In this article I intend to present some solid reasons for adopting an optimistic attitude and some techniques for doing so. Even so, it is my conviction that each of us has to find his or her own reasons for adopting this way of thinking. After all, you’re the expert on you, right?
You may ask “Why would anyone not want to think optimistically?” Well, I think there is a general misunderstanding of what it means to do so and there are always the ‘realists’ who just ‘see the world as it is’. (Research shows that realists might be right more often but they also lead unhappier lives…take your pick.)
The first place I want to start is with the value of taking on an optimistic thinking style. Optimism is defined “as the tendency to expect favourable outcomes in any enterprise” or, to put it more colloquially: ”to expect the best”. So it’s an attitude, a mind-set that interprets events in a certain style.
Winston Churchill said: “I am an optimist because it doesn’t seem worth being anything else.”
There is much wisdom in this statement. Let’s add to that with another quote:
“Optimism is the foundation of courage.”
A little further down I will add for a perspective skewed in favour of optimism but tempered with some critical thinking and a healthy does of ego strength for facing the world ‘as it is’.
But consider those two quotes. In fact, consider that if optimism is expecting the best (or at least expecting that a favourable outcome is possible) then without optimism the position one might assume is that of failing before one starts, or at least that ones chances of succeeding are diminished before one even starts. I think that is what Winston meant. And “he who never made a mistake probably never made anything…!”
Additionally, optimism is said to be a pre-requisite for courage. Courage is action in the face of fear and believing you have a chance of succeeding has to be an essential component to bothering to try in the first place.
So there is a cold hard rational argument for adopting an optimistic thinking style. It increases your chance of success.
Now, notice I did NOT say “you must BE an optimist”. There is a difference between changing your perceived identity: what you perceive as ‘who you are’ and actually learning how to think a new way. One is considerably easier than the other!
Optimistic thinking is a process, a style, a way of thinking. Just as you learned to do mathematics you can learn to think this way. If you just think of it as learning to use a tool to achieve a particular result, it can help. You don’t have to give up thinking about the worst case scenario, in fact, I encourage you to still use it – in balance! Donald Trump used to say that if he could cope with the worst case scenario of a purchase, then the risk was worth taking!
Putting it bluntly, if you don’t think you can succeed because your thinking patterns are filtering out all possibilities of success – then you have a problem.
“If you think you can or you can’t – you’re right” said Henry Ford.
It was said: “the optimists are right. So are the pessimists. So it’s up to you to decide which one you’re going to be.”
“You can if you think you can” said Norman Vincent Peale.
Are – you – getting – this – yet? It’s about perception and your willingness to consider that something that you want, might happen. It’s about accepting the possibility, however faint at first that things might turn out mostly or totally in line with your values, your desires.
You don’t have to go all Pollyanna to do this. It doesn’t have to be all good or nothing, everything’s sunshine or rain. You can accept even 10% that something good might happen and work with it. I know that must is a dirty word amongst CBT practitioners but some things are worth considering as a must.
You must eat, or eventually you die. You must treat people well or eventually they will leave you to it. Etc. Etc. Etc.
And you must develop possibility thinking that things can work out. The biggest irony of all is the research on optimism done by ground-breaking positive thinking researcher Martin Seligman indicates that optimism comes greatly from learning to limit the damage of a perceived negative event.
He said that people who think pessimistically take things:
Personally (it’s MY fault)
Pervasively (it affects most or all areas of my life)
Permanently (it’s going to last forever)
Whereas those who think optimistically do the opposite:
It’s not personal/about who I am
It’s not pervasive; it only affects this particular area of my life
It’s not permanent; it’ll be over by xyz.
In fact, there is a little known personal development technique called Indexing which you can read about on the main website which can help you nail events down so specifically that you start to realise they couldn’t possibly affect EVERY part of your life ALL the time.
I admit, there are certain life events that do have a massive effect but as depression often comes from feeling powerless, any remnant of control you can retain will help you.
Paul Stoltz gives some questions in his book Adversity Quotient:
What evidence is there than you have no control?
What evidence is there that this has to affect every area of your life?
What evidence is there that this has to last any longer than necessary?
He also asks a number of additional questions about how much of the blame you should take responsibility for, and what part of solving the problem are you going to take responsibility for.
The point being is that if you can use these processes to set setbacks (!) in their proper context, you don’t have to over think it and collapse with despair.
The person who says it’s not as bad as it seems – might be right!