Stress affects everyone, the resilient and non-resilient alike. Being resilient does not mean that we are impervious to the stress of life; just that we have learned to process it in a way that helps us learn, grow, and become stronger afterward.
This in essence is the magic of optimism. Optimists have just as many setbacks and failures as pessimists do. They can feel just as sad and discouraged about these as anyone else. What sets optimists apart, however, is how long they stay down before getting back up.
Optimists have learned to use setbacks and failures as stepping stones for their next move.
The good news for us born pessimists is, we can learn to do this, too.
But first, a warning.
When not to use Optimism
There are some situations where optimism may not be appropriate.
Psychologist Martin Seligman says that the basic rule of thumb is the cost of failure in a particular situation.1
When the cost of failure is high, strident optimism can put ourselves and others in harm’s way.
When preparing to fly a plane in a winter storm, a pessimistic pilot might think, “Let’s not make this crazy trip at all.” This very well could be the safest course of action.
But an optimistic realist might think, “Let’s make this trip as safe as possible by de-icing the plane and double-checking all other security measures.” This at least prepares for the worst while hoping for the best.
Only an idiot would think, “Let’s just take off and see what happens.”
Optimism should not wrap itself up as glorified stupidity.
Seligman gives a few more specific examples:
- Don’t use optimism when planning for a risky and uncertain future — “Yeah, I know I’ve never done any serious mountain-climbing before, but hey, how hard could climbing Everest be?”
- Don’t use optimism – at least not initially – when counseling others who have uncertain futures. “Oh, you have terminal cancer? I’m sure everything will work out just fine.” Pessimists have their blind spots in life, but this certainly can be a blind spot for optimists. They don’t seem to know how to handle the anxiety of others and thus can come across as insensitive. The trick is to first be understanding and sensitive, to listen to others’ concerns and worries, and to acknowledge their fear. After all, being afraid in the face of danger is a perfectly normal, perfectly human, reaction. Only after you or I have done this do we have the right to try to help the other find courage and hope in their situation.
- Don’t start off with optimism when listening to others’ real troubles. They don’t need to hear anything along the lines of “Come on, it can’t be that bad.” What they need is a listening ear, a friend who understands how tough and scary their situation feels. Only after you have provided empathy and won their trust should you switch to optimism.
When to use Optimism
When should we use optimism? Seligman provides the following examples:1
- If you want to achieve an important goal in your life – a job promotion, running a marathon, breaking a sales record – aim high and use optimism.
- If you are trying to stave off the despair of clinical depression and anxiety, keep up your courage and use optimism.
- If you want to protect your physical health, keep on the sunny side of life and use optimism.
- If you want to be a leader and inspire others, shine a bright light and use optimism.
Two Ways of Dealing with Pessimistic Thoughts
Seligman and others have suggested that, once we are aware of our pessimistic thoughts, there are two ways to deal with them: 1) distraction and 2) disputation.2
Distraction means that we try to switch out of a pessimistic groove of thinking as soon we become aware of it. This can be a helpful technique for those of us prone to “rumination” – mentally spinning the same pessimistic thought over and over again in our minds as we spiral downward toward helplessness and despair. In this case, it can be helpful to use a technique that jolts us out of that downward spiral.
What distraction won’t do is prevent us from thinking the same pessimistic thoughts later on, nor will it help us shoot those thoughts down in the strong light of reality.
So we can think of distraction as an effective, short-term method to use while we learn how to use the longer-term methods of disputation.
Distracting Ourselves from Pessimism
Breaking the cycle of pessimistic thoughts sometimes requires a physical trigger.
- Snap out of it. A simple one Seligman recommends is wearing a rubber band around your wrist.3 When you find yourself ruminating on a negative thought, snap the rubber band to snap out of the thought.
- Get it out of your head. I often try to write down worrying thoughts or talk them over with someone else.3 For me, the act of writing them down seems to clear them out of my head, giving my mind permission to move on to another topic.
