Promoting Optimism

Young beautiful african american elegant woman with afro hair Hugging herself, happy and positive, smiling confident. Self love and self care

A dear friend gave me the gift of the recently published New York Times special issue on Self-Care. One of our popular trauma workshops focuses on the importance of self-care and it was affirming to read all the articles in this magazine that invited readers to embrace themselves and take self-care seriously.

The introduction to the magazine states the following: “When you practice self-care, you are appreciating your strengths and weaknesses. You are forgiving yourself for stumbles and celebrating your accomplishments. Most crucially, you are honing life skills: standing up for yourself, knowing when to fight for what you want and knowing when to walk away because something is harmful. As Audre Lorde, the feminist writer, once noted, ‘Caring for yourself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation.’”

One of the articles written by Susan Shain invited readers to learn more about how to be optimistic as a way to practice self-care. She acknowledged how hard it can be in today’s world to focus on optimism. “Battling your inner Eeyore [the gloomy donkey in Winnie the Pooh] can have profound effects. Researchers suggest that optimists earn more money, have better relationships and even live longer. And the thing is: optimism can be learned.”

The four suggestions in the article:

Self care - white chalk handwriting on a blackboard with a cup of coffee
  1. Visualize your best possible self. Think about what your dream life in 10 years would look like and how it would feel. Once you do that, write about it once a week for a few minutes. Do this for about two months. Studies have shown that imagining your ideal future is a way to raise your levels of optimism.
  2. Accept the inevitability of disappointment. Disappointment is a part of life. “You’ll be disappointed at times no matter what. So if your choice is between positive expectations that are occasionally proven wrong or negative expectations that are occasionally proven right, you might as well go with the former.”
  3. Argue against yourself. The author points out how easily we can have negative self-talk when things don’t go well for us, such as when a coworker gets a promotion you were hoping to get. Dr. Seligman, director of the Positive Psychological Center at the University of Pennsylvania, says that the trick is “… to first recognize the voice making those negative remarks, then argue with that as if it were an external person whose mission in life is to make you miserable.” Being able to counter negative inner remarks can happen when you present evidence to prove that voice is wrong. You might remind yourself that your coworker has been there longer than you have. You might also tell yourself that something else will come along and you eventually will get promoted, as a way to promote inner optimism and lessen inner pessimism.
  4. Put things in perspective. This involves recognizing a tendency to make catastrophic interpretations when something unpleasant or bad happens. The goal is to have realistic interpretations that include thinking of positive possibilities when something unpleasant or bad has happened. The author gives the example that someone who has a fight with a partner might have a catastrophic interpretation that this has happened because he or she is unlovable and there is no way to resolve the problem. The more realistic interpretation might be the recognition that sometimes couples have arguments, sometimes they say unkind things in the heat of the moment, and there will be ways to come back and work things out once some of the high levels of emotions have calmed. Modifying the interpretation can change the perspective and the accompanying feelings.

The author stresses how important it is to practice the strategies so that the changes can stick. Dr. Seligman says that his research shows these four approaches to potentially negative interpretations can greatly lessen tendencies for pessimism while enhancing levels of optimism.

Taking the time to promote enhanced optimism is a helpful addition to a self-care regimen.

Invitation for Reflection:

  1. In general, how optimistic are you most of the time?  Is it mostly your typical way of approaching life or do you have to work to be optimistic?
  2. Which of the recommendations resonates most with you? Which might be more challenging?
  3. What do you need to do to help yourself enhance your levels of optimism?

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Lakeside Global Institute