Cultivating optimism shares similarities with expressing gratitude. Both exercises require you to intentionally focus on the positive aspects of any given situation. Optimistic people celebrate the past and present, while also anticipating a fulfilling future.
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
– Winston Churchill
Each of us may define optimism a bit differently. You may be optimistic in one context, yet pessimistic in another. Some researchers define optimism as a global expectation of a positive future.
Other experts describe optimism as the way we explain outcomes. When faced with a negative event, a pessimist will view it as internal, permanent and universal (i.e., “This always happens to me; it’s my fault”). In contrast, an optimist attributes the event to something external, transient and specific (i.e., “This isn’t my fault; it’s a temporary glitch”).
Creating Your Best Possible Self
Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky offers the following exercise, called “Your Best Possible Selves,” in The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want (Penguin Books, 2007): For 20 minutes, write a narrative description of your best possible future selves in multiple life domains.
Channeling your thoughts in this direction will boost your mood and motivation. Highly structured, systematic and rule-bound, the exercise prompts you to organize, integrate and analyze your thoughts in ways that fantasizing doesn’t allow. Writing about your dreams provides clarity and a renewed sense of hope and control.
You must regularly engage in this activity to develop optimistic thinking habits. As with sports and career mastery, optimism requires practice and persistence.
Being optimistic involves a choice about how you see the world. It doesn’t mean denying the negative or avoiding unfavorable information. Pragmatic optimists are just as likely to be vigilant about risks and threats while seeing the glass as half full.
They’re also keenly aware that positive outcomes depend on the wholeheartedness of their efforts. They don’t wait around for good things to happen.
If you’re struggling with dissatisfaction, pessimism or an inability to feel grateful, consider working with a professional coach. In the work I do with clients, I have seen the transformation. Building new habits can open the doors to happiness and success. You owe it to yourself; as they say on TV: You’re worth it!