Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Living Optimistically

Optimism, it’s more than a feeling.

Or better, optimism is as optimism does.

It feels a bit self-evident, but in the world of therapy it counts as a major discovery.

You do better when you approach life with an optimistic attitude. Having an optimistic attitude involves the way you act, not how you feel.

So, therapy has abandoned the notion that life is about satisfying needs or desires and embraced the notion that life is about success and achievement.

Yet, this has led to some inevitable misunderstandings. Some people believe that optimism is a state of mind.

Psychologist Elaine Fox responds that optimism lies in how you behave, how you act, not how you feel.

She explained it to Jane Brody:

What really makes the difference is action…. If you sit back passively, you won’t get the job you want.

In her book, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, Fox wrote:

Optimism is not so much about feeling happy, nor necessarily a belief that everything will be fine, but about how we respond when times get tough. Optimists tend to keep going, even when it seems as if the whole world is against them.

Optimism is less an attitude and more a character trait. It’s less about positive feeling and more about how you conduct your life.

Optimistic people are convinced that they can do it. They take defeat in stride, making it a reason to work harder.

This implies that if you are pessimistic you can become more optimistic by acting as an optimistic person would under the circumstances.

If your gut tells you to give up and you know that an optimistic person would persevere, then you need to force yourself to persevere.

It might not feel right. It might even feel wrong. It’s easier said than done. 

And yet, you only gain optimism by acting as though you are optimistic.

It’s hard work, but then again, significant personal improvement must be earned. It does not descend on you like a gift of prevenient grace.

When therapists talk about optimism they are referring to confidence in your own abilities, not a blind faith in the future. As Fox wrote, optimism is how we react to adversity.

If you do not believe in adversity then clearly you will not know how to deal with it.

Optimism does not make you believe that everything is always going to turn out for the best.

Those who do are making an excuse for being sloppy and slothful.

Optimists do not believe that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Candide was not an optimist. He was naïve. The two are not the same.

If you refuse to recognize the possibility of calamity you are saying that you have no confidence in your ability to take charge of one.

Optimists are so confident in their abilities that they make plans for the future. And then, they follow the plans.

A plan gives you a sense of control. It factors in the possibility of setbacks. Dr. Fox said: “When you have a setback, you feel you can do something about it.”

If you cannot envision yourself dealing with a setback you will be blindsided. When that happens you will more likely give up.

Giving up because you feel overwhelmed is the definition of depression.


Vic said...

Stuart Hello:

I've been reading you for years and I am constantly amazed at your insights and the ability to communicate wonderful ideas and thoughts. Your latest post on Optimism is awesome.

Thank you, Victor

Stuart Schneiderman said...

My thanks to you, Victor, for the kind words. I very much appreciate them.

David Foster said...

Perhaps it is best to combine strategic optimism with a certaom amount of tactical pessimism. In aviation, for example:

*I am optimistic about my ability to complete tomorrow's flight

*I am pessimistic that the weather forecast for my destination will be worse than forecast, and hence I'd better have a good alternate and some extra fuel

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Great formulation... be prepared for the worst and remain confident that you can meet the challenge.