How to Be More Optimistic
On one of my husband and my first camping trips together, we were walking down a wooded trail next to a crisp mountain river. The heat was severe, as it was mid-August.
“Ugh,” my husband said. “This heat is so oppressive.”
“Yeah, but we’re about to go swimming,” I replied. “Don’t be so pessimistic.”
“The difference between my pessimism and your optimism is that I’m optimistic about the big things and you’re only optimistic about the small things,” he replied. “I think my pessimism is better than your optimism.”
I hated to admit it, but he was right. I would worry constantly about whether our relationship was working but blindly skip along, happy to ignore the 100 degree heat.
Before that I used to think everyone should be an optimist, but I don’t think that’s really what we should all be aiming for.
It’s About Balance
I mean sure, there are pros to being an optimist, but there are certainly cons as well. My dreams do get stomped on every now and then.
Of course there are downsides to being a pessimist as well, but there are some positives. I bet few pessimists are told something they haven’t already considered about their dreams coming true.
For those who struggle with negative focus, the object isn’t to become a starry-eyed optimist but to achieve balance.
There’s no need to try to eliminate it; a certain amount of negative energy is healthy. Just look at nature. It’s a bummer for the zebra who’s hunted and eaten, but the lions are able to live another day.
So with that in mind, I invite you to breathe in some positive energy to balance your negative side. And here’s how I think you can do it.
If you’ve been told you’re a pessimist your whole life, or if the first thing you see when walking into a situation is always the negative, it’s going to take a while to change your brain. But it can happen!
Give yourself an amount of time every day (or three times a week or whatever feels right for you) where you purposefully look on the bright side. It may be an hour, it may be five minutes.
This all depends on the level of energy you have to devote. Don’t push it, because training to see the positive does take a lot out of you. And it’s going to take time.
In that time every day, notice your negative thoughts, whether they’re about a person or yourself or situations. Then counteract them. Say “I don’t know about that …” and here’s why.
For instance, one day when I was riding my bike to a job I didn’t like, my brain was focusing on how bad the day was going to be. I answered back, “I don’t know about that. It can’t be so bad. I’m riding my bike to work, and it’s a lovely morning.”
It’s important to keep a notebook with you or your phone’s notepad function or whatever you use to keep notes. Write down what the negative thought was and how your counteracted it. I usually will make a little notation (smiley face, sad face, etc.) as to how well it worked.
Each time you go through this, you exercise your brain in a different way — it starts to adapt and change. It can be tough, and your negative focus may find ways to refute your optimism occasionally, but slowly the change will leak into your daily life.
You’ll find that the “I don’t know about that …” happens all on its own, and sooner or later, your negative focus fades into the background where it belongs.
Find Your Weak Spots
Just like when we work out, we all know where we struggle and where we shine. Some of us might have better lower body strength where others may have no trouble building some killer biceps.
When you begin your training, you’re going to notice there are some things that are easier to see the bright side of than others.
I am always able to see the bright side when I’m struggling financially, but I immediately go into worst-case-scenario mode when it comes to relationships.
This is where those notes you took come in handy. What were most of your negative thoughts in regard to? How well did your rebuttals work? Can you cross over some of the good arguments to things you struggle with?
For instance, when it comes to money problems, I always think to myself: Worrying doesn’t make me money. I always end up OK in the end.
But when it came to relationships, I’d always put the power in the other person’s hands: He’s probably not angry, I’d tell myself unconvincingly, or She’ll probably still be your friend.
These made me feel weak and powerless, so I borrowed my argument from money. Worrying about this right now isn’t going to make him love me more. Thinking about this isn’t going to make her want to be my friend. I always end up OK in the end.
It’s a much more powerful way of thinking for me, and I end up focusing on the fact that I’m OK instead of something negative.
Of course, you want to keep up with what you’re good at refuting as well, but the more energy you devote to your weak spots, the less troublesome they become, leaving you with energy for other things. Your day will be brighter, and you’ll spend more time doing what you want.
