post written by: Marc Chernoff

6 Things Optimists Do Differently


6 Things Optimists Do Differently

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity;
an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.
―Winston Churchill

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Your turn…

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

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61 Comments

  • Excellent post. My additions to the conversation:

    1) Exercise energizes my body and mind to take on the challenges of the day, and always lifts my spirits.

    2) I love having a live plant in my office. It’s nice to enter the room or turn around and see a thing of natural beauty. It somehow makes me feel more alive.

  • Three things makes me feel better:

    1. A good run - makes me feel alive
    2. A good read, like this one :) - makes me remain positive
    3. A good post on my blog - makes me think.

    The difference between idealist and optimist is brought out really well. Key takeaway from this - Optimists are not born; Optimism can be learnt.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Do what you can with what you have.

  • Inspiring! I really like this post. It came at a perfect time for me.

  • Well hello Marc, since learning the true definition of abundance which is being grateful for your current situation and protecting that as you seek to move forwards, I love the phrase “it could be worse.”

    Now I know it sounds pessimistic but its a great way to stop negative thinking in its tracks and focus on the incredible fortune you have in your life at the moment.

    You may not have all that you desire but there are many who would love to be as unlucky as you!

  • Great in-depth advice on being optimistic! To me, optimism is purposely chosing a helpful perception - from reframing a stressful situation to a challenge, or focusing on what you do have instead of what you don’t. I love how you write that optimists aren’t blind for the realities in life - such an important distinction. Thank you for sharing Marc!

  • Through adversity, I acquired an inner knowing that no matter what happens to me or around me, I am the ‘soul’ source of my experience of reality. I am both the architect and the artist of my perception of this life, dependent on my point of view. A point of view which heavily depends upon living fully in the present moment. I hold an unfailing ability to see love, joy, beauty and grace in the world. Everyone does. Once you have seen this truth, you cannot un-see it.

    This doesn’t mean I am happy all the time or bad things do not, or will not happen to me. It does not mean that I do not feel compassion for the suffering of others. It is actually the opposite. I feel everything even more keenly.

    This ‘Way’ of being in the world, of seeing the world as inherently good, of life as ultimately hopeful, and beautiful and sacred, is an exercise in flexing my ‘intention’ muscle every day. This loving outlook is an awareness I cultivate consciously. It is my spiritual practice of divine perspective. It is an intention of being a non-judgmental observer of myself and others. It involves, much of the time, my being unreasonably optimistic.

  • I listen to my favorite songs and this never fails to put a smile on my face and change my perspective for the better. :)

  • Greetings from Brazil! I loved this post. It lifted my spirits. Hugs.

  • Thank you for this (and all the other posts)

    It helps to remind and enlighten me about specific truths.

    I dig you guys.

  • After reading this post I’m in need of therapy! This is the FIRST time the difference between and idealist and an optimist has finally sunk into my understanding and the analogy was critical to my seeing what it is that seems to get in my way.

    What does boost my optimism? Swimming, running, yoga, taking action, reading inspirational books, prayer, travel.

  • Great Post. I also try to live in the present. I make plans and goals for the future, but my focus is on today. What am I doing today that will make that difficulty or thing I want to change better?

  • Helping others, donating my time or material things and just being kind to others makes me feel more optimistic.

  • Another great post. The thing that revives me more than anything is to sit on the rocks at Lake Michigan; doesn’t matter at what point, just to be next to the lake and breathe in that fresh air. This is whether it’s from the 1st snowfall of the season, or if it’s 90 degrees in the shade!

  • The smile thing really works. Thanks for all of it.

  • Being by the sea, looking at a beautiful sky, swimming, laughing with friends and a good meal. Do the things that mean the most to you x

  • I love the section about happiness not beging tied to achievement. I live in a valley of super achievers and work with children. Many families see their children’s self-esteem based on their achievements. As a ballet teacher, I am working on helping the kids learn to love what they do (no matter if it’s ballet or something else) regardless of the achievements. Thank you for this reminder.

  • It reminds me an old proverb, “Everything happens for a reason” by reading this article on optimists.

  • I second the comment about a good read!

    I especially like the suggestions about self-talk and framing setbacks in temporary terms. These ideas harmonize nicely with Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset. In the book, Dweck discusses 2 attitudes: a fixed mindset that sees life as an uphill struggle against “fate” or “the universe,” and a growth mindset that embraces challenge and the capacity for change.

