If the grass looks greener on the other side…
And START watering the grass you’re standing on!
Truly, the most powerful weapon against daily stress is our ability to choose one thought, or response, over another. I was reminded of this today when a course student named Sarah sent me the following in an email (I’m sharing this with permission):
“I sat down with my two daughters, ages six and eight, this afternoon to explain to them that we have to move out of our four-bedroom house and into a two-bedroom apartment for a year or two until I can find another job and build our savings back up. It’s a conversation I’ve been avoiding for over a month, as I’ve struggled with the doubts and regrets of not being able to provide a financially stable household for us. But my daughters just looked at each other after I told them, and then my youngest daughter turned to me and asked, ‘Are we all moving into that apartment together?’ ‘Of course,’ I immediately replied. ‘Oh, so no big deal then,’ she said.”
Is that not the most mindful, optimistic response imaginable?
I hope it inspires you to follow suit. Train your mind to see the bits of good in everything, even when it’s hard. The peace and happiness of your life in the long run heavily depends on the quality of your daily thoughts and responses.
Optimism is your choice today. It’s not an inborn trait bestowed on a lucky few—it’s a skill that can be learned and honed. Let those two little girls be your guides, and allow me to fill in the gaps…
Since there is no one-size-fits-all, step-by-step guide to being more optimistic, I’ve compiled a short list of strategies that we’ve successfully implemented with our course students, coaching clients, and live event attendees over the years. Here are some little things they now do differently:
1. Optimists make optimal use of the available options.
Most people get irritated by those who seem “too optimistic,” but this is often just an unfortunate misinterpretation of the difference between an optimist and an idealist. An optimist is really just a positive realist who is neither naive, nor in denial, nor blind to the realities of life.
An optimist believes in the optimal usage of all the available options, no matter how narrow the supply. As a result, optimistic people are able to better see the bigger picture. They can more accurately visualize and mange the present possibilities. For comparison’s sake: An idealist focuses only on the absolute best aspects of situations, a pessimist sees no positive possibilities at all, and an optimist strives to see all the possibilities so they can find the best possible option among them.
So, when picking lemons off a lemon tree, an idealist reaches for the ripest looking lemon and expects it to be the tastiest, a pessimist settles for whichever one is closest, while an optimist picks all the lemons in sight and makes lemonade. (Marc and I further discuss this habit of optimism in the Happiness chapter of our New York Times bestseller, Getting Back to Happy: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Reality, and Turn Your Trials into Triumphs.)
2. Optimists respect themselves.
As a child, you impressed and inspired yourself on a daily basis. You ran, jumped, swung, sang and danced openly without a care in the world, and without worrying about what everyone else thought of you. You didn’t need anyone else’s constant approval, because deep down you knew you were amazing.
As you grew into adulthood, the pressure from peers, popular media and society as a whole began to wear on you. You started comparing yourself to everyone around you. You judged and measured your body, your lifestyle, your career, and your relationships against other people’s lives. And when you realized that many of these people have things that you do not, bitterness set in and you gradually stopped appreciating all the great things you do have in your life.
Optimists defend themselves against this self-dislike in two primary ways. First, they get back to trusting their own intuition when it comes to their daily activities. They stop asking for everyone else’s approval and simply do what they know in their heart feels right. Second, optimists don’t judge themselves against a set of unrealistic, third-party ideals. They let go of the ideals and instead hold on to the belief that they are always good enough just the way they are, even as they grow into stronger, wiser versions of themselves.
3. Optimists disconnect happiness from achievement.
In order to be optimistic, you have to be generally content with your life. In order to find this contentment, you have to look within yourself. Happiness, after all, is an inside job.
If you look for happiness outside yourself, by tying it to a specific achievement you must reach for example, you have two big problems:
- You may never succeed. – If you feel like something is wrong with you and needs to be fixed, but you continuously fall short of fixing it, you will start yourself on a downward spiral where every time you fail to fix it you feel even worse. Eventually you will be unable to succeed simply because you no longer believe in your ability to do so.
