Optimism’s in the news. Why? Because research shows optimism always trumps pessimism in work, play, personal relationships (including parenting), health and general life satisfaction. Decades of research suggests that optimism is a hedge against depression and is one of the important elements of happiness.
But despair and disillusionment come more naturally to some of us, the natural response, we believe, to life’s bumps and stumbles. So what’s a wannabe optimist to do?
Learn to become an optimist, that’s what. Here’s how:
Grab a notebook. Although many self-help articles and books provide suggestions for improving your optimism with "positive thinking" and actions, the real cornerstone of changing how you think is called disputation—the rational arguing you need to do to reap the benefits.
The following tips are part of a lifelong commitment to what I call Intentional Optimism.
Believe in change. In order to work hard at becoming an optimist, you’ll have to believe that permanent change is possible. You’ll be working to change your thinking when you don’t really feel like doing so. You won’t always be able to change how you think, but that’s OK. There’s plenty to learn from the times you stumble.
Learn your "explanatory style" without judging it. The kind of response you have to life’s ups and downs is what Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, The Optimistic Child and Authentic Happiness, calls "explanatory style." When bad events happen, pessimists view things as permanent, universal and personal. "It’s always going to be this way, everything is like this and it’s about me." An optimist will see the same event as temporary, specific and external. "This will pass, it’s only about this one thing and it has nothing to with me." Here are some examples: "You never do what I ask you to [I can never get my child to obey me]" (pessimist) vs. "You didn’t make your bed and put your clothes away today" [and this has nothing to do with me] (optimist). "I’ll never be the kind of parent I want to be" (pessimist) vs. "I am having a really bad day as a mom" or "I need to make some changes to be the kind of dad I want to be" (optimist).
The difference between pessimism and optimism may not always seem clear-cut, but if you track your comments, you’ll begin to see patterns.
I’ve adopted Seligman’s ABCDE technique for disputing pessimism. The most important aspect of this work is to make your disputes rational and substantial. Using a notebook to track and change your thoughts in writing will add substance and serve as a concrete reminder in your journey towards optimism.
Adversity. Write down in your notebook the facts of your hard time. An example? "I had a lousy day [at work or at home] today. Nothing I did was right. Nothing felt good. Then the kids were all over the place and I yelled."
Beliefs. Write your explanation to yourself about the event. With the example above, you might write, "I’m sick and tired of being inadequate [on the job or at home] all the time. I have 10 times as much to do as I can possibly get done in a day. My kids just don’t get that I’m exhausted. They have no sympathy for me. I hate when I yell at them, though. I’m such a bad mom or dad." Ouch. See how the pessimistic explanatory style includes permanent (endless), universal (everything is affected) and personal (it’s about me and my failures) qualities?
Consequences. This is how you feel when you explain the event as you just did. Pessimistic responses turn into despair, depression and inaction. Here’s a common result of the beliefs above: "I’m depressed and angry and frustrated. I feel overwhelmed, have low-energy and unmotivated to do anything." Do these feelings help you head into a loving, enjoyable evening at home? Not likely.
Dispute with factual evidence. First, ask yourself what the factual evidence is for your beliefs. In our example, that might mean, "Just because I have too much to do doesn’t mean I’m inadequate. Just because I yelled doesn’t mean I’m a bad parent. The kids might be more understanding if I wasn’t yelling."
Dispute with less destructive alternatives. You might try on the optimist’s framework of temporary, specific and external. Here’s an example of "trying on" an optimist’s framework. "This was a really rough day (temporary). There was way too much on my to-do list (specific and external). No wonder I lost my temper. I’ll apologize to the kids and take it easy this evening." Same event, completely different attitude. Another way to find less destructive alternatives is to challenge the validity of your beliefs. Assume, for the sake of your own argument, that you’re not inept, inadequate and a bad parent. Generate all the alternatives you can, even if they don’t feel real.
Dispute even if it’s true. Let’s say your negative belief about yourself turns out to be true. You frequently feel out of control with your schedule and your temper. Well, guess what? It doesn’t help when you yell at yourself about it. Here’s where you decatastrophize: "I can’t possibly do my best when I try to do too much in too little time without enough sleep. I need to make some serious changes so that this doesn’t keep happening."
Energization. In the notebook, record the change in how you feel with your new optimistic thoughts. Using the same example, you might write: "I feel a little calmer. It’s not as big a deal as I was making it, and I can change some things to ensure that this won’t happen as frequently. I can also stop trying to multi-task, because I know I’m just not that good at it anymore." If your feelings don’t change, your dispute has not been convincing enough. You need to try again.
A crucial aspect of making permanent chanes is to understand, intellectually and deep in your heart, that the process is usually slow, complicated and full of bumps in the road.
Have fun with it. One family I know developed a game. Their point system (+1 through +10 for optimistic statements, and -1 through -10 for pessimistic), and their learning process is filled with laughter.
It’s hard work, but learning to have an optimistic outlook on life is so worth the effort.
Carol Coven Grannick is a writer and clinical social worker with a private practice in Wilmette. She is a wife, mother and former pessimist who works daily at her own Intentional Optimism and happily reaps the benefits.
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