Let's Talk About That Glass
There are times when I have to try really hard to stay positive. The devastating weather. The increase in gun violence. The behavior of people on airplanes, arguing about wearing a piece of cloth on their face. The increasing virus around the world - again. And don’t get me started on the fractured politics. Life is - by and large - one big mess. I like to call that “the world’s business”. But then I have a cross-country move that I just endured and a change in schools for my kids and a loss of friends close by and the increase in humidity. Yes - ask my hair. It is THAT bad. My “personal business” has me feeling anxious just like the world’s business. Together it has allowed me to sink into a daily pattern of not feeling terribly optimistic. The proverbial glass of mine is half empty, or totally empty.
What exactly is optimism? And what difference does it make if I’m an optimist or not?
Optimism is generally defined as a confidence about life and the future; a hopefulness that things will turn out successfully. It comes from the Latin word optimus, which means “best”. In philosophy, optimism was the idea that the world as we see it is actually still the best of all possible worlds and our lives in it are worth living. Less technically, we have come to think of optimism as simply a mindset that things are generally positive, not negative.
Optimists are often written off as just happy people who ignore the bad stuff around them. But it turns out that optimistics see negative events just as readily as the pessimists out there. They just acknowledge those events without blaming themselves, and they come to believe the events are temporary. Optimists stay ever hopeful that things in the future will get better, not worse.
Optimism is often regarded as a personality trait that we are born with, though there is much research to indicate that it is at least partially impacted by how we were nurtured. It should come as no surprise that more stressful, more anxious, or turbulent childhood experiences and lives can impact one’s ability to be optimistic.
I suppose some would argue that being positive when things are bad really doesn’t make much of a difference. No amount of attitude is going to change what is happening out there in the world, or even with your personal circumstances. An attitude is not action. But the research is very clear that optimism, and optimistic people, are far better off than their pessimistic counterparts on nearly every metric measured. Having a positive outlook is an extremely efficient strategy for protecting yourself from depression and being more resilient to the stressors of life. Optimists have better coping skills that allow them to recover more quickly when things really are going in the wrong direction.
And the studies don’t stop there. Optimists report better overall well-being. They get better sleep. They are less likely to have heart trouble, or die of heart-related problems. They enjoy higher socioeconomic status and view themselves as more attractive and likable. Optimists reach their goals more readily than the pessimists out there and enjoy a more vibrant and satisfying social life. Wow. It sure does seem like being an optimist is the way better choice.
And me being the choice guru, it does seem that we can effectively choose to have an optimistic outlook, even if other factors in our lives have allowed us to naturally hold a more pessimistic point of view. Optimism, like every other feeling that we experience, is a choice. No one said it is easy, but you won’t be allowed to get away with saying that choosing an optimistic outlook is impossible.
There are so many ways to change your outlook and we have heard them all before. Show some gratitude. Silence the negativity around you. Look forward to something in the future. Imagine good things. Cultivate positive vibes with words and deeds. The reason we have heard these things over and over again is because they actually do work. There is no magic at all here, which should be a relief because it means that optimistic feelings, and the work to get there, are available to us all.
And did you catch the key component? Work. It takes - work. Optimism will not magically happen. It is not a gift or a given. And when it disappears like that pesky white rabbit into the magician’s hat, we have to dig our hands in and pull it back out. And once you pull it back out you have to hold on tightly to it so it doesn’t escape again.
I will end this post with one of my favorite quotes about optimism. Author Shawn Achor wrote in his book About Happiness that the contents of the glass don’t matter much. “What’s more important is to realize there’s a pitcher of water nearby.” It is a reminder that we have the capacity to refill the glass, or change our outlook, whenever we are ready. I find it to be a very sound wake up call. And a timely one, in my case. Forget the glass. Pass me the pitcher.