How to be an optimist
WHO wants to be an optimist? After all, your dominant Hollywood hero type usually isn’t one.
Most of our heroic male icons – from Dirty Harry to Rambo to Batman – tell us that real men are stoic, world-weary, wise-cracking and even slightly cynical fellows who look the bleak human condition in the eye without blinking.
Maybe that’s how it plays in Hollywood action films (which, by the way, are usually written by dishevelled, out-of-shape and overlooked dudes), but in truth, that’s not how life works.
Real men are optimists. They’re the ones who get the girl, are more successful in their careers, have more friends, healthier bodies, age more slowly, live longer, are less likely to be anxious or depressed and are overall a lot happier. Perhaps even more amazing, optimists see the world more accurately than pessimists.
And that’s not pie-in-the-sky wish fulfillment either, but based on dozens of mainstream, scientific studies published in the most prestigious journals. For example, research shows that optimists are more successful entrepreneurs, make for more effective leaders, outsell pessimists two-to-one, are more likely to be promoted and, yes, make more money over a lifetime than pessimists.
Positive people also have far more friends, longer-lasting and happier romantic relationships, and suffer from fewer physical ailments. And if something does go wrong – whether in their careers, relationships or health – optimists are more likely to fix the problem.
So what does it mean to be an optimist?
Perhaps the most important thing is to understand what it doesn’t mean: that we believe that the world is perfect, that whatever happens is perfect, and that evil, ignorance, human error and sheer stupidity don’t exist. Nor does optimism require holding fantasies about the future. Life doesn’t always work out in the end, at least not externally. Above all, genuine optimism has nothing to do with holding illusory beliefs about our capabilities or ourselves.
Positive thinking means trying to see the full range of possibilities and making the conscious decision to pursue the best possible choices available. It’s really that simple.
At its heart, optimism is the knowledge that we are not helpless. If we scrape away the surface justifications, pessimists are really saying that they believe themselves to be largely weak and helpless, unable to shape – let alone control – their destinies. Neither strength, courage nor energy is required, since the world is just a bunch of random stuff (most of it bad) happening to us. An optimist, on the other hand, understands that some form of change or improvement is always possible, even if only internally (the most important kind).
Positivity means surveying our options and orienting ourselves toward the highest and best, not the lowest and worst. Willfully choosing something lesser when it’s unnecessary is the most self-destructive form of negativity imaginable. It also makes us complicit in whatever evil, ignorance, stupidity or unpleasantness is happening around us.
If we don’t believe something is possible, we don’t pursue it, or at least not with fortitude and conviction. We’re more likely to abandon a course of action sooner. Who has a better chance of success: the confident man who believes he can find a way to succeed or the boy who’s sure it’s an impossible dream? That’s the worst danger of negative thinking: It convinces us to not even try, to purposely choose destructive, unhelpful ways of being. Pessimists are quitters.
The good news is that it’s not that hard to turn around negative thoughts and join the positive parade. A few key ideas and practices can help anyone make big changes relatively quickly.
Step No. 1: Give Yourself Permission
The first step is to allow ourselves to think optimistically. For many, this is the hardest step. We must release our fears that being positive makes us look foolish or is setting us up for disappointment. Give yourself permission to experiment.
Step No. 2: The Three P’s of Pessimistic Thinking
The second step is to become aware of what’s going on in our minds. Pessimists are actually making cognitive errors – not thinking clearly or accurately – and it’s those mental and emotional mistakes that cause problems.
Some scientific research estimates that we have as many as 50,000 thoughts per day. For the average person roughly half of those thoughts are needlessly negative. Yes, that means that the average person has up to 25,000 destructive thoughts every 24 hours.
There are three broad categories of pessimistic thinking. Psychologist Martin Seligman explains it using the three P’s: pervasive, permanent and personal.
Pervasive negativity means that we use words like, “all,” “every,” “always,” “never” and so on. For example, “All doctors are idiots.” Or “Every member of [insert political party here] is ignorant,” or “You never listen to me.”
Permanent means saying things like, “This will never end” or “I [or they] will always be this way.”
Personal means that at certain moments we feel singled out, as if others or the universe is plotting against us. We say things like, “Why me?” “I am a useless failure” or, worst of all, “I deserve this.”
Just the simple act of bringing awareness to what our minds are reflexively doing gives us separation, distance and clarity. We have to practice watching our thoughts. When in a bad mood or about to take a negative action, it can help to pause just long enough to observe what’s going on in our mind.
Step 3: Dispute Negative Thoughts
The third step is to make a conscious effort to dispute our needlessly negative thoughts by changing how we think and phrase them. Whenever we catch ourselves being unfairly or inaccurately negative, we consciously re-frame the thought in a more positive way.
Instead of saying, “All doctors are clueless idiots,” we might say, “There are better and worse doctors in this world. I just haven’t found the right doctor for me yet.”
Instead of saying, “This will always be this way,” learn to say, “Right now, things are this way.”
Instead of saying, “They’re a failure” or “I’m a failure,” say instead, “That one instance didn’t work out, but things can be different next time.” Instead of saying, “I deserve this,” say, “I’ll learn from this and will strive to do and be better.”
Step 4: Don’t Settle
The fourth step is to make a conscious effort to look at the full range of possible outcomes and choose the best as a goal. There are always choices. We may not have every possible good outcome available but just because some things are “off the table” doesn’t mean that everything is. Don’t settle for something lesser if the possibility for something greater exists. Some of our options are bound to be more positive and better for us. Choose those.
Always remember: A real man is someone who has mastery over himself. If our thoughts and emotions run rampant, then we’ve surrendered our control. A true hero is someone who has control or mastery over themselves, even in tough situations. The more we can harness our minds and put them in more positive directions, the more successful we are, in all facets of life.
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