with a good grasp of reality. Positive examples around can also help: people associating with others who are optimistic become optimistic themselves. And just as children of depressed parents are more prone to depression, psychologists believe the reverse is also true. Optimism breeds optimism.
"Satisfaction is something you have to practice"
The U.S. magazine Balanced Living also comes to the same conclusion: that an optimistic attitude can be "cultivated", but you have to work at it. Satisfaction is something you have to practise. And therein lies a challenge. Most of us are more aware of how to practise dissatisfaction: we worry about money, complain about our boss/co-workers/partners/friends, and compare ourselves to others. But satisfaction starts with accepting what you have and what you can't change. Balanced Living advises regularly saying the following affirmation:
What I have, is enough.
What I am, is enough.
What I do, is enough.
What I've achieved, is enough.
This consciousness teaches you to value what you have and to enjoy the moment-which is the beginning of a satisfied and optimistic attitude towards life.
The American business magazine Fast Company adds that optimists understand that change is a given. History teaches us that unpleasant circumstances ultimately fade away. So there's no point in getting depressed about any current situation. Optimists can enjoy a half-full glass in an imperfect world, according to the publication. In other words: optimism is a choice.
Here’s an actual method for increasing your optimistic tendencies. A recent Ohio State University study suggests that just nodding or shaking your head serves as a kind of signal to your subconscious about how you're feeling.
The researchers found that nodding your head up and down is, in effect, telling yourself that you have confidence in your own thoughts, And this is true whether those thoughts are positive or negative. Shaking your head does the opposite: It gives you less confidence in your own thoughts.
Another useful initiative is to use more wisdom in your choice of inputs. If watching the news every night before you go to bed makes you feel slightly depressed, reconsider that choice. So many of my clients tell me they feel they need to be up-to-date on the 'news' because if it comes up in a conversation, they don't want to appear uninformed. But after many years working in the news business, I can say that the information fed to viewers/readers is selected very narrowly and specifically for its 'wow' factor, and overall negativity. The arbiters of what's news think that people aren't interested in happy stories.
While avoiding these negative news sources, it can be quite beneficial to source encouraging and optimistic news outlets. The Optimist (formerly Ode magazine) is the perfect choice and one I highly recommend. It's an independent media initiative focused on solutions and possibilities, committed to 'solutions journalism'. Instead of focussing on what's wrong, The Optimist reports on the answers to the challenges humanity and the planet face. As they say on their website, "We offer news that's actually new. We present intelligent optimism as the most effective, efficient—and scientifically proven—strategy to support creativity, innovation, health and happiness."