[Happiness and Well-Being, Part 4] by Audrey Berger, Ph.D.
A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty – Winston Churchill
Optimists and pessimists can be distinguished from each other by how they think in a certain areas of their lives: (1) the way they interpret and respond to any difficulties or setbacks they experience; and (2) whether they expect good or bad things to happen in the future. These differences in how optimists and pessimists think appear to significantly affect many other aspects of their lives. Studies have found that optimism is associated with increased happiness and well-being, and with greater success in a wide array of life arenas. When compared with pessimists, optimists tend to be healthier, and to have better health outcomes when they do get sick. Studies have also shown that optimists display greater perseverance when they encounter obstacles, engage in more active and effective coping, are less likely to succumb to feelings of helplessness, and are more likely to achieve their goals.
Despite the many documented advantages of optimism, pessimistic thinking does have an important role to play in our lives. Our brains are wired to notice and respond to situations that are potentially threatening because it is crucial for our survival. When there is a real possibility of injury, serious illness, death, or significant loss, it is clearly adaptive to recognize it and take action to prevent or reduce the chances of a negative outcome. However, it is not helpful for people to think pessimistically when circumstances do not truly warrant it; such indiscriminate use of pessimistic thinking can actually have adverse consequences, including anxiety and an elevated risk of depression.
A perspective that manages to balance all these different factors is realistic optimism, which incorporates the ability to think pessimistically when necessary. Realistic optimists are able to recognize when they can have a significant impact on the course of events; they believe that good things will happen because they know that they will do what is needed for success. Realistic optimists also recognize when circumstances are not under their control, and they adjust their thinking and behavior accordingly.
Studies have demonstrated that everyone can learn the skills to cultivate realistic optimism. What follows are three activities that can assist you with developing some of those skills. The “What Went Diary” can foster your ability to perceive and appreciate the things that are positive in your life. This is particularly important for people who are inclined to minimize the positive and emphasize the negative. The “At Your Best” exercise can enable you to begin to recognize some of your strengths, and think about how you can use them in the future. The “Best Possible Self” diary can help you to clarify your hopes for the future and recognize your ability to make choices that will move you toward your goals.
STRATEGIES FOR CULTIVATING REALISTIC OPTIMISM
What Went Well Diary – To counteract a tendency to focus on the things that didn’t go well during the day, write down three things that went well that day, and why they went well. How did you contribute to things going well? The items you select needn’t be large things. Even small events are worth recalling and recognizing. You can add some variety to this activity by answering different questions at different times. For example, you can think about what the things that went well mean to you, or how you can experience more of them in the future. You may also find it useful to periodically review what you’ve written before, in order to remind yourself of what went well in the past.
At Your Best – Write about a time when you acted in a way that you think reflects the best of who you are – either because you did something you feel good about, you were successful in some way, and/or you overcame some type of obstacle. It can be something recent or something that happened a long time ago. Of course, there may be many times that would fit this description, and you can do this activity for as many of them as you like. Review what you have written, and think about how you may have drawn on these strengths in other situations, and how you can use them as you go forward in your life.
Best Possible Self Diary – This exercise addresses your hopes for the future. It helps you to see the big picture and focuses you on what you want to accomplish in your life. It also helps you to recognize your ability to make choices that will lead you in the direction you desire, and it assists you in starting down that path. To do this exercise, sit in a quiet place, and take 20 – 30 minutes to think about what you want your life to be like 1, 5 or 10 years from now. Visualize a future for yourself in which everything has turned out the way you’ve wanted. You have tried your best, worked hard, and achieved your goals. Now write down what you imagine. To make this process even more powerful and productive, you can also visualize some of the steps you will need to take in order to achieve your goals.
In the next article in this series (part 5), we will discuss strategies to help overcome unnecessary pessimism and self-critical beliefs, and in the subsequent article (part 6), we will cover the importance of a “growth mindset.” Taken together, the exercises and skills covered in these three articles help to establish a strong foundation for cultivating realistic optimism.
Audrey Berger, Ph.D. has been a life coach, psychologist and psychotherapist for 33 years. In her life coaching practice she specializes in mid and later life transitions such as retirement, empty nest, midlife transition, positive aging in general, and living well in the face of life challenges such as chronic illness or creating a new life after divorce/loss or breast cancer treatment. She also works with an array of other life issues and goals, including helping couples to create the relationship they want. Since coaching can readily take place on the phone, you can coach with Audrey no matter where you are located. To learn more about Audrey’s coaching services, and to arrange a complimentary coaching consultation, go to http://www.turningpointlifecoaching.com. Audrey can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (585) 292-0095.
REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READING
Fredrickson, B. (2009-01-27). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Biswas-Diener; Diener, Ed (2010-01-22). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Kindle Edition. Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Halvorson, H. G. (2010-12-23). Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2007-12-27). The how of happiness: a new approach to getting the life you want. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Seligman, M. E. (2011-08-10). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life (Vintage). [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011-04-05). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. [Kindle Edition] Retrieved from Amazon.com
“Cultivating Optimism” by Audrey Berger, Ph.D. was originally published on the Transition Network website