How to Practice Safe Optimism


By Tamar Chansky, Ph.D.

Is it possible in the worst of times to see the best possibilities? And if it is possible, is it desirable? According to a US News and World Report poll, a full sixty percent of Americans said that President Obama’s inauguration made them “feel more hopeful about the next four years.” While the economy’s growth charts are crashing, various news outlets are reporting a surge in spirit. What gives? What does it really mean to be optimistic? Aren’t we leaving ourselves unprepared? Is optimism another unwise strategy that looks too good to be true, because it is? How can it be OK to see things in a positive light when we are inundated with bad news, afraid to open our 401k statements, or look in our boss’s eyes? Is it really safe to be an optimist amidst the doom and gloom?

The short answer is, yes; it’s not only safe, it’s essential. Optimism is about seeing potential and working creatively with—but not being limited by— the challenges. That is exactly what we need right now. It’s about seeing the glass half full, not deluding ourselves into thinking that glass is filled with champagne when it’s really only tap water in an IKEA tumbler.

Optimism combines having a positive vision of the future with the substantive steps to get there. The key is tuning in to how you are narrating the story of the events of your life. While we don’t have control over the goings on in Washington, or on Wall Street, we do have control over how we interpret the dramatic events playing out in our own lives. Are we borrowing ahead on catastrophe, playing up the despair, or are we staying with the facts, looking for the opportunities and making predictions that we can realize by our own actions? The choice is ours.

The idea that optimism is about blind faith and happiness just isn’t so. Pepsi can tweak their logo into a happy face, but it’s going to take more than a wink and a smile to get us out of these devastatingly complex times. President Obama did not tell us in his speech to go home and think good thoughts, or download Bobby McFerrin’s classic, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!” on our iPods. No, our marching orders were clear: “it’s time to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start rebuilding America.” We were given an assignment, and a direction and that was the springboard for our inspiration. It’s about work and effort, something each of us is capable of doing in our own way. Mobilizing our sense of agency gives us an active role and a sense of control. Control over some things is exactly what we need when problems are of such epic proportions.

At a time when our mental health threatens to crash along with the markets, optimism may also buffer and prevent that fall. Research in Positive Psychology, spearheaded by founder Martin Seligman, tells us that those who adopt an optimistic mindset are healthier, less prone to depression, live longer, and lead happier more satisfying lives. But it’s not because they are in massive denial. Optimism isn’t the culprit in our current economic troubles as some have suggested. Denial, greed, and short-sightedness, maybe, but not optimism.

Optimists look for opportunities for growth and positive change, but importantly stay tethered to reality. It’s not about pretending that all is well or avoiding the niggling details like the billion dollar loan coming due one day. It’s about thinking accurately, making calculated risks, and when things go wrong, seeing those setbacks as temporary, and using innovation, flexibility and resilience to learn from the fall and move forward. Optimism won’t be the reason why people lose money or lose jobs. It will be the mindset that encourages sound and practical ingenuity and shines the light on the way out.

So if you’re looking for ways to tap into some inspiration aside from replaying the Inauguration on youtube, here are some ideas to safely “go optimistic”

One: Don’t force yourself to think positively! Recession? What recession?! We might as well try Dorothy’s strategy of clicking our ruby slippers together and saying, “there’s no place like home.” Optimistic thinking is thinking accurately, it’s not about sugar coating the truth or lying to yourself, because lying gets you into trouble—even with yourself. Think of the possibilities instead. Take the situation you are in and try to see it from different perspectives—call on an imaginary panel of people you respect real or fictional—what would their take be? Borrow the collective wisdom of the world as a way of getting out of a rut.

Two: Tone down your self-talk. When we are struggling, we talk to ourselves in absolutes, which only makes everything sound and feel worse: “This is the worst situation ever, I’m so overwhelmed, this will never get better, I have no idea what to do to make it better. Nothing is working in my life.” Re-tell the story more accurately by substituting words which distinguish between feelings and facts, and that distinguish between a permanent situation and a temporary one. “I’m feeling overwhelmed, right now. There are some things I can do to help myself. Some things are going well now, some other things are not.” Which version of the story would you rather hear? Which one is going to get you off the couch and into your life?

