How to cultivate optimism

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 2 of The Year of Happy‘s month on optimism. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

 

In the film Pollyanna, the title character maintains her sunny attitude by playing something called the Glad Game. This happiness-inducing exercise consists in finding the good in every situation:

We won’t be playing the Glad Game this month, but you’re smiling now, aren’t you?

Even Martin Seligman, positive psychology pioneer and expert on learned optimism, wasn’t born an optimist himself. He was open about his pessimism, and joined his readers in working to overcome it.

So let’s assume you want to become more optimistic. (If you’re not sure, suspend your disbelief until Week 4 – when we’ll go over the common critiques of optimism.) Did you take Seligman’s Learned Optimism test? You can also try the Revised Life Orientation Test (which you’ll have to score yourself), another way of measuring optimism. Whatever your starting point, the five optimism practices below can help you move up the optimism scale over the next three weeks:

1. Best Possible Self

In the Best Possible Self exercise, developed by the University of Missouri’s Laura King, you take 15 minutes to write about an ideal future life (1-10 years from now). Imagine everything is going as well as possible, from family and personal life to career and health. Be creative and specific, and focus on your potential rather than any past shortcomings.

Doing this daily for two weeks has been shown to increase positive emotion, possibly because it helps us identify goals, feel more in control of our lives, and maybe even decide to change things. When you identify a goal, you can take another day to journal about the steps you have taken to achieve it, imagining you’re already there.

2. Notice pessimistic thoughts

A more direct way of boosting optimism is to start realizing just how pessimistic you are. While some people have a gratitude jar full of things to be happy about, your task is to create a pessimism jar. Throw in a penny each time you have a pessimistic thought – and don’t feel bad about it. All you’re trying to do right now is be more aware.

If jars aren’t your thing, you can simply write down your pessimistic thoughts. Seligman recommends the ABC method, which includes not only the pessimistic thought (the Belief), but the trigger (whatever Adversity caused it) and the resulting behavior or action (the Consequence).

A: the adversity. Make your description factual.
B: the belief, or the voice in your head. What do you tell yourself about the adversity? This is your opinion, and it may well be false.
C: the consequence. How did the belief make you feel or act?

For example: 

A: I felt stressed for the 5th day in a row.
B: This is becoming a habit. Am I going to feel like this all the time? Now I’ve ruined my day.
C: I felt even more stressed and sad.

You’ll probably want to move on to one of the other exercises during the month, but this is a great starting point.

3. Distract yourself from pessimistic thoughts

Sometimes pessimism plays on a loop in our heads, and we can’t tear ourselves away from the negative thoughts. This technique is useful if you’re already aware of your pessimistic thoughts and they’re detracting from your life. Here are some of Seligman’s techniques for distracting yourself: 

  • Startle yourself: Ring a loud bell, look at a notecard with the word “STOP” on it, or snap a rubber band on your wrist while yelling “STOP” in your head. 
  • Shift your attention: Pick up a small object and examine it in as many ways as you can, tapping, tasting, smelling, and feeling. Really study it. 
  • Schedule a time later to think about your pessimistic thoughts. When the time comes, sit down to think about them or – if you don’t feel the need to – don’t.

4. Dispute your pessimistic thoughts

Disputing pessimistic thoughts is the next step after Seligman’s ABC technique. Here, we start to argue with the negative voices in our head.

To do that, look for evidence that contradicts your beliefs. Look for alternate causes of the problem that are less devastating. Ask yourself: even if this belief is true, what’s the worst that will happen? How likely are the different consequences? If the belief is true but destructive – it distracts you or makes you feel terrible – vow to drop it and remedy the situation later. 

We’ve already learned the ABCs; now it’s time for the ABCDEs. For example:

A: I felt stressed for the nth day in a row.
B: This is becoming a habit. Am I going to feel like this every day? Now I’ve ruined my day.
C: I felt even more stressed and sad.
D (the dispute): I may feel stressed, but it’s not as bad as earlier this week. I’ve taken steps to try to reduce stress, and I have a plan to deal with it when it bubbles up. It’s not entirely my fault if my upbringing and schooling have given me perfectionistic tendencies. The last time I felt stressed for weeks in a row, I was able to get over it and feel more relaxed most days. Just because I feel a little stress doesn’t mean my day is ruined – I had a great workout, made a nice meal, and attended a class, so I was very productive.
E (the “energization,” or the new consequences): The stress subsides a little, and the future doesn’t look as grim. (The point of writing down the “energization” is so you see the concrete results of thinking more optimistically.)

The heart of pessimism is that you believe bad events are permanent, pervasive, and personal – they will be long-lasting and affect all areas of your life, and they’re your fault. A sentiment like “I’ve ruined my life” or “I always cave under pressure” or “I’m a terrible person” – in response to one error or shortcoming – encompasses all three aspects. When you dispute yourself, you want to create explanations that are temporary, specific, and external, keeping the failure contained in the short term and in one specific area of your life, and acknowledging the role played by other people and by chance. For example, you might say, “This hiring manager doesn’t know what he’s looking for,” or “I’ve had a lot on my plate this week.”  

5. Get a friend to “insult” you

Sometimes it’s hard to dispute the ideas in our head, but it’s much easier to dispute the cruel comments that someone else makes. If you choose this option, recruit a willing friend or family member to spend 20 minutes telling you all the nasty, unfair, pessimistic things you tell yourself. Depending on how well they know you, you might have to give them a brief overview of the things you’re typically pessimistic about.

As they “insult” you, it’s your job to argue back and debate them – disputing in much the same way mentioned above. It should be easier than disputing yourself. You can go back and forth, as they respond to your responses with more pessimistic points.

(A loved one might take a little convincing to perform this task – ensure them that this exercise is backed by science and, no, you won’t be offended.)

Pick an optimism practice

Cultivating optimism isn’t quite as straightforward as cultivating gratitude. Three of the practices below aren’t something you sit down and do; instead, you have to be constantly aware of what you’re thinking and on the alert for pessimistic thoughts. If you choose one of those exercises, it might help to put up a reminder somewhere – maybe a post-it note at your desk or a quote on the wall – so you don’t forget. It’s easy to vow to do these exercises and then not follow through.

  • Best Possible Self: You can do this 15-minute exercise as often as daily, but it’s probably more reasonable to do it a few times a week. Pick 1-3 days a week and schedule 15-minute writing sessions.
  • Notice your pessimistic thoughts: Commit to writing down your pessimistic thoughts (using Seligman’s ABC method, if you’re so inclined) or creating a pessimism jar, where you put a coin in every time you notice one. This exercise is an ideal first step if self-awareness doesn’t come naturally to you.
  • Distract yourself from pessimistic thoughts: If you’re already well aware of your pessimistic thoughts and want to start dealing with them, distraction is probably a better technique. Pick a method that works for you – whether it’s snapping a rubber band on your wrist, diligently examining some random object, or scheduling time later for pessimism.
  • Dispute your pessimistic thoughts: If you’re an expert at self-awareness, go a step further and start disputing the pessimistic thoughts in your head using Seligman’s ABCDE method. This can be difficult for even the most reflective among us, so don’t be discouraged if you forget or miss a few.
  • Get a friend to insult you: If you pick this one, start by asking a friend or family member if they’re up to the challenge, and commit to doing it at least once a week for the next three weeks.

Which optimism practice will you choose? Tell us on Facebook.

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 1: What is optimism?

Move on to Week 3: The benefits of optimism

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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