The Original Phoenix wrote a wonderful post recently called 4 Ways Positive Thinking Helps Me that got my wheels turning, particularly since she mentioned some articles that were critical of positive thinking. I had seen some similar anti-optimism articles circulating lately and have been wanting to address both sides of the coin. When I worked as a suicide prevention instructor, I had given a lot of thought to when and in what ways optimism is helpful and when it is not so helpful. I decided to compile a little guideline to optimism from what I had learned through work and also through personal research.
1.Do practice gratitude.
Studies have shown that practicing gratitude has a very positive effect on mental health along with tons of other benefits. I like to think of what I am grateful for when I wake up in the morning. It puts my stresses in perspective.
2. Don’t ignore your own feelings.
In America where I live, there can be this kind of expectation of optimism that sometimes makes it hard to NOT look on the bright side. Think about it: what’s the standard answer to the question, “How are you?” Do people really want to hear any answer other than “good?” But denying our own feelings isn’t helpful. We can be honest with our own feelings and still hope for a positive outcome in difficult times.
3. Do find the silver lining.
When bad things happen to us, it’s very easy to focus on what else could go wrong. I am guilty of this as well. While being prepared for the worst isn’t a bad thing, I do like to take a moment to ask myself, “what could go right?” What opportunities could come from a bad situation? What can be learned? How can this experience lead to growth?
4. Don’t be blindly optimistic when the consequences are high.
There are many times when it pays to be optimistic. When the consequences of failure are high, it doesn’t pay to be optimistic.* In other words, go into that job interview optimistic; what’s the worst that can happen? But don’t start up that full passenger jet plane with the check engine light on and hope for the best. Blind optimism in risky situations is not a good thing.
5. Do make optimism intentional.
It’s easy to fall into a rut of our traditional thinking and forget to be optimistic; I’ve certainly been there. That’s why I try to make time for optimism. Optimism can help with ability to cope with stress, our social support, our health, our career, our longevity, and more* so there are a number of reasons why it pays to be a little optimistic besides just “feeling good.”
6. Don’t forget to wallow now and again.
Is there anything more cathartic than a good cry? When I was little and I would cry, my mom would read me the Owl at Home story about “Tearwater Tea.” Owl wants to make his favorite tea, so he thinks of sad things like broken chairs and forgotten spoons until he has filled up a teapot with his tears. As silly as it is, it’s a reminder that a good cry once in a while is important. Just make sure that wallowing is a place you visit on occasion, and not a place you live full-time.
7. Do defend your own personal boundaries.
Don’t let others tell you how you should or shouldn’t feel. You are feeling miserable today? Feel miserable. Feeling optimistic? Feel optimistic. Exploring our own emotions is a very personal journey and shouldn’t be invalidated by others. It’s okay to feel what you need to feel. Even this post; if you’re not feeling it today, it’s okay to say, “no thanks” and come back to it another time.
8. Don’t force optimism on others.
On the flip side, it isn’t helpful to force our feelings on others when they come to us for help. Truly listening involves accepting how someone else is feeling with no strings attatched. I have found that when we listen in a non-directive way, it is easier for people to talk through their own feelings and to find a solution that works best for them. Often this process leaves people feeling much more optimistic in the end than if we try to force them to feel how we feel about a situation.
I hope this has been a helpful guide to optimism. And speaking of gratitude, thanks to The Original Phoenix for the inspiration. Be sure to check out her blog for posts about mental health, college life, and the power of human potential.
Source: Positive Psychology: Theory, Research and Applications, by Kate Hefferon and Ilona Boniwell