So many people think that you are either born with either a knack for optimism or pessimism – a “glass half full” or a “glass half empty” kind of person – and that we must accept our fate that there is nothing that can be done to change that. Well, I beg to disagree.
I like to think of myself as a realist, or a “glass is exactly one half empty and one half full” kind of person. For me, optimism is a practice, something that I have to remind myself of and work on daily, rather than something that comes naturally. It’s so easy to start drowning in a whirlpool of feelings of mediocrity when you feel that things aren’t going your way, but oftentimes that will lead to your situation staying the same, or even actually getting worse.
It’s important to take your life by the horns and to be the change that you want to see in it – I mean, if not you, then who will? You can’t just sit there and wait for “something amazing, I guess”, like the little boy on the tricycle waiting outside the house in the movie The Incredibles. He didn’t go anywhere or do anything, other than to watch, and to wait. And he wasn’t even sure what he was waiting for!
I don’t know about you, but I’m not patient enough to play the waiting game when it comes to getting what I want out of life. I know what it’s like to feel stuck and held back by your fears and insecurities, and it truly is a terrible feeling, so I’m here to give you the good news that it doesn’t have to be this way!
So if you feel stuck in a rut of despair or despondency, this post is for you. Or if your day is often ruined by some minor negative incident that causes the rest of the day to spiral out of control, read on. It happens to the best of us, but here are my tricks for focusing on the positive and practicing intentional optimism.
1. Count your blessings, not your flaws or failures.
Another way to put this is, don’t try to keep up with the Joneses. Comparing yourself to others will always leave you feeling like the grass is greener somewhere else, whether it’s related to your appearance, abilities, financial success, relationships, lifestyle, or whatever else you may wish was better in your life.
Social media can be a dangerous thing to spend extended time on when you are having a bad day, since people usually put their best face forward on these platforms, and appear to be happier and more attractive than they generally are in everyday life. It’s important to realize that comparing yourself to others can be detrimental to your mental state, and that it is much more constructive to search for things you like about yourself instead.
Instead of looking at posts of your peers who happened to grow up to be fashionistas, globe-trotters, or successful physicians, and saying, “jeez, well what am I doing with my life??”, instead, practice reminding yourself of ways that you have been successful or competent at something, or reasons you have to be thankful about your own situation.
2. Look towards the future, not the past.
There is just no point in dwelling on prior events and running them through your head a million times over. The past is behind you, and that’s not where we’re headed. So instead, when you find yourself looking into the past at an undesirable event, think to yourself, “how can I use this past experience to build a brighter future?”. Learn from mistakes you have made, and allow what you learn to make you a stronger person.
Start planning for your future, and get excited for it! Even if you have to take baby steps, just do it. Make plans for a pedicure this weekend, or a night in with your bff’s and your favorite snacks. And then smile, counting the minutes until the event! Life is much better when you have something that you can look forward to, even if it’s small.
3. Slow down and enjoy the little things.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the chaos of your day. Whether you are like me, and end up rushing around to get out the door so you aren’t late to work (every. single. day), or if you have multiple distractions that pull you in a million directions each day (such as kids, a spouse, a parent, a job, a pet, bills, the list seems to go on and on and on!!), life tends to get a little crazy.
On top of that, our society has somehow made us believe that being busy is cool, so we impose upon ourselves additional things that make us busier than we really ought to be, whether it’s PTA meetings, kids’ ball games, charity events, or even just our social calendar – it usually adds up to too much. It’s important to take some “me” time each day, or at the very least each week, to allow your mind and body to decompress from all the craziness that surrounds us.
When that seems impossible, you can still practice slowing your mind down at moments each day that are worth enjoying. For example, if you really like coffee, or tea, or any kind of snack that you allow yourself to consume regularly – take five minutes of your day to really be present while you are having it. I really hate the idea of eating lunch at your work desk (yet I am guilty of doing this way too often!), because when you eat on the job you tend to rush through your meal, not really enjoying it, and not really feeling like you got a break at the end of it (because hello, you didn’t!).
Other ways to break your busy day down into manageable chunks are to consider what really matters to you in life – is it family meals? bath time (for yourself, or your kids)? playing with your pet? being outdoors? painting? – whatever it is, choose to be fully present in those moments.
You may have a thousand things running through your head, but do what it takes to get rid of them temporarily. You can write them down so you don’t forget, set reminders, or just tell yourself, “I can’t (or choose not to) do anything about this now, so just stop thinking about it”. Then spend all your energy on enjoying that moment, and allowing it to enrich your life. Take a picture to capture the moment, write down how you feel, or just soak it all in and create a positive memory. These will all help you to remember what makes you enjoy being alive once you are back on the treadmill of the rest of your life.
4. Be a friend.
No man (or woman) is an island. We weren’t meant to go through life alone! Humanity was meant to be in community with one another, and we feel more fulfilled when we have deep, meaningful relationships with others. So if you already have friends – awesome! Go call one of them and just offer to be there for them, or do them a favor. If you don’t have friends right now, the easiest way to make one is to be kind to someone for no reason at all. People will be taken aback when you show them a random display of kindness, and they will be truly grateful to you.
Another important part of community is the diversity of personalities and life perspectives that it brings. When you are feeling low about your own life, try walking in someone else’s shoes, and seeing life from their perspective. This usually helps you to see the blessings you have in your own life, and it also can inspire you to do or think things you had never considered before.