    I also appreciate your designation that optimism isn’t naive. This is a myth that I often have to fight in my own mind.

  • This is truly perfect. This describes me pretty much “to a T.” It’s funny though… I used to call myself an “optimist” until I thought that meant that I had to always be happy all the time, so I switched to “positive realist.” It is nice to know that those two are actually the same thing =)

  • SOCCER!!! Soccer makes me feel better :)

  • I’ll add “have an attitude of gratitude.” I know it’s a topic that is written about over and over again, but it’s a good reminder to be grateful for you have right now.

    Being in nature makes me feel better. This can be a challenge if you live in an area that doesn’t receive a lot of sunshine. Of course, you can always put on your ‘rain or winter’ gear and head outside.

    Reading good self-help books boost my optimism too. And…I’ll watch Oprah’s Life Class once in a while too.

  • Physical activity and especially getting outdoors always makes me see the great side of life.

    Also having the moment to awake in a quiet house before everyone else rises to meditate and just daydream a little has amazing powers.

  • Great post!
    Optimism has endless benefits including taking a proactive approach to challenges, dealing better with stressful situations and healthier stronger immune systems. So what’s there not to like?
    I converted into an optimist with the help of these simple steps and repeated them endlessly until they became a positive habit.

  • I love the defintions and illustrations of being an optimist versus an idealist. Really helped clarify that for me. It also helped me frame the difference between a pessimist and a realist a little better.

    I read once that “you will always find what you are looking for.” If its positive things, you will always find them. The same for negative things.

    In that way your choice to see things as negative, positive or neutrally pre-determines the reality created by your own vision. Its the ultimate, totally silent, always dilligent, self-fufilling prophecy.

    Dr. Wayne Dyer wrote “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

    The glass is not half empty or half full, its both. Let’s open another bottle and remedy the situation!

    Cheers!

  • Great post and suggestions.

    I use visualization of what makes me happy to change my mood. For example, I might have just had a bad experience with a store clerk. Instead of having an inner dialogue about what I could/should have done, I will think about a nice dinner with my wife, a pleasant experience that I like to do, etc. This shifts my mood and moves me away from negativity.

  • As someone who has suffered from severe episodes of depression for most of my life, I have finally begun to challenge my thinking in small ways that help. Yesterday it occurred to me to keep asking myself, “What else is possible?” There is no doubt that depression has kicked my butt and robbed me of vital energy at times in spite of positive thinking and action. But even when in a clinical bout of depression, I can ask myself, “What else is possible?” in terms of finding help or just relief on some other level for the day. If things are going better mood wise and I still find myself thinking the glass may be half full, I remind myself of all the possibilities there are in life in spite of the appearances to the contrary (which are usually appearances only in my mind or the collective tribal mind around me.) This at least gets me thinking on a totally new trajectory. Infinite possibilities is my mantra lately.

  • Excellent post! I’ve always felt I’m an optimist, and this post reaffirms it. I would add willingness to learn and can do attitude. Meaning, if accomplishing something means learning how to do something I’ve never done before, I simply learn how to do it. Others I know are more likely to assume they won’t be any good at the new thing and then abandon the whole idea before even trying.

  • The discussions between a pessimist and an optimist can last for hours and hours, frustrating, especially if you call yourself the optimist! The big question I have is whether one person can be both depending on the situation and topic, or do we adapt certain thoughts, beliefs and behaviors to be one or the other?

  • Optimists sometimes get a bad rep for being too “Pollyanna” or “idealistic”. But as you’ve pointed out, Marc, optimists are simply people who are positive about their lives while still being realistic about what could and couldn’t happen.

    I think optimists tend to be happier and healthier because they create and follow good habits.

    For example, a pessimist might say: “If I go out on a limb to befriend someone, I may get hurt. So maybe I shouldn’t try as hard.”

    But an optimist might say: “There’s no telling who might become a lifelong friend. So I should be consistent and treat everyone well.”

    Both the optimist and the pessimist could meet the exact same person, but they will have two totally different interactions with this new person.

    Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if the optimist ends the day with a new friend. All it takes is to establish good habits (e.g. treat people well), follow them, and your life will more likely than not become happier.