- Don’t engage. When a pessimistic thought has highjacked our attention, we often spend a lot of mental energy trying to fight it in some way. But trying to suppress pessimistic thoughts sometimes just makes them rebound in another place, like a mental game of “whack-a-mole.” Psychiatrist Robert Leahy suggests a counterintuitive technique to stop this from happening: just let the thought be.4 Treat it like a telemarketing call that you notice and then, because it is so inconsequential, you simply ignore. You and I have the choice to engage – or not – with any thought we think.
- Assign yourself some worry time. In the 1930s film classic Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara has a consistent, reflexive reaction to every worrying thought that crosses her mind: “I don’t want to think about that right now; I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Of course, interminably putting off problems is a bad idea. But assigning an allotted amount of “worry time”5 can also break the rumination cycle – since you or I know we will be thinking about problems at a later time point, our minds are free to disengage from the worries right now. Dr. Leahy therefore suggests assigning a specific time and place (say in my home office for 30 minutes, starting at 6:00 pm) in which to let pessimistic thoughts and worries run amok. If you or I have a worry at another time, we simply write it down so that we can deal with it during “worry time.” This mentally pushes the thought from the forefront of the mind to an unobtrusive corner. Many people wonder if this will make them worry more – but in the long run, it has been shown to help us worry less. The target here is not really pessimistic thinking itself; rather, you and I are learning that we can control when and how often we experience pessimistic thinking.
The long game here is to dispute pessimistic thinking, replacing each pessimistic thought with its optimistic and realistic counterpart.
Dr. Seligman suggests four disputation methods:6
What is the EVIDENCE behind my pessimistic thinking?
This means examining our automatic thoughts for any whiffs of unrealistic pessimism. We do not have to deny that bad things happen, but we do have to learn to judge their impact in a realistic and honest way.
This is a much better alternative than hokey “positive thoughts” like “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.”7 As a scientist trained in skeptical thinking, I literally cannot recite these kind of mantras because my mind automatically tries to poke holes in them – “Oh, really? I’m getting better in every way? How is that even possible?”
Learned optimism, on the other hand, works with my skeptical thinking instead of against it.
I can ask myself questions like:
- What exactly do I believe is happening here? Or what exactly am I predicting will happen?
- Could other cognitive distortions be contributing to my beliefs or predictions?
- What is the evidence for and against my pessimistic belief?
- Am I using all the evidence available, or am I limiting myself only to the evidence that supports my belief/prediction?
- What is the quality of my evidence? Is it so good that almost everyone would agree with me?
- How could I prove that my belief or prediction is right or wrong? Is it even testable?
- How often have I seen this situation before? Did I interpret it correctly then? Why or why not?
- How often have my beliefs or predictions been wrong?
- How could I put this problem into a realistic perspective?
What ALTERNATIVES are there to pessimistic thinking?
Both optimists and pessimists would agree that everything happens for a reason.
But as we saw last week, the reasons that they latch onto are very different: pessimists believe that bad stuff is permanent, pervasive, and personal while optimists believe that it is temporary, specific, and non-personal.
So we pessimists must learn to look for the same reasons as the optimists:8
- What reasons for a bad event were temporary and changeable? (e.g. “I got a bad grade on this test because I didn’t get enough sleep this week. I’ll do better if I get more rest.”)
- What reasons for a bad event were specific? (e.g. “I cheated on my diet because we were celebrating ______’s birthday today. I can get right back on my nutrition plan tonight.”)
- What reasons for a bad event were external and non-personal? (e.g. “She didn’t smile at me because she is worried about something. It has nothing to do with me.”)
- Is there more than one way to look at this? Would everyone see this the way that I am seeing it right now?
What are the IMPLICATIONS of my pessimistic belief?
We will sometimes find that the evidence we collect backs up our negative beliefs rather than refutes them.
This is realistic, right? Sometimes bad stuff does happen. People do get mad at each other, and sometimes we do fail at things that are important to us.
What we need to do then is ask, what are the implications of this bad event?
If I fail at one task, what does that imply? Does it mean that I am any less intelligent than I was before I failed, or any less competent?
Does failure diminish my worth as a person?
Of course not.