5. Laugh at yourself.
This might come as a slap in the face to some, but you are not, in fact, the center of the universe. So stop acting like it. Pack your pride into the bottom of your bag, and try some humility on for size. This is not to say that you should be a groveling, sniveling mess, but you should work on taking less offense at jokes made at your expense, or undercutting remarks from those you may consider to be your subordinates.
In other words, don’t take yourself so seriously. Loosen up a bit, and learn to laugh at yourself! Find the humor in some of the things you are serious about, whether it’s the fact that you spent an hour and a half mopping your kitchen floor, just for the dog to come running in out of the rain with muddy paw prints, or if a presentation you worked on for a week ended up being a small disaster. Sure, these things are annoying in the moment, but was it really a brilliant idea to mop the floors when it was rainy outside?
6. Listen to your spirit.
Even if you don’t observe a religion, take some time out of your day to meditate and listen to what your spirit needs. Get away from the hustle and bustle of life, and reflect on what is important to you, to those you love, to your community, and to the world. Think on the big picture, which will help you to put your life in perspective and can be a humbling, yet uplifting, experience as you realize the beauty that exists in the universe.
And if you are a spiritual or religious person, take some time each day to pray, thanking your Creator for the blessings you have, and meditating on the promises you know to be true for your life.
7. Practice speaking positively.
The words you speak affect the thoughts you think. If you are constantly speaking about yourself, your life, or your situation negatively, what you do think you will be thinking about these things? If you are constantly having negative thoughts, how do you think you will feel about these things?
When you feel like all is lost, say that you have hope. When you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, tell someone that you feel strong. And if you feel as sick as a dog, say that you are starting to feel better. And even if you don’t believe that anything different will happen if you speak positively, what’s the worst that could happen?
But I believe that speaking positively will help to change the outcome, if you practice it over time. Just think back to The Little Engine That Could, who timidly whispered “I think I can, I think I can”, until he started to believe it himself. And then, after a while, he could! If you repeatedly tell yourself and others that you are capable of doing something, or being the person you want to be, after a while, you (and others!) will begin to believe it. And this will help allow you to become that person, or do that thing.
8. Don’t let a situation determine your mood.
When you realize that something has set you into a funk, and it’s affecting every other area of your day, stop. Breathe. If you are in a public or busy space, go find someplace quiet, like a park, your car, or even a bathroom stall. Consider what set you off, and why it is capable of ruining your day.
Be resourceful. Many times, if you stop worrying about a problem you face and start thinking about ways to solve it, you can solve it a lot faster. Perhaps making a call to a friend might help, or maybe retracing your steps might do the trick.
If it’s not something that you can fix by setting aside a little time to work on it, practice your intentional optimism. Try to look for the good in the situation, or start thinking about what you can learn from it. Start thinking positively, and remind yourself that in the grand scheme of things, this probably isn’t something that you will look back on as a major life upheaval ten years down the road. And if all else fails, do what Meredith Grey from Grey’s Anatomy (and I) do – dance it out! Friends not required, but they certainly make it better. Just get those endorphins flowing.
9. Make realistic goals, then work towards them.
Now that we have you dreaming up what the future might bring, it’s time to get to work on making sure it happens! If you want to be a singer, a dancer, or a baker, you need to start acting like one. Don’t have an ounce of experience? That’s totally fine – everyone needs to start somewhere! Make a decision today to start taking small steps towards your future, and turn your dreams into goals.
But don’t try to get too far, too soon. Set realistic goals that are achievable. Try thinking in timelines of three days, or two weeks, and then ease yourself in. Let’s say you want to be a baker but have never entered a kitchen before. Maybe as your first step you could think about what you would like to bake, and learn about the different equipment and ingredients that will be required. As your next step, perhaps you could buy a cookbook, or maybe take a casual community cooking class. These are small steps, and most anyone can achieve them! Don’t set your expectations too high at first, since at the outset it will be more about starting a good habit and building a rhythm rather than reaching your end goals.
10. Leave room for error.
Perfectionism is something I sometimes struggle with, which you would never guess by looking at my house. Being a perfectionist doesn’t necessarily mean that everything you do or have is “perfect”, it just means that it bothers you when you don’t think that things are.
Leave your perfectionism at the door, and allow your plans to go sideways a little. It’s okay if you don’t meet the goals you set for each day, as long as you feel that overall, you continue to make progress towards achieving them. Each day is new, so don’t worry if you only got sixty percent of those steps in on Tuesday. Let life’s cards fall on the table, and just enjoy each moment for what it is worth. Sometimes, eating that extra slice of pie, or going to the movies with friends instead of doing homework is just so worth it.
So, now you know my secret to practicing optimism – it’s certainly not something I was “born with”, it’s not a spell that I chant as I stir eyes of newt into a boiling cauldron, and it’s not a magic button I press to make my troubles go away. It’s an arsenal of intentional practices that I have to remind myself to use daily. Many times, I’ll forget to use them, or perhaps they won’t work when I’m in one of what I like to call my “famous funks”.
But I promise you that if you practice intentional optimism on a daily basis, after a short while, you will start to see results in your own life. You’ll start to wonder, “hmm, is the sun a bit brighter today? Or perhaps my coffee was a bit stronger than usual?”. Nope – it’s just that you are starting to see your life through a different colored lens!
Do you have any intentional optimism practices of your own that I didn’t mention here? I would love if you shared them!