A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity;
an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.
People who carry an optimistic outlook are typically healthier and more productive than their pessimistic peers. They catch fewer colds, cope better with life’s daily struggles, and may even live longer due to reduced levels of stress.
So what about you? Can you become an optimist?
The answer is: YES! Optimism is not an inborn trait bestowed on a lucky few. It’s a skill that can be learned. Here are six things optimists do and some ideas on how to follow in their footsteps:
1. They make optimal use of all available options.
Most people get irritated by those who seem “too optimistic,” but this is usually an unfortunate misinterpretation of the difference between and optimist and an idealist.
An optimist is neither naive, nor in denial, nor blind to the realities of life. An optimist believes in the optimal usage of all the available options, no matter how narrow the supply. As a result, optimistic people are able to better see the bigger picture. They can more accurately visualize and mange the present possibilities. In other words, an optimist is simply a positive realist.
For comparison’s sake: An idealist focuses only on the absolute best aspects of situations and ignores the negatives in total detriment to reality, a pessimist sees no possibilities at all, and an optimist strives to see all the possibilities so they can find the best possible option among them.
So, when picking lemons off a lemon tree, an idealist endlessly reaches for the ripest looking lemon, a pessimist settles for whichever one is closest, while an optimist picks all the lemons in sight and makes lemonade. (Angel and I further discuss this habit of optimism in the Happiness and Adversity chapters of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Success People Do Differently.)
2. They respect themselves for who they are.
As a child, you impressed and inspired yourself on a daily basis. You ran, jumped, swung, sang and danced openly without a care in the world, and without worrying about what everyone else thought of you. You didn’t need anyone else’s constant approval, because deep down you knew you were amazing.
As you grew into adulthood, the pressure from peers, popular media and society as a whole began to wear on you. You started comparing yourself to everyone around you. You judged and measured your body, your lifestyle, your career, and your relationships against other people’s lives. And when you realized that many of these people have things that you do not, bitterness set in and you gradually stopped appreciating all the great things you do have in your life.
Optimists defend themselves against this self-dislike in two primary ways. First, they get back to trusting their own intuition when it comes to their daily activities. They stop asking for everyone else’s approval and simply do what they know in their heart feels right. Second, optimists don’t judge themselves against a set of unrealistic, third party ideals. They let go of the ideals and instead hold on to the belief that they are always good enough just the way they are, even as they grow into a stronger, wiser version of themselves.
3. They disconnect happiness from achievement.
In order to be optimistic, you have to be generally content with your life. In order to find this contentment, you have to look within yourself. Happiness, after all, is an inside job.
If you look for happiness outside yourself, by tying it to a specific achievement you much reach, you have two big problems:
- You may never succeed. – If you feel like something is wrong with you and needs to be fixed, but you continuously fall short of fixing it, you will start yourself on a downward spiral where every time you fail to fix it you feel even worse. Eventually you will be unable to succeed simply because you no longer believe in your ability to do so.
- You may succeed and decide you want even more. – If you feel like something is wrong with you and needs to be fixed, and you succeed at fixing it, you will likely find something new about yourself that needs fixing too. Maybe you’ve lost 20 pounds, but now you want tighter abs. Maybe you’ve paid down your debt, but now you want a bank account with a million dollars in it. You get the idea. It’s a never-ending cycle for your entire life. You never reach it, because you’re always looking for happiness from external achievements. You don’t find the happiness from within so you look to other sources.
Optimists disconnect achievement from happiness and give themselves permission to be happy, in each moment, without the need for anything more. This isn’t to say that they are complacent. They still set goals, work hard, help others, and grow, but they learn to indulge joyously in the journey, not the destination. (Read Buddha’s Brain.)
4. They avoid negative people and create positivity.
You are only as good as the company you keep, and misery loves company. If you spend too much time around negative people, there’s a strong chance you won’t find much to be happy about. Do yourself a favor and dodge other people’s negativity. Surround yourself with positive, emotionally supportive friends and spend time together doing things that make you smile.
Optimism is a learned habit, and it is positively contagious. So surround yourself with people who could infect you with positivity, and then pass your new good mood on to a friend or stranger via kind words and deeds – tell a friend how good they look today, let somebody have that parking space, let that person with only a few items cut in front of you at the market. The simple act of doing something nice for those around you will help create more positive people to interact with.
The bottom line is that life is way too amazing and short to waste time with people who don’t treat you right. Surround yourself with people who lift you up when you’re down, and then return the favor when you’re able.
5. They expect life to be a series of ups and downs.
Just because you’re an optimist doesn’t mean you’re not going to have bad days. You will – that’s reality. Life isn’t always rainbows and butterflies. A foundation of realism keeps things in perspective and helps prevent things from being blown out of proportion.
Expecting life to be wonderful all the time is wanting to swim in an ocean in which waves only rise up and never come crashing down. However, when you recognize that the rising and crashing waves are part of the exact same ocean, you are able to let go and be at peace with the reality of these ups and downs. It becomes clear that life’s ups require life’s downs.
Bottom line: Prepare for the downs but capitalize on the ups – the former makes you sensible and the latter makes you an optimist. (Read Learned Optimism.)
6. They use positive language and gestures.
It’s not always what happens that determines your mood, but how you verbalize and express what happens that counts.
For instance, when an optimist experiences a bout of success she might say, “That’s just as I had anticipated; I studied hard and my diligence paid off,” while a pessimist might say, “Goodness, was I lucky to get a good grade on that test,” not giving herself any credit and literally snatching her own defeat from the hands of victory.
If an optimist encounters a do-it-yourself project she can’t figure out, she’s likely to say something like, “Either the instructions I’m following are unclear, or this project is going to require a bit more effort than I thought, or maybe I’m just having a rough day.” In other words, an optimist uses positive self-talk to keep the struggle outside herself (“the instructions”), specific (“more effort”), and temporary (“a rough day”), while the pessimist would likely get down on herself and interpret the same struggle as internal, widespread, and everlasting.
Go ahead and follow in the optimist’s footsteps by speaking to yourself in a more positive way regardless of whether you succeed or fail, and you’ll gradually become more optimistic.
Physical body language is also important. Your smile actually influences your mood in a positive way. When you feel down, your brain tells your face that you’re sad, and your facial muscles respond by putting on a frown, which in turn conveys a message back to your brain that says, “Yep, we’re feeling unhappy.” You can flip the switch on this internal reaction by adjusting your facial muscles into a smile so they don’t correspond to what you’re feeling. This is a clever way of sending a different message back to your brain: “Hey, life is still pretty good and I’m doing OK.” Your brain will respond by gradually changing your mood accordingly.
What never fails to make you feel better? What helps to boost your optimism? Share your thoughts with us by leaving a comment below.
Photo by: Daniel Lugo