  • Life is simple for the most part. If you look up, you go up. If you look down, you go down!

  • I like to leave others with a smile. It’s free, it’s contagious and it always gives me a boost.

  • - Reading your articles.
    - Playing and watching soccer games.
    - Hang out with my friends.

    Thank you so much for this amazing article.

  • Marc, beautiful clarification on an optimist being a positive realist. As usual, an important post.

    @Cat; Have you read “The Feeling Good Book” by Dr. David Burns? This is on Cognitive Behavior Therapy, the proven most lasting method to beat depression. If not, maybe you might find a therapist who is schooled in CBT to help you.

    My sources for unfailing optimism: The silent pre-dawn air, reflection, writing, good strong coffee, a thorough at-home workout. Breathing in the snowy winter mornings and fragrant summer rains.

  • Great article. I especially love what you said in #2, and it really goes hand in hand with the point made in #3.
    We compare ourselves to others and lose that magical sense of self from our childhood. Often, that ties in to external achievements, like the ones you mentioned concerning weight loss, finances, and others.
    I also have to say that #4 was something that changed my life. When I stopped hanging around negative people was when things started going better for and also when I started appreciating the great stuff going on in my life.

    Thanks again for the article. :)

  • In the midst of “Learned Optimism” right now…
    Thank for the post!

  • I like this post. It cleared a few things up for me. I now realize I was either an idealist or pessimist from time to time. I regarded my idealism as being my best state, although I may have appeared ‘happy’ to most people, I knew by my heart that I wasn’t. Thank you for your post, it makes me realize that I have huge trouble accepting downs in life; when I did force myself to accept them, I turned into a pessimist. Learning to be the optimist that I’ve always wanted to be, I will be following your suggestions here. Thanks again.

  • I am most of these 6 things, but not all of them. Does that still make me an optimist? (I struggle with #3 mostly, and just a little with #5 and #6). Your thoughts?

  • Wow. Happiness not tied to achievement. You mean I can just be happy now, with what I have? Such a great thought. I can strive and work toward my goals without feeling like my happiness should be suspended until they are achieved? Wow. THANKS.

    Oh, saying something nice to someone. I really try to pay every compliment that sincerely comes to mind. It’s good for everyone. Smiling ensues.

  • I definitely relate to what D D and Shea said. I have just been put on “mild” antidepressants. My first day and was glad I was at work, having the support of my wonderful colleagues(as my partner works away this really heaps).

    I loved this post and get a lot for this site. Starting counseling next week and thinking that the cbt maybe a really great option. Just love the feedback to the posts as well - stops feeling that I am all alone in my recovering. Can’t thank you all enough xox

  • Another lovely, re-minding, encouraging post !
    And sure, like all others, have a positive domino-effect as, like I do, no doubt others do too, i.e. pass on….Thank you for your wonderful, generous gift to humanity !

  • Two things that make me optimistic are nice weather and running. But anyway, a few of my friends have lately spiraled into a funk. I tried to explain to them that they can CHOSE to be happier, but it’s hard to put into words. I will definitely share this post with them - I think it will help!

  • Thinking about my animals and spending time with them. All six of them, brings happiness to me. If I am having a hard day at work and it is exhausting on me. I take a few minutes to remember that lovely trail ride or gallop in the field on my horse or that lovely walk with my dog in the woods on the trails off leash with the dog totally choosing to want to be with me. That is enough to put refreshed wind in my sails and begin the rest of my day with a fresh new positive beginning.

  • More therapy for me and I am loving your website! Angel, your aunt from mass told me about your site last month and I have visited ot every day since! She is very proud of you and your husband’s accomplishments and I am too. Keep up the great work, it helps me!

  • Agree with many of the above suggestions and I’ll add:

    -Healthy eating - no soda was huge for me.
    -Getting proper sleep - my biggest challenge as I have sleep apnea and awaken tired and irritable often for no reason other than not well rested.
    -Exercise with a trainer and purpose has helped as well .
    -Two or three uplifting friends who are in your corner are the icing on the cake!

  • Number 3 is fascinating–never thought about it in this way before. Thanks for your insight!

  • I actually didn’t comment at first. But then hey, I saw something great - FEEDBURNERS!

