By Olivia Montes
For many people, looking on the bright side is hard.
Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and major civil unrest, many Americans have undergone many changes in their lives, particularly regarding their own emotional and mental health.
According to a June report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40% of adults are currently struggling with mental health or substance abuse, with close to 31% of that same group experiencing symptoms of anxious and depressive disorders.
With all that has been going on, it’s easy to stumble into a rabbit hole full of pessimistic despair, where it appears that there is no hope for us to ever salvage any form of any kind of happiness again.
However, there is hope on the horizon — but it will take some work to achieve it.
“Being happy [is like]…falling asleep: it’s not something you can actively do— in the way you can get stronger by lifting more weights…it just kind of has to happen,” Dr. Martin Seligman, psychologist and former president of the American Psychological Association, said to GQ writer Clay Skipper in 2018.
Here are some tips to start bringing a little more optimism back into your life— and hopefully, a more permanent place in your thinking.
Visualize the kind of person you want to be
First, before focusing on the present, look to the future. Ask yourself where you want to be, and how getting there will ultimately make you feel.
Then, once a week, spend a few minutes over one to two months carving out what you want each aspect of that future to look like.
“Imagine your dream life in 10 years — what would it look like?” The New York Times Sarah Shain said in an updated Mar. 23 report. “Spend each session focusing on your ‘best possible self’ in a single domain, such as family, career, romance or health.”
While bringing such intense focus on your “best possible self” might sound like “wishful thinking,” as Shain said, having that perfect perspective on life that best suits one’s individual needs and desires can actually help one gain the confidence to achieve that optimistic platform.
Through these exercises, you will not only discover the kind of person you want to be, but also how staying positive will help you get there.
“[By strengthening] your ‘optimistic muscles,’ [you’re] thinking about all your dreams coming true as opposed to worrying about the worst possible outcome,” Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, University of California psychology professor and author of “The How of Happiness,” said in Shain’s article.
Fight your urges to be pessimistic all the time
There may be times when you want to question the entirety of every single decision you have made throughout the course of your life — whether it be during your college class, your internship, or even in the middle of a sleepless night — but there are ways to combat it.
The next time you find yourself forming pessimistic thoughts, identify where that tiny voice in your head is spewing out this negativity — then, argue with it as if it were, as Seligman said, “an external person whose mission in life is to make you miserable,” and present witty arguments and comebacks as to why this mental nemesis is wrong about you.
Another method is to balance out that defeatist mindset with some give and take. When you encounter a problematic situation where your first action or reaction is to point out its fatal flaws, countermove that with noticing and sticking with what’s worthwhile about it — and if and when the situation calls for it, focus on one or the other to face whatever comes your way.
As Seligman said in his 1991 book “Learned Optimism,” adopting streaks of “flexible optimism” to your overall outlook on life can allow you to effectively address and interpret real-life situations around you, and how much of a risk you yourself are willing to take to look on the bright side.
“The fundamental guideline for not deploying optimism is to ask what the cost of failure is in the particular situation,” Seligman said. “If the cost of failure is high, optimism is the wrong strategy… on the other hand, if the cost of failure is low, use optimism.”
Counter your negative thoughts with positive ones
When trying to find that optimistic and pessimistic equilibrium, it’s easier to depend on one side than the other. However, with enough practice, in between these two thought patterns, you’ll be able to find a pragmatic way of interpreting all that goes on within your life, which will help you to properly react with a healthy, balanced response highlighting both the positive and the negative.
“Between those two poles is where you’ll find the sweet spot — the realistic interpretation,” Shain said. “By consistently practicing the two previous strategies — arguing against yourself and putting things in perspective…you can make those changes stick.”
Learn to accept disappointment — and often
It’s an inevitable fact that you will face disappointment throughout your life, even an optimistic outlook. You will continue to face challenges and will continue to feel overwhelmed and question yourself at every turn.
Despite this in mind, learning how to experience, embrace and learn from less-than perfect situations will help you further gain, as Associate Director of the American Institute for Cognitive Technology Dr. Laura Oliff said, a “positive anticipation of events,” in which you experience the same ecstatic feeling as you would with anything that makes you feel positive, such as going on a long-deserved vacation.
Rather than focusing on the ups and downs of every issue that comes your way, by focusing on learning how to anticipate the positive as much as the negative, you can explore a wider worldview that encompasses both sides of the attitude coin.
And remember — being optimistic is a skill, and with that skill requires plenty of practice. By continuing to carve out an idealistic version of the person you strive to be, constantly battling your own worst cynic, counterattacking bleak ideas with sunnier ones, and accepting despondency aids in life, you can further build up the positivity in your life, and allow yourself to overcome any situation you might face.
Now that’s something to get optimistic about.
Featured Photo caption: It can be hard to look on the bright side of life— luckily, there are ways you can formally adopt an optimistic, yet still realistic, way of thinking. Photo Courtesy of Diego PH.