It is easy to say there are two types of people out there, pessimists and optimists. The reality is there is so much gray area in between. It is almost never possible to categorize people into just two distinct groups, there will always be some people that are in between. It is therefore easier to look at things in a spectrum. So rather than being either a pessimist or an optimist, a person would fall somewhere on a spectrum between true pessimism and true optimism. And while there are benefits and drawbacks to both sides of the spectrum, the goal is generally to achieve optimism.
So if pessimism is a general expectancy of the worst and almost never expecting something good to happen and optimism is the tendency to see hope, happiness, and promise of good in every situation, how do you move up and down this spectrum? People on either end of the spectrum can see flaws in the other side. This in itself makes it difficult to scale the spectrum, but not impossible. Most would probably agree that some balance of the two needs to occur to have a healthy mindset but that the ideal would be to lean more heavily towards optimism since it has happiness in its core. There will be disappointments and moments where you dip farther down the spectrum towards pessimism, but it is possible to move forward and work towards optimism even with disappointments. The idea that things may not be perfect but they can be good is essential to becoming an optimist. It’s finding the little sparks of light and goodness in the dark and difficult.
A better understanding of what optimism is makes achieving it more realistic. Optimism is not the removal of all negativity. It’s an acceptance that there is negativity but it doesn’t mean you have to be negative. It is working through the negative by knowing that there is a positive at the end. It’s finding the balance between the good and the bad. It is not ignoring the bad nor is it ignorance of the bad. There is no denial that bad things happen or even fearing that bad things happen. Its an understanding that you can make it through bad things and hoping that things will be even better in the end. It is having hope. So how does one change their thinking and become an optimist?
First, notice negativity in your thinking and where it comes from. It may help to do this in writing. Pay attention to negative assumptions or conclusions. Pay even closer attention to how you deal with this negativity, how it effects how you act and think, and how long it lasts. Then, once you have a good understanding of how and when you are thinking negatively, when you find yourself thinking or saying negative things, start countering them with a positive. In the beginning this may be difficult and may feel forced or fake, but that is okay. Its the process of retraining your brain to think in a more positive way. So even if the positive counter thought does not feel true in the moment, it is serving its purpose of retraining the automatic negative response. If you need to, again write these down. Then write evidence down to support both the negative and positive thought. In the beginning, it only makes sense that it would be easier to support the negative thought, but the goal is to increase the support for the positive while decreasing the negative.
It may also help to identify the purpose of the negative thinking. What benefits does it have for you? Where did it start? In many cases these are formed based on what we call cognitive distortions. In some cases negative thinking may serve to protect you from disappointment. Thinking that always expecting the worst protects you when it happens; however, it really does the opposite and may actually lead to the worst happening. Rather than protecting yourself you are working towards the negative thing actually happening by predicting or foreshadowing. The fix to this is not denying that bad things could happen, but understanding that they could and being hopeful that they won’t. This actually does allow you to protect yourself from the negativity because you are prepared if it does happen but are able to enjoy the positive because you don’t expect the negative to happen.
While working on your own thought processes and changing them, you can also work in a number of other areas:
Search for the positives: It is easy to find negatives. They generally stand out with big flashing lights letting us know what they are. It is more difficult to find the positives. Make a conscious effort to find them. When something bad happens, don’t dwell on the negative but put an effort into finding the positives. For example, if you get in a fight with a close friend, focus on it giving you time to build relationships with other people and to eventually repair that relationship with the friend to be better in the end. It is difficult to find the positive at times, but even if small, you can find it if you look hard enough.
Model your thinking: If you are struggling to remain positive, think positively, or act in a positive manner, model your thoughts and actions off of someone who is more successful in this area. Ask yourself what they would think, say, or do and model yourself off of them until it becomes more natural for you.
Encourage others: Building others up will teach you to apply the same skills to yourself. It is often times easier to notice positives in others than it is in ourselves, so start there. Note how others think positively and make note, give them positive feedback. This will carry over into how you look at your own thinking and allow you to do the same in yourself.
Compliment yourself: Giving yourself positive feedback just as you would for others helps boost your positive thinking and allows you to take note of success rather than only focusing on when you have set backs. Keep feedback genuine and don’t dismiss success. A success is a success, it doesn’t matter what led to it.
Practice and allow for setbacks: Changing your thinking is hard work. There will be times where you revert to your old way of thinking and that is okay. Part of changing your thinking is accepting your errors and not allowing them to overwhelm you. Rather than dwell on them, continue to practice positive thinking tasks and move forward.