Surround Yourself with Light
It’s a wonder any of us can have a positive outlook in the world we live in.
We’re constantly bombarded with images and sounds that tell us we’re not good enough, the world is going to hell in a hand basket and we’re not doing enough in our lives. And with social media, we can often be exposed to people who do nothing more than repeat those messages.
This isn’t a lecture to stop reading the newspaper, watching TV, or checking Facebook because it’s important to be connected to the world around us. What I’m suggesting is that you curate what you expose yourself to.
Try not to use the TV as background noise; you can unwillingly adopt a lot of pain and anxiety by sending subliminal messages into your brain. Pay attention to what you’re feeding your brain and balance it.
If you spent 20 minutes reading about the war in Syria or how your purse can kill you, try checking out some good news sites, like Huffington Post’s Good News or the Intelligent Optimist news magazine.
When I did my media fast for my 30 Day Challenge I noticed a few things. One was that I had a lot more energy — I didn’t need caffeine.
The other was that when I did check my email and social media (I allowed myself to twice a day for work reasons), I felt sad. Set a cap on this stuff and you’ll find that you’ll feel much better.
Limit Your Negative Input
And those negative status updates you see? No need to unfriend them, just hide them. Less drama in your life, and you’re the only one that has to know.
After awhile, you won’t miss them. Same goes for Twitter. Start following people who post upbeat quotes and they’ll easily drown out the negative voices on your feed.
Unsubscribe to email lists and don’t renew your subscriptions to magazines that drain your energy and leave you feeling negative. Just like your friends on your news feed, you won’t miss them when they’re gone.
Try to find replacements for them. I always liked magazines for women, but found them a little bit of a bummer until I found Bust. Be on the lookout for new things to balance out the negative.
Finally, limit your time with negative individuals. I know that many of us have friends and family who fit under this category. I’m not suggesting you stop being friends. Simply balance the time you spend with them doing something positive.
And when you do spend time with them, try to focus on positive things they talk about or do. Ask questions to draw out that part of them instead of focusing on what they’re saying that’s negative. Sometimes we perpetuate someone’s negativity simply by focusing on it.
This is all a balancing act, and in most people’s lives there is a serious lack of positive energy in the things we expose ourselves to daily.
Becoming aware of how much we allow it into our lives and making time to balance it out will make us all more happy, optimist individuals.
Sometimes we can forget how good we have it. I know lately I can’t help but focus on how early it gets dark when I’m sitting in the kitchen of my beautiful home with a view of mountains, cooking organic food with a constant supply of gas in an oven. How can I miss this stuff?
But we can, so it’s important to make time to stay grateful for all the things we have in our lives. Set a reminder on your phone to take 30 seconds to list what you’re thankful for. Your negative focus can’t help but take a backseat when you’re giving thanks.
We have a gratitude board at home in our kitchen, where we write down things we’re thankful for. It is always there, not only as a constant reminder of what we already gave thanks for, but as a question mark:
What else in your life are you happy to have? You don’t have to do this, but you could email them to yourself and save them in a folder or start a gratitude journal — anything to keep you in that frame of mind.
When you pose that question to yourself every day, your view starts to shift. You stop focusing on how you wish you had more cash and start to be thankful you can pay your bills, put gas in the car and grocery shop, because not everyone can do that.
Being in a state of gratitude gives us a much more graceful way of dealing with life. When we focus on what we have and how blessed we are, there’s a sort of peace that washes over us. It’s hard to be negative when you’re in that state.
Remember, this is all about balance. I consider myself a hard-core optimist and I still have negative thoughts. They’re normal and sometimes healthy.
If we didn’t have them, we’d spend life thinking we can walk down dark alleys at night in seedy parts of town and we’ll be fine. And maybe we will, but it’s not smart, right?
But spending all your time in a negative state of mind isn’t healthy either, and that’s what I’m suggesting you counter with these training tools. They’ve helped me to be more optimistic about the big stuff and live a more balanced, optimistic life.