Some people are born optimistic, while others choose it, learn to embrace it, or, resist it altogether. But between the pandemic, police brutality and racial and political upheaval, embracing optimism can feel like a heavy lift, even for those who don’t usually struggle with staying mentally and spiritually afloat. But I urge you to try. Doing so will not only help sustain the health of your body and soul, it will give you the strength to lift others up, to do your part to help lay the groundwork for a better, more equitable future.
Keep in mind that optimism isn’t about denying ‘negativity’ – it’s about hope, and belief. You only have to look to leaders like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King to be inspired by their unbroken spirit in the face of racism, imprisonment, exile, and seemingly insurmountable odds. Today, the widespread outrage over the crimes committed by the police against George Floyd and Brianna Taylor and others can be seen as a source of optimism that real social change is possible.
As His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, “Choose to be optimistic. It feels better.” But let’s say a positive attitude isn’t exactly your default setting. What can you do to up your optimism quotient amidst the chaos? Consider the following:
Optimism is a choice.
A positive attitude, whether it’s learned or innate, has long been associated with a stronger immune system, a healthier heart and brain, and overall, greater longevity. In studies that focused on specific diseases – cancers as well as diseases involving the cardiovascular and immune systems — here too, optimism was a significant predictor of better physical outcomes. On a psychological level, making the effort to embrace optimism enables you to become more resilient, engaged, connected, and just plain happier – all of which can help you navigate rough times more skillfully. No matter how uncertain and scary life may be right now, the one thing we all can have some control over is our reaction to it – so, as His Holiness suggests, make the optimistic choice.
Just like meditation, or any mindfulness technique, approach optimism as a practice and, remember, practice makes perfect. Be patient with yourself. There will be days when a brighter perspective is a cinch, and days when it will be anything but. And that’s OK. Instead of longing for things as they were ‘before,’ understand that it may take a while for the new normal to reveal itself, that it will not happen overnight. So, at the start of each day, remember to consciously flip the script and pull back from negative thoughts and conversation. Instead, look for the good – or at least the neutral – in life’s not-so-great moments. Focus less on the negative ‘what ifs’ and more on the ‘what is’ and the more hopeful ‘what can be’ and ‘what’s possible.’
Make your circle a positive one.
Pessimism can be contagious. So, if you’re teetering a bit, you might want to limit the time you spend listening to the complaints of your more irritable friends and colleagues. An individual Debbie Downer may be amusing in theory (and on SNL) but a steady diet of Debbies will do little to develop your optimism skills. To contain the negativity spread, give your pessimistic pals a few minutes to vent, then re-direct conversations in a more positive direction, and keep doing so – eventually, they’ll get the message. As a community, we can take a similar approach, collectively acknowledging the sadness, anger and confusion of these times, while also directing the conversation towards optimism, hope, healing and fundamental societal change.
Keep it real, to a point.
Keep in mind that choosing optimism doesn’t mean denying the negative or being inauthentic. You’re not going to wish traumatic events away with a lot of happy talk. Choosing optimism is about not letting the bad stuff overwhelm or deny the good. It’s about not allowing the negative to paralyze you or send you into a downward spiral. If you can maintain some degree of optimism, even when the circumstances are grim, you’re better able to manage situations and solve problems, not to mention keep your mood afloat. Another way to think of optimism is as a well-spring of creativity. Even a pessimist should be able to get behind that idea.
Note to self: track the good.
Your granny probably used to tell you to count your blessings. She was right, but I would also suggest that you write them down. When you make an actual note of the good things that happen, even, or maybe especially, the little stuff. It starts to add up. Meanwhile, you’re shifting the focus away from what you’re ‘missing.’ As you develop your optimism muscle, revisit your notes frequently to keep yourself connected to and mindful of all the positive moments that happen (no matter how small) each day.
Slow your (anger) roll.
The folks who are lousy at social distancing, refuse to wear a mask or don’t acknowledge there is racial injustice? Sure, you may want to express your anger at their inconsideration or lack of awareness, but to what end? Will it change their minds or behavior? Probably not, and you’ll likely raise the odds of having an ugly scene (and maybe your blood pressure). So, let it go, say a silent prayer for their continued good health, and keep moving forward with kindness, forgiveness and hope in your heart. Don’t allow someone else’s behavior to take you for a negative ride.
Seek, and you shall find that silver lining.
In tough times, the optimist looks for the proverbial silver lining, and so should you, even if you may need a microscope to find it. As you train yourself to find the good, you’re also learning to recover from setbacks more quickly, without getting stuck in feelings of fear, loss or regret. It may take some time and regular practice but you’ll find that future challenges become more surmountable, knowing you possess the skills to get through it. And, by all means, inspire yourself by reading the works of those who have struggled and triumphed over adversity in the past. Wise and compassionate teachers like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama come to mind.
Keep hope alive.
As you view the past few months through the lens of optimism, you’ll appreciate that you’ve coped with everything the COVID-19 virus has thrown at you, safeguarding your health by staying home as much as possible, hand-washing, covering your mouth and nose in public and all the rest. So, keep up the positive mindset! I grew up in South Africa in the 60’s and 70’s, when no one imagined apartheid would ever end, and we all know it did. Work on internalizing the idea that the goodness in humanity will prevail, as will you, repeating it like a mantra every day if need be. Will there be dark days ahead? Of course, but there will be beautiful days too, and opportunities for joy too, so always strive to keep hope alive for as long as necessary, and beyond.
Infuse your day with optimism.
If you’re going to turn over an optimistic new leaf, you’ll need to minimize the time spent with media that can sometimes drag you down. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate optimism if you’re swimming in a sea of negative imagery. So, instead of playing aggressive video games, spending hours watching the news or posting vitriolic rants on Facebook, pull the negativity plug. Instead, refresh your spirit with media that uplifts – think music you enjoy, funny videos, classic comedy movies, whatever delights you. By all means, when it comes to the news of the day, stay informed, but manage your dose, and know when to retreat. An hour a day right now is fine. More than that, and a positive outlook will likely be a lot harder to cultivate.