Optimism is a skill that can be learned, explains Lauren Parsons
Being more optimistic helps you:
- Live longer
- Be more successful
- Have a better love life
- Take fewer sick days
- Bounce back faster and stronger
It’s especially important when you’re a leader, as the way you show up affects everyone else around you.
Pessimists tend to view the world in a negative, worst-case-scenario way, which can be important at times to temper risk but overall tends to foster poorer mental wellbeing.
What Is Optimism Anyway?
Optimists and pessimists tend to differ in the way they view the things that happen in their lives in three ways:
Optimists view challenges as temporary, believing that they will get better in the future, whereas pessimists say things like, “I’ll never get better at this”, “It’ll always…” and “I can’t…” When you view things as permanent and unable to be changed, you’re more likely to give up, whereas optimists will persevere through challenges, as they can see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Pessimists blame themselves when things go wrong, whereas optimists take a broader view and take into account external forces that may have influenced events. On the other side, when things do go well, pessimists attribute it more to chance whereas optimists acknowledge that they influenced the positive result.
When an optimist fails in one area of life, they see it objectively and don’t believe it makes them a failure in all areas. Pessimists tend to tell themselves, “I’ll never be good at anything” or “That didn’t work, so nothing will work.”
It’s important to build the skill of optimism, especially if you are a leader (and I believe that everyone is a leader, as you’re the leader of your own life, and the way you show up influences others).
How to Develop the Skill of Optimism in Your Life
1. Have a Clear Vision
As Simon Sinek would say – “Know your WHY.” Understand what drives you and gives you a sense of purpose. Martin Seligman talks about a Sense of Purpose as the first pillar of his PERMA model for flourishing, because we need to feel a sense of meaning in life.
Clearly articulate it. Get clear on your personal “why”. What makes you get out of bed in the morning? Why do you do what you do? What legacy do you want to leave in the world?
Then cultivate it. Find ways to display your goals visually to remind yourself of them. Share your “why” with the people you trust.
Spend some time defining your own sense of purpose and have a regular (ideally daily) practice that links back to it, such as seeing it on your screensaver or vision board, writing it out or sharing it verbally. Make your login password a key from your “why”.
2. Choose What You Feed Your Thoughts
Your brain is like a sponge – constantly soaking up all of the influences around you, especially the things you choose to watch, read and listen to. Think of the books and magazines you read, what you watch on TV or stream online, what media channels you scroll and what you tune in to listen to. Even the conversations you have influence your thinking.
If a sponge is sitting in a bowl of dirty water, it’s going to be full of dirty water. So be mindful to choose what you want to soak in.
Here are three ways to improve your thought life, which will fuel optimism:
Actively limit negative influences
Do an audit and take stock of the amount of time you spend watching the news, scrolling mindlessly. How much time might you spend in a week listening to, watching or reading things that are bringing you down?
Ring-fence time for inspirational content
Alongside limiting the negative influences, be sure to ring-fence time for uplifting content. Set aside times of the day to watch inspiring TED talks, listen to uplifting podcasts and read inspiring books. Your local library is a treasure trove!
Surround yourself with uplifting people
They say that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. So, look out for optimistic people who lift you up and spend more time with them. Their thinking will rub off on your way of thinking.
Catastrophising is when we jump to the worst possible conclusion, and then the next one and the next one, and we take it very far. When combined with the three Ps – believing it’s permanent and will always be like this, it’s personal and “all my fault” and it’s pervasive, leading to failure in all areas of life – this can lead you into all sorts of negative thinking traps.
3. Avoid Catastrophising
Catastrophising is always based on fear. The antidotes are two other f-words – facts and faith. Remind yourself of the facts. Take a piece of paper and write down the thoughts you’re having, then write down as many facts as you can about the situation. Get perspective and notice if you’re using superlatives like “always” or “never”, which are unlikely to be true.
Along with reminding yourself of the facts, lean into having faith that things will work out. Most things that we worry about never come to pass. So, remind yourself to have a little faith and to trust that things can and will improve.
4. Foster Curiosity
When you notice your brain jumping to pessimistic thoughts, practice metacognition (thinking about your thoughts) and bring curiosity into play.
Be curious about why you thought that. Ask yourself, “Is it true?”
Ask yourself if it’s helpful or what would be helpful in the moment.
Picture yourself as if you were your best friend; if you were looking at the situation, what might you say? Be curious about what comes to mind.
Remember that your thoughts are just thoughts. They’re not always true.
The more you can bring self-awareness, self-compassion and curiosity to the table, the more you can build the skill of optimism.
5. Move to Boost Your Mood
Your physiology affects your psychology, so create a physical shift to change your outlook and how you feel.
Roll your shoulders back and sit or stand a little taller.
Give yourself the biggest smile you can. (Go on – try it out right now.)
Lift your gaze. Count the lights if you’re indoors, or even better…
Head outdoors for a walk and look at the sky. Make a point of looking at the top of the tallest trees.
Small physical shifts can create huge mental shifts, and when you do them consistently, they become the norm.
A Word on Positivity
Remember that you don’t need to be “positive all the time.” There is such a thing as ”toxic positivity”, when some people falsely believe that they should be happy all the time.
Humans are designed to have a full range of emotions. The more you can improve your emotional intelligence and boost your optimism, the greater the positive flow-on effect it will have to every area of your life.
You are the leader of your own life, and the way you show up matters, as it affects everyone around you.
Go out and practice building your optimism skills by getting clear on your “why”, soaking your sponge in uplifting influences, using facts and faith to overcome fear and fostering curiosity.