Today, I have an exercise for you to help you be more optimistic. But first, some discussion about whether that’s even a good idea.
Pessimists firmly believe that they are realists. But are they? And even if they are, does that make pessimism better for you than optimism?
To a pessimist, it’s abundantly clear that the world is a scary and quite possibly meaningless place. Bad things happen every day, after all.
To an optimist, though, the world is full of hope and possibility.
Good things happen every day, after all.
Optimism and pessimism, in other words, are schemas. They’re ways of looking at the world.
I’d put myself somewhere in the middle of the optimist/pessimist spectrum. It’s as if I have an optimist eye and a pessimist eye, and I can close either one and look with the other perspective. (That’s not uncommon, by the way. Psychological measures of optimism and pessimism show that they’re not simple opposites; you can be high or low on both, though it’s more likely that you’ll be high on one and low on the other.)
In my 20s and early 30s, I was a lot more pessimistic than I am now. Although they’re usually considered traits (that is, relatively stable personality features), optimism and pessimism are somewhat changeable over the course of your life, especially if you’re not at one extreme or the other.
Both optimists and pessimists contribute to our society. The optimist invents the airplane and the pessimist the parachute.
- Gil Stern
Underlying pessimism is an alertness for danger that’s aimed at preserving your life and wellbeing. In other words, pessimism is based on fear of bad things happening. That’s a useful response to life in many circumstances, as long as it’s not the only one you have available to you.
Underlying optimism is an appreciation of possibilities, an opening up of the future. Optimism is not believing that everything is as good as it can get, or that nothing is wrong. From one perspective, optimism (and pessimism) aren’t really about the present or the past, but the future.
An optimist’s future holds challenges, but challenges that can be overcome.
Are pessimists right?
Most people believe they’re above average intelligence, better than average drivers, and more attractive than average. They overreport positive events, and think positive events are more likely to occur than negative events even when they’re statistically equally likely.
We’re more accurate in remembering pleasant events than unpleasant ones, and remember them as more pleasant the more time passes.
And yet, at the same time, a negative event is more likely to sieze our conscious attention.
What I’m saying is that in general we’re fairly clueless about reality. We tend to expect things to go better than they actually will, but when they don’t, we notice (because it’s counter to our expectations, or maybe just because things that are going wrong are important to pay attention to).
So someone whose expectations are a bit pessimistic, compared with the average person, is probably going to be accurate more often, as well.
Which means they win, right?
Being right is not the point
This may sound strange to you. It would have sounded strange (and completely wrong and stupid) to me at one time, too. But being “right” – having expectations that match what actually happens, winning arguments, having my opinions backed by the facts – isn’t actually what life is about.
Much more valuable in the long term, and more conducive to health, happiness and good relationships, is the ability to deal effectively with what happens. And that takes optimism.
Some things that optimism isn’t
Optimism (as I’m using the word) isn’t Panglossianism: “All is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.”
It’s also not the kind of naive “positive thinking” that so many fuzzy self-help books advocate – the idea that if I refuse to admit that anything is wrong, the world will magically comply with my desires. I call this, for what I hope are obvious reasons, the Flaw of Distraction.
Nor is it the Pollyanna approach that tries to force everything that happens to be a blessing in disguise. Some events are bad and tragic and wrong, and we need to admit that before we can deal with them effectively.
The parts of optimism
When I say “optimism” I’m combining a few different things into one convenient word. One is “explanatory style”. You’re optimistic if you tend to explain bad events in general as resulting from circumstances that are:
- temporary, not part of the unchanging structure of the universe
- local, not universal
- external to yourself, not a result of your own flaws.
The natural upshot of this explanatory style is that you will expect to be able to do better in future – you’re not helpless in the face of these events. Add to this Rick Snyder’s idea of “pathways” (the idea that it’s possible to come up with ways to achieve what you want to achieve), and you have what he calls “hope”.
And the research indicates that people who think they can deal positively and effectively with negative events are generally right.
Again, I’m not saying that always being optimistic is the best strategy for all conceivable circumstances. When you actually can’t succeed, it’s better to admit that early and not waste your resources trying.
I read some advice to writers recently which questioned a lot of the standard advice to writers, including “Keep trying”. Because if you’re a completely talentless person who, if you try to write anything more than a shopping list, will produce something truly dire and unreadable, no matter how hard you work, then you shouldn’t keep trying. You should stop, and go and do something else.
“Flexible optimism” acknowledges that sometimes I do have flaws in my abilities that mean I can’t achieve something. It also acknowledges that sometimes the reason that things went wrong is not bad luck or freak circumstances or the actions of some malign external force, but my own ignorance, stupidity or wrongheadedness. (But this, in turn, is an opportunity for optimism that I can learn to change and do better in the future.)
Relentless positivity isn’t optimism. It’s denial. And it often results in victim blaming, and other strategies to dodge responsibility.
How to be an optimist
Here’s a little exercise (adapted from Peterson’s A Primer in Positive Psychology) which you can use to increase your optimism.
- Write down a list of common events that get you upset and send you into a downward spiral of pessimism -feeling like you have very little ability to change things, that life is negative, full of bad things happening, and you may even deserve that. Write down as many as you can think of.
- Find a way of randomising them. Give the list to a friend and have them pick one, write them on cards you can shuffle, or use some kind of software like a flash card maker. Whatever you do, make sure that it presents you quickly with a random item from your list, so that you can practice quickly responding to an unexpected negative event.
- Draw a card, or however you are randomising your list, and read the description aloud.
- Identify the immediate, automatic, pessimistic thoughts that the event triggers off. All the thoughts about how you’re no good and this always happens to you and you deserve no better and you’ll lose everything you ever cared about and die miserable and alone because you’re a screwup*.
- As quickly as you can, do one of these three things:
- Look objectively at the evidence for the pessimistic thought, and notice how it’s not well supported.
- Think of an alternative explanation for why things went wrong that isn’t universal, perpetual or located in your own flaws.
- Put the thought into a perspective that makes the issue unimportant.
- Say your response aloud.
- Return to Step 3.
*You’re not a screwup.
Now, it’s possible that there’s some truth to some of your pessimistic thoughts. It’s possible that something you’re doing is contributing to the situation. And it’s possible that the issue really is important, and needs to be dealt with. All of those are good things to be aware of. But starting out feeling helpless and crushed isn’t going to give you a pathway to improving the situation, so it’s important to challenge your automatic thoughts and the feelings that follow them.
Give it a try, and see what happens.
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