From Pessimism to Optimism – A Healthy Shift (Part 1)

Unless you’re born with the happiness gene (yes, there’s a genetic factor to happiness), chances are you get cynical and pessimistic from time to time. Some of us might be plenty pessimistic a lot of the time or most of the time. If you’re in the latter category, should you be worried?

In a word, yes. Pessimism compromises your emotional health, your physical health, and your spiritual health. That’s not just a theory. Dozens and dozens of studies show that these drawbacks are real.

“But I’ve always been pessimistic,” you say. “I was born that way.”

Well, maybe and maybe not. You might have been pessimistic for as long as you can remember, but in fact pessimism is at least partly learned and can be unlearned. It’s in your best interest – and in the best interest of your loved ones – that you make the effort.

The benefits of optimism number in the dozens, and they include lower blood pressure, better heart health, a stronger network of supportive friends, more positive moods, greater happiness, better mental health when distressed by life events, higher productivity, longer life, and less depression and anxiety throughout life.

It’s important to note that optimists don’t have fewer distressing events in their lives or even fewer painful emotions than pessimists. But optimists are able to cope better with tough times, and they bounce back more quickly from emotional pain.

You should also know that moving toward healthy optimism does not mean being Pollyannish or sugarcoating the truth. Positive thoughts have to be grounded in reasonable evidence. No one should ask you to pretend something’s great when it isn’t or to wholesale dismiss your non-optimistic feelings. (More about this below)

Negative Thinking Is Natural but Not Adaptive

Whether you’re a full-blown pessimist or you find yourself thinking negatively more than you’d like, the truth is that in an evolutionary sense our brains developed to perceive the negative before the positive. It was a heck of a lot more important for our long-ago ancestors to notice the possibility of a lion hiding in the bushes than it was to take in the splendor of a sunset.

While we don’t have to worry much about predator animals anymore, our brains still go negative more readily than they go positive. That means our negativity sensors will always be dialed up higher than is adaptive for what we realistically face day in and day out. In turn, that means we have to be intentional about letting our positivity sensors weigh more heavily.

Resistance to Change Is Normal

I get that you don’t want to tackle this change. Part of you likes being a pessimist. It’s a relief to avoid the disappointment of expecting anything good. It seems adaptive to dispense with trying to find silver linings that might not exist. Plus you probably get some good laughs for your clever cynical remarks.

I know. I was a serious pessimist from about age 15 to 30 -- before I understood the toll pessimism was taking on my moods, my health, and my relationships.

Also, change is hard, and it takes work. It will cost money if you decide to get counseling (which you probably should as an important investment in yourself).

In my early 30s, I decided to put in the time, effort, and counseling, and I now consider myself an optimist -- not an entirely natural optimist, but no matter. I get the same benefits from being a learned optimist as do those who are born optimistic. I’m now a much happier and more peaceful person. That doesn’t mean the old me doesn’t ever surface anymore. It does. And that’s okay. We’re not going for perfection, just progress.

Some of any resistance to change you might be feeling could be the idea that you’re going to have to don rose-colored glasses. Not true! Healthy optimism is not mere positive thinking. Rather, it’s a way of thinking that, in truth, takes into account more of the available evidence than does pessimism. Pessimists generally distort reality far more than optimists. Many pessimists stubbornly refuse to see any positive ever – or almost ever.

Healthy optimism, as I’m defining it here, is an approach to life that generally (though not always in every particular) takes a hopeful and confident view of your current and future life and of your ability to achieve things you set out to do – from small goals to big hopes and dreams.

Strategies for Unlearning Your Pessimism

As with every worthwhile endeavor, becoming a learned optimist is a process. A thorough discussion is beyond our scope, but here are some ideas about how to get started.

  1. Pick up a good book on the topic, such as Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism, my personal favorite because it’s based on rigorous social science research.

  2. Tell a few trusted others that this is something you want to change, and you need their support, including help identifying your pessimistic moments.

  3. Understand that pessimistic remarks start in your thoughts. It’s your thoughts you’re going after for the most part.

  4. Don’t simply get rid of pessimistic thoughts but learn to replace them with optimistic thoughts. For example, swap out “I always fail when I try something new” for “Sometimes I fail when I try something new but sometimes I succeed.”

  5. Be gentle with yourself as you work to make this shift. It’s not easy, and it takes time.

  6. Don’t expect all your pessimistic thoughts to go away. They’ll still come, but less and less often.

  7. Start a “gratitude practice,” which means regularly (daily is great) taking inventory of the good things in your life. Some people like to buy a journal just for this purpose. Others like to review what they’re grateful for in their minds. Studies show that cultivating gratitude is a powerful way of building positive thoughts and feelings.

  8. As you practice gratitude, it’s okay to also take note of what you’re not grateful for. Doing this doesn’t make you ungrateful. It makes you whole.

  9. Consider getting professional help. I did, and it made all the difference.

What are some ways you have found to help you be more optimistic?

(Watch for Part 2, The Limits of Optimism)

Sue Bergin, MA, has 10 years of experience as a personal coach and hospice chaplain. She coaches adults around issues such as faith transitions, making difficult decisions, perfectionism, caregiver burnout and self-care, relationship clarity, physical illness (serious & chronic), end-of-life decisions and adaptation to unmarried life.

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