It’s been a real eye-opener for me as well.
Call me a pessimist, but I underestimated at first just how deeply optimism affects our emotional health, but physical health as well. Optimists, it seems, live better AND longer lives than pessimists – one study found that even after controlling for age, body mass, and health behaviors like smoking, drinking, and diet, optimism reduced risk of death from all major causes by 30%.
We pessimists tend to look down on optimists as the impractical ones. But even true blue skeptics like me cannot ignore optimism’s practical benefits.
Last week, we talked through some ideas for weakening pessimistic beliefs. This week, we go on the flip side to look at three practical methods of strengthening optimistic beliefs.
These are adapted from Glenn Schiraldi’s excellent resource: The Resilience Workbook. A great read, if you’re interested.
Method #1: Take the Optimists’ Inventory
Loss and conflict are inevitable in this life. As “realists,” you and I can acknowledge the pain and changes such events will inevitably cause.
But optimists look at such things differently. While pessimists wander hopelessly through the foreground of dark clouds, optimists are already busy exploring the background, where the silver lining is, where the hidden benefits may be revealed.
A good first step is to take inventory of what has survived the conflict or loss.1 This is what an optimist does automatically after any storm in life – he or she immediately looks around to see what’s left to work with.
Have you ever lost something that meant a lot to you? I think we all have.
Last week I mentioned that I walked away from a job that had meant a great deal to me. That loss affected me much more deeply than I admitted to anyone at the time. And I didn’t have great optimistic skills to get me through.
But what I could do was take inventory of all the positives that the loss would bring. Schiraldi calls this the “At least” exercise. Here’s what it looked like for me:
- At least I can spend more time with my family.
- At least I can regain a better work-life balance.
- At least I won’t be working long hours and destroying my health.
- At least I have retained many former work colleagues as good friends.
- At least I can be happy in my friends’ continued success.
- At least this gives me time to look for the next opportunity.
Method #2: Optimism Drills
Soldiers, firefighters, police officers, and first-responders are well-versed in this method already.
They know that before you go into a crisis, you practice what to do.
You anticipate what will happen and how you will respond.
Schiraldi calls this “self-instruction training.”2 I think of it as an optimism drill.
Think about a difficult thing that could happen in the future: facing some sort of threat, loss, or failure. Now think about what optimistic thoughts you could use before, during, and after the event.
I’ve adapted some of Schiraldi’s examples below:
- This is going to be rough on me and those I care about. But I will choose to hope for the best than assume the worst.
- Rather than believing this situation will be permanent, pervasive, and personal, I will choose to believe that it is temporary, specific, and non-personal.
- I will view this as a challenge to become stronger.
- I will keep my goals for getting through as realistic – but as positive – as I can.
- This is rough. But I am hoping for the best.
- This is temporary. It will pass.
- This is specific. It does not have to affect my whole life.
- I am not personally responsible for all bad things that happen to me. I will focus on what I personally can control.
- Keeping calm and steady will help me solve this.
- While there may not be inherent meaning to every tragedy, I can find my own meaning for it.
- I can use this to make me stronger.
After (if there was a good outcome)
- I did a good job.
- My personal strengths and skills helped me get through a difficult situation.
- This success story will give me the confidence to get through the next difficult situation.
After (if there was a bad outcome)
- Shake it off. Tomorrow is another day.
- This situation has shown me areas where I can improve my personal strengths and skills.
- What can I learn from this experience?
- I will not blame myself for things beyond my control.
- Nothing I do can diminish my worth as a human being. I still have the same value as I did before.
Method #3: Looking to the Future
A common area for conflict and loss is relationships.
I have never been divorced myself, although I learned the pain of divorce in my childhood home. As a young adult, I also had my share of breakups.
My story is no different than others in this way – many of us have felt the desolation of a broken heart.
That pain can make us feel as though our world has ended. I remember crying for months after certain breakups. Like many young adults — many older ones, too — I had no idea how to deal with the agony of loss.
What I have learned since is to consider loss in light of two things: first, what it says about my personal values, and second, the new opportunities that may come as a result.3
Some consider grief to reflect weakness, but actually the opposite is true.
Disrupting only the small, superficial streams in one’s emotional landscape is barely noticeable; we hardly bat an eye when it happens.
Blocking a deeply running river is an altogether different matter. It strains and tears at every sinew and causes almost unbearable pain.
This illustrates how a deep loss can help clarify who we are and what is important to us. The pain is a direct reflection of the value we placed in what was lost.
This is definitely true for me: the need for connection and intimacy is deeply entrenched in my personal value system. This says something good about me, that my broken past has not killed my desire to give and receive love.
What opportunities can come with loss? For me, that early heartbreak helped me learn what I wanted, but also what I didn’t want, in a life partner. So I was able to re-evaluate what I was looking for in relationships. It gave me time and space for other pursuits and friendships. Likewise, those who lose partners through divorce or death may find new opportunities for reflection and personal growth.
After losing love, no one believes they will find it again. But many do, and eventually I did.
Several years – and relationships – later, I met a very cool, handsome guy in graduate school. Oleg had a great sense of humor and smarts coming out of both ears, which I found (and still find) incredibly attractive.
But he had something more: a quiet grace that drew me like a moth to a flame. I fell in love with him almost instantly and we were married within a year of our first meeting.
Our first daughter looks like Oleg’s side of the family with her dark, curly hair and hazel eyes. Our second daughter looks like me with her blue eyes and copper-red hair. I’m profoundly grateful that both girls inherited three things from Oleg: his gorgeous smile, his long eyelashes (much nicer than my stubby ones), and the same grace.
Blocking a deeply flowing river often leads to many new tributaries.
The tributaries cannot flow in the same riverbed; they must find new ground.
But they will flow. That is their nature.
Conclusion & Action Steps
If this post has been helpful to you, PLEASE share it. Doing so is more helpful than you know.
Christian minister and author John Piper wrote:
“…We should all fortify ourselves against the dark hours of depression by cultivating a deep distrust of the certainties of despair. Despair is relentless in the certainties of its pessimism. But we have seen again and again, from our own experience and others’, that absolute statements of hopelessness that we make in the dark are notoriously unreliable. Our dark certainties are not sureties.”4
1 Schiraldi, G. R. (2017). The Resilience Workbook. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. p.127.
2 Schiraldi, G. R. (2017). The Resilience Workbook. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. p.128.
3 Leahy, R. L. (2017). Cognitive therapy techniques: A practitioner’s guide. Guilford Publications. 359.
4 Piper, J. (2006). When the Darkness Will Not Lift: Doing What We Can While We Wait for God–And Joy. Crossway.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. Her latest book, Leaving the Shadowland of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, was published in 2020.
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.