- You may succeed and decide you want even more. – If you feel like something is wrong with you and needs to be fixed, and you succeed at fixing it, you will likely find something new about yourself that needs fixing too. Maybe you’ve lost 20 pounds, but now you want tighter abs. Maybe you’ve paid down your debt, but now you want a bank account with a million dollars in it. You get the idea. It’s a never-ending cycle for your entire life. You never reach it, because you’re always looking for happiness from external achievements. You don’t find the happiness from within so you look to other sources.
Optimists disconnect achievement from happiness and give themselves permission to be happy in each moment without the need for anything more. This isn’t to say that they are complacent. They still set goals, work hard, help others, and grow, but they learn to indulge joyously in the journey, not the destination. (Read Buddha’s Brain.)
4. Optimists keep good company.
You are only as good as the company you keep, and misery loves company. If you spend too much time around negative people, there’s a strong chance you won’t find much to be happy about. Do yourself a favor and dodge other people’s negativity. Surround yourself with positive, emotionally supportive friends and spend time together doing things that make you smile.
Optimism is a learned habit, and it is positively contagious. So surround yourself with people who could infect you with positivity, and then pass your new good mood on to a friend or stranger via kind words and deeds – tell a friend how good they look today, let somebody have that parking space, let that person with only a few items cut in front of you at the market. The simple act of doing something nice for those around you will help create more positive people to interact with.
The bottom line is that life is way too amazing and short to waste time with people who don’t treat you right. Surround yourself with people who lift you up when you’re down, and then return the favor when you’re able.
5. Optimists embrace life’s ups and downs.
Just because you’re an optimist doesn’t mean you’re not going to have bad days. You will, that’s reality. Life isn’t always rainbows and butterflies. A foundation of realism keeps things in perspective and helps prevent things from being blown out of proportion.
Expecting life to be wonderful all the time is wanting to swim in an ocean in which waves only rise up and never come crashing down. However, when you recognize that the rising and crashing waves are part of the exact same ocean, you are able to let go and be at peace with the reality of these ups and downs. It becomes clear that life’s ups require life’s downs.
Bottom line: Prepare for the downs but capitalize on the ups; the former makes you sensible and the latter makes you an optimist. (Read Learned Optimism.)
6. Optimists use positive language and gestures.
It’s not always what happens that determines your mood, but how you verbalize and express what happens that counts.
For instance, when an optimist experiences a bout of success she might say, “That’s just as I had anticipated; I studied hard and my diligence paid off,” while a pessimist might say, “Goodness, was I lucky to get a good grade on that test,” not giving herself any credit and literally snatching her own defeat from the hands of victory.
If an optimist encounters a do-it-yourself project she can’t figure out, she’s likely to say something like, “Either the instructions I’m following are unclear, or this project is going to require a bit more effort than I thought, or maybe I’m just having a rough day.” In other words, an optimist uses positive self-talk to keep the struggle outside herself (“the instructions”), specific (“more effort”), and temporary (“a rough day”), while the pessimist would likely get down on herself and interpret the same struggle as internal, widespread, and everlasting.
Go ahead and follow in the optimist’s footsteps by speaking to yourself in a more positive way regardless of whether you succeed or fail, and you’ll gradually become more optimistic.
Physical body language is also important. Your smile actually influences your mood in a positive way. When you feel down, your brain tells your face that you’re sad, and your facial muscles respond by putting on a frown, which in turn conveys a message back to your brain that says, “Yep, we’re feeling unhappy.” You can flip the switch on this internal reaction by adjusting your facial muscles into a smile so they don’t correspond to what you’re feeling. This is a clever way of sending a different message back to your brain: “Hey, life is still pretty good and I’m doing OK.” Your brain will respond by gradually changing your mood accordingly.
(Note: Our New York Times bestseller, Getting Back to Happy: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Reality, and Turn Your Trials into Triumphs, is an easy-to-read guide that will gradually make you more optimistic, guaranteed.)
Now, it’s your turn…
Please leave a comment below and let me know what you think of this article.
What resonated? What helps boost YOUR optimism?
I’d love to hear from YOU.
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