    Congrats on reaching 100K readers! Marc and Angel, keep going! And of course, great post as usual! :)

  • As you mentioned, seeing the bigger picture always puts me at ease and maintains my optimism.

    - A peppy electronic beat always makes me feel better.

    - Taking a deep breath

    - Being in nature, this is a big one for me. The second I step into the forest I feel so content and alive. My worries subside and I reconnect with what I believe to be the real purpose of life…enjoyments of the elements of the earth and being happy with the person you are.

    Thanks for the great post.

  • Hrm.. No.3 is something different from my thinking, as I always link every tiny & big achievement of mine to happiness, as that keeps me moving and seeking out more in myself.

    Though, thanks for the sharing, seems that I have to tweak my mindset to - be happy with everything I got + I achieve. :)

  • nabil abou moussa
    June 9th, 2013 at 5:10 pm

    Marc and Angel!

    You are the most wonderful gift for today’s humanity, you inspired me amazingly and you keep on inspiring with no limits, i just can’t have enough words to thank you for you wonderful website, keep up the great work and may the Almighty bless you and protect you for the rest of your lives.

    Thank you so much.

  • Great post. Life is much better when I exercise regularly and I’m around optimistic people.

  • @Patti: I am glad we could strike a cord and help you see things from a different perspective. =)

    @Cat: Great feedback; thank you for sharing what works best for you.

    @Ivan: I love your example. Thank you!

    @alistair: “If you look up, you go up. If you look down, you go down.” I love it!

    @Sara: We’re all a work in progress – constantly learning and improving. =)

    @Shea: YES! YES! =)

    @Kathy h: Welcome! What a small world. Thank you for the kind words. =)

    @Masudul: Thank you for noticing the 100K milestone. We are thrilled to have such a supportive community.

    @All: As many of you have said, we love getting fresh air and going for long walks. There’s something freeing and relaxing about being in nature. Also, something that never fails to bring a smile to our face, reading the encouraging comments and feedback that we constantly receive from our community – YOU, thank you!

  • Great! This put me back on track as I was starting to get a little down about having to go to hospital for some test. I am going to look for the positive outcome

    Thank you Marc and Angel

    Lots of love.

  • Susan Birkenshaw
    June 10th, 2013 at 10:52 am

    A walk in the rain with my very happy dog - nothing is simpler than watching her find happiness in anything she encounters!

  • I love walking my dogs early in the morning. As we’re coming back home, the sun is rising over the trees in front of us and it’s so beautiful and serene, sometimes it almost takes my breath away. It starts my day off perfectly. And if I can’t walk for whatever reason, just being with my dogs (I have 4) always lifts my spirits.

    I love your posts and they also make me feel good. I take away something from each and every one of them. Thank you!

  • Optimists are definitely good at accepting not only themselves for who they are, but others as well.

    Yes, we all have flaws. But we aren’t defined by our flaws, they simply differentiate us.

    Different isn’t bad, it’s just different. A good optimist understands this.

  • Exercise…whenever I am in a funk, exercise always helps me feel better. It is a great stress reliever, helps me clear my head, and always invigorates me!

  • legend chambers
    June 14th, 2013 at 2:30 am

    When life throws me curve like we all sometimes experience, I find strength in the thought that it could have been worse. I imagine if things took an unfavorable turn, but not the worst, then a positive turn is possibility. If night consistently gives way to light, then my dark patch must give way to a brighter day.

  • I love an energizing hike, camping on the beach, frozen yogurt, a stroll through a botanical garden or an Antiquity and Art Mueum. A butterfly in flight, a bird in my birdbath, a hummingbird at my Salvia, a sudden rain shower. A smile on a baby, a fluffy white cloud, a hug from my daughter or my sons! Everything is beautiful if you chose to see its beauty! Fake people and incesantly negative people need be still and listen. Everything happens for a reason and sometimes we get so caught up in trivial things we forget that something even better is in store! Life is good and it’s not about material things. It’s about love, charity, happiness and friendship!
    Thank you Marc and Angel for your always wonderful posts.

  • Working on something that has bigger meaning boosts my daily optimism and energy :-)

  • I really try to accept what I can not change, but I make maximum effort to change the things that I can! Maybe not all right away but I never shy from making the changes I need to to get where I need to go…

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