Three: SpecificizeControl what you can. Optimists narrow down big sweeping problems into the parts of it they can control. If we focus on what we can’t control, we erroneously create feelings of helplessness—erroneous because we are blaming ourselves for failing at something that was never in our power to begin with, and in so doing, we undervalue or even ignore the aspects of the situation which we handled well when the ball was in our court. Identify the specific problems you need to solve. Finding a job is not necessarily what we can control, applying for jobs is the part we can. Identify your goals in terms of specific steps you can actually take. By setting specific goals that are attainable, you create a sense of momentum that will keep propelling you forward.

Four: Build resilience by taking stock of your strengths. In challenging times, we often approach novel situations feeling empty-handed and underprepared; this leaves us even more vulnerable. The fact is that we face disappointment and struggle every day. Although we may be doing mental gymnastics to avoid confronting those struggles, we are tougher than we think. Our first reaction to struggle is fear, that’s normal, but we can’t stop there. This is the moment to regroup, look at our strengths—ingenuity, tenacity, resourcefulness, levity, whatever they may be—and keep those close at hand.

Don’t limit yourself by thinking of strengths as only “smarts” or job skills, look around you at what you do to make your life run, and think of compliments that others have given you. Think about the constants in your personality—what remains undiminished by the fluctuations of circumstance. Take stock now, because you want to be ready to put your best forward when the opportunity arises.

Five: Define success flexibly. Value process, not just product An optimist hopes for the best, but has realistic expectations. There isn’t just one bull’s eye of success and everything else is failure. This usually means girding ourselves for slow progress and defining success broadly. When we set unrealistic expectations we manufacture unnecessary disappointment that we then have to waste our precious energy overcoming—it’s an additional hurdle which we don’t need right now. When your expectations don’t match reality, change those expectations rather than wrangle with reality. Lower the stakes, not the standards, don’t have your whole life riding on the outcome of one event (talk about a risky investment strategy!).

Instead of focusing on what hasn’t happened yet, or what you haven’t accomplished yet, focus on the steps you have taken and savor the small triumphs. Change happens slowly, so we need to learn to tolerate uncertainty. The mental stretch comes from sustaining belief in the big goals while small changes happen along the way rather than just holding out for the final payoff. A building doesn’t look like much in the early stages, but without those crucial first steps, there would be no building. The same is true of our own success, it doesn’t seem like much at first but in time those small steps accrete and you see the fruits of your labor.

Six: Learn from your mistakes (the real risk is not learning from them…) Reality doesn’t have to be in great shape for us to be optimists. In fact, where optimism is most transformational is when things aren’t going so great. It allows us to see mistakes, disappointments, and poor judgments not as fatal flaws that force us to reconfigure who we are, but as part of our history—something we can learn from rather than something that weakens us.

Set aside self-blame and cataloguing reasons for your guilt for mistakes made. Focus instead on what your goal was and decide: is that still your goal, and if so, how can you better reach it the next time. Use this data to improve your knowledge of how things work. Just as kids (should) study what they got wrong on a test to learn from it, or surgeons study errors in a procedure to reduce the risk of complications, look at a situation or decision that is bothering you and identify what went right, what went wrong, and how you could even improve the outcome in the future.

Seven: Cultivate generosity and gratitude. Even those of us who may not be struggling day-to-day to make ends meet still find ourselves fearful about the uncertainty of the future. What cuts through fear and discouragement fastest is finding the small moments of meaningful connection with others. Giving or receiving, it’s all good. All of us are in a position to make a difference in someone else’s life—hold a door, smile, give directions, donate cans to a food pantry. And all of us have the opportunity to find small things for which we are grateful. Take a few minutes each day to reflect on your findings. Notice how your whole demeanor changes with the unsolicited help of a friend, the humor of your children, the first sign of spring. By cultivating routines in your household of noticing the good and seeking opportunities for sharing it with others you are taking action, decisive and immediate, no votes in congress needed, that will have an impact on improving the quality of life in these challenging times.

Together we will pull out of this recession, smarter and stronger for it. The real question isn’t, is it safe to practice optimism, the real question is, how can we afford not to? We can’t control the events playing out in the world, but we are the only ones who can control our attitude. By focusing on what endures, what is strong, what is working, and where our potential resides amidst monumental challenges, we will take the calculated risks and use our ingenuity to overcome.

In President Obama’s words: “We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished.” Optimism: safe, sound and on the rise.

tamar chansky phd

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