You and I can ask ourselves:
- What is my worst feared outcome? How likely is that to come true?
- What if my worst feared outcome comes true? What would that mean? What impact would it realistically have on my life? Why would it bother me?
- Even if my worst feared outcome happens, can something good come out of it? Could I learn something, or could it motivate me to change in some way?
- Instead of focusing on the just the bad, what good can I focus on? What are the positive goals I can work toward during this time?
What is the USEFULNESS of my pessimistic belief?
Dr. Seligman asserts that the consequences of our pessimistic beliefs sometime matter more than the belief itself.9
We pessimists often feel that we benefit from our cynical viewpoint. We think that it somehow braces us for imminent disappointment and sorrow.
But what if these things are NOT imminent? What then is the benefit of living in constant preparation for them? Isn’t this just creating a lot of unnecessary stress and strain?
We have already talked about the cost that pessimism exacts on our emotional and physical health. Is this cost worth paying, even if we are sometimes right?
Here are some terms many pessimistic individuals use regularly:
- “I am a total failure.”
- “I am a worthless human being.”
- “This situation is hopeless.”
- “My life is pointless.”
What do these terms mean to you? Would your definition be the same as mine?
A few years ago, I left a job that had meant a great deal to me: a faculty position at a university. Quitting made me feel like a real failure.
Around the same time, an older colleague whom I greatly respected also retired from his full-time teaching responsibilities. At a luncheon we were both attending, I overheard this colleague confiding to a few mutual friends, “Now that I’m semi-retired, I’m really struggling to know my purpose in life. Sometimes I feel worthless.”
When I heard him say this, my jaw literally dropped. This individual had had a several decades-long career and was still highly regarded in his department. He was still a sought-after speaker and continued to travel around the world multiple times a year to give presentations in his research field. He was hardly even slowing down.
In order to be a useful, meaningful part of language, every word we use should have a clear, universal definition that everyone agrees on and that is consistently applied to all people in all situations. In contrast, some of the terms used in depressed or anxious modes of thinking are, at the very least, unclear and inconsistent.
I emphatically disagreed with my colleague that his career was teetering on the edge of “worthlessness.”
As for myself, I had defined “failure” as walking away from one job.
But would everyone agree with this definition? Given the fact that I had accomplished several important goals while in that faculty position, and that I had had success in other areas of my life, was “failure” a realistic and fair term to use?
Instead of using such useless terms, we would be better off just trying to explain our circumstances using neutral but descriptive terms.
So instead of, “I quit my job. I’m a failure;” I could say, “I quit my job. That particular opportunity did not work out for me.”
Framing this stressful life event in these terms allowed me to perceive it realistically rather than blowing it out of proportion.
And once that door was closed, the tiny optimist in me – tenderfoot though she is – was able to looking for open windows that would open up instead.
This is the optimistic life.
Not rejecting life’s crises, but embracing them as new challenges.
Not forgetting mistakes, but making them life lessons.
Not dismissing fears, but willing a way through them.
To hope and work for the best.
To accept all outcomes as part of the path forward.
To wait and watch for the light.
- If you have found this post helpful, PLEASE share it. Thank you so much!
- If you are interested in reading more about optimism, I highly recommend The Resilience Workbook by Dr. Glenn Schiraldi and Learned Optimism by Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman. Links to these books are found below (please note that as an Amazon affiliate, I will receive a small commission if you use this link for your purchase — at no additional cost to you):
1 Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism. New York: Vintage Books. pp.208-209.
2 Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism. New York: Vintage Books. p.217.
3 Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism. New York: Vintage Books. p.218.
4 Leahy, R. (2017). Cognitive Therapy Techniques: A Practitioner’s Guide. New York: Guilford Press. pp.222-223.
5 Leahy, R. (2017). Cognitive Therapy Techniques: A Practitioner’s Guide. New York: Guilford Press. pp.273-274.
6 Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism. New York: Vintage Books. pp.220-227.
7 Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism. New York: Vintage Books. p.221.
8 Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism. New York: Vintage Books. p.222.
9 Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism. New York: Vintage Books. p.223.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.