We’ve all known people who are sad sacks. They view life through a negative lens. When things don’t go their way, they blame themselves or perhaps their lot in life. On the the other hand we know people that we would describe as being optimists. They encounter just as many disappointments as the rest of us, but they remain positive by finding important lessons to be learned or they see a disheartening event as providing potential for growth. When we look at each type of person we find ourselves wondering how there might be such differences between people. We prefer the cheeriness of optimism, but worry that perhaps each of us is endowed with a set of immutable personality traits that determine our reactions to life’s ups and downs. It feels as though we are somehow the victims of fate rather than the captains of our own souls.
The truth is that both optimism and pessimism are learned traits, barring chemical imbalances, brain disorders and injuries or mental illness. It is possible for any of us to become more positive if we focus on a few simple practices to assess both the successes and failures that we experience. I’ll use a couple of examples to illustrate how this works.
When I was in high school I ran for Student Body Secretary against two other classmates. We each campaigned for a week, restricted by certain guidelines as to what tactics we might use and how much we were allowed to spend. At the end of the period each of us spoke to the assembled students outlining reasons why they should vote for us, and describing our plans for improving the school. That afternoon everyone voted. I lost and will never know how badly because the actual tabulation of the votes was secret.
If I had reacted pessimistically I might have charged that the rules were unfair and that I had somehow been slighted. Even worse, I may have felt that the defeat was a sign that my peers disliked me. I would have questioned myself and my own self worth. I might even have sworn never again to submit myself to such humiliation, after all during the campaigning a boy had insisted that nobody liked me and that I didn’t have a chance of winning. I might have believed that he had been right.
Instead I chose to be a bit more optimistic about my loss. I was surely disappointed and even a bit saddened that I did not win, that was only natural. Nonetheless, I understood that the two individuals who had run against me were extremely accomplished and even a bit more well known in the school at large. They were good people who undoubtedly attracted the support of many members of the student body. It wasn’t that I was somehow worthless, only that I didn’t quite garner as much support that I needed. I had to pat myself on the back for even trying because it was scary to stand in front of everyone and open myself up to criticism. It was a learning experience for me on many, many levels. I have never regretted my decision to run, and I believe that I actually entered adult life with a bit of an advantage over my peers because I had learned how to compete and how to gracefully accept the disappointments that were sure to come now and again.
My grandson who is a runner has also exhibited the classic traits of an optimist during this year’s cross country season. He had become accustomed to landing in the top rung in competitions, but this year he has been challenged by a team from a school that is consistently taking the prizes. He has found himself just behind them again and again, but instead of hanging his head and speaking of unfairness or wondering if he had overestimated his own abilities he decided to compete with himself. His goal was to keep bettering his own time and thereby inch closer and closer to being in the winner’s circle once again. He has developed a friendship with a runner from another school and the two of them push each other in the races. It’s become their way of improving. What had begun as a frustrating season is now beginning to show progress, mostly because my grandson refused to wallow in pessimism and instead focused on the things that he had been doing right. He worked on perfecting his strengths rather than worrying about his weaknesses and he is doing better with each passing week. Given that he is only a sophomore, it seems certain that he will be doing great things by the time he is a senior if he keeps up his positive attitude.
We know that being optimistic is a healthy way to be. It makes life easier all the way around, but what are the characteristics that we might learn to use as we go through the ups and downs of our lives?
First, and perhaps most importantly, in a bad situation optimists look for the things that went well, rather than dwelling on mistakes. They are able to pinpoint the good aspects of even a disaster. They also use failures as learning opportunities, ways to improve in the future. They do not take rejections personally either. In other words they don’t obsessively wonder what is wrong with themselves. They understand that sometimes we just can’t quite achieve as well as we might like to do, but if we make small changes here and there we will surely improve. For this reason they tend not to give up. They pick themselves up and try again and again. They also realize that each of us is a bit imperfect and that bad things sometimes happen to good people. They don’t dwell on the negativity or over analyze the bad aspects of an event. They have a healthy relationship with themselves and don’t allow others to intimidate them into feeling inadequate. They are able to take note of all of the blessings that they most surely have.
It would be worth practicing optimism as often as possible. There are certainly times when we deserve and honest critique and we would do well to grow from it. The trick is not to become so obsessed with an idea that we are fated for bad luck or that we are so damaged that we are somehow unworthy of happiness and success. Whenever we find ourselves falling into a kind of pity party, it’s time to consciously reflect instead on all that we know is good. When we do that we will generally find ourselves laughing again, and ready to just keep going.