Way too many people out there have this belief that optimism is synonymous with delusion and/or being unrealistic. I hear it all the time that optimists are just sunshine, rainbows, and flowers. They don’t see or acknowledge the hurt and pain that’s out there in the world. They are optimistic because their life is good. Their reality is distorted. One individual on Fox News went so far to say that optimism was at fault for why a US soldier killed 16 Afghan civilians because “soldiers are actually taught to deny stress and trauma, and false bravado is actually encouraged.”
But did you ever stop to think that maybe optimists are the realists? Maybe their life is good BECAUSE they are optimistic? The truth is that optimism and positivity wins. A mild dose of pessimism has its utility, and extremism of anything is unhealthy, but by and large, optimism wins. According to the research shared in Martin Seligman’s book on optimism, on average, optimists have better physical and mental health, and they are better achievers than pessimists. It’s just a fact.
That being said, optimism is not necessarily what you’ve been fed by other people. It’s not just turning everything negative into something positive, and nor is it something you can experience by just having a positive pep talk with yourself while standing in front of a mirror. Ultimately, the way you distinguish an optimist from a pessimist is based on how an individual explains to themselves the bad things that happen to them in their life.
Optimists vs. Pessimists:
When something bad happens, an optimist WILL feel bad. Of course they will. They’re human. It’s not just that their glass is half full. They’re not delusional. However, the difference between them and the pessimist is that the optimists’ feelings of helplessness are temporary and they are more likely to contextualize the bad event. The pessimist, on the other hand, views bad events as more permanent and a general occurrence in their life that is inevitable and unavoidable.
The pessimist is very passive and helpless. The pessimist accepts the inevitable doom of his or her life, and a bad event is just a reflection of that. The pessimist feels they cannot really do anything about the situation. The optimist is also passive and helpless, but that’s very short lived. Soon the optimist realizes that:
- The bad event is not a reflection of my life; it happened because of X, Y, and Z. Maybe I can’t do anything about this situation, but I can do A, B, and C to move forward.
- Bad things happen, and they suck, but that will not stop me from growing, getting better, and achieving my goals. Just because I feel bad about this doesn’t mean I need to feel terrible about my entire life.
- I have the power to move on and not feel terrible anymore.
On average, both the optimist and the pessimist experience the same bad events. Furthermore, they feel equally as bad when bad things happen to them. However, the difference is that soon after, the pessimist enables the helplessness whereas the optimist suppresses it. The pessimist feels a lack of control while the optimist takes control. The pessimist becomes passive while the optimist becomes active. Optimists forgive themselves and the negative events in their lives whereas pessimists hold a grudge.
When it comes to how we perceive the good things that happen to ourselves in life, we see almost the exact opposite thing happen. Optimists view the good events as more permanent and a general occurrence of their life whereas pessimists view good events as more temporary and are more likely to contextualize or think it is a fluke. An optimist takes a good event, savors it, and then is motivated to replicate the good event (they feel a sense of control). A pessimist, on the other hand, sours some of the good feelings by thinking this occurrence is not sustainable and is a result of luck or chance.
Both optimism and pessimism are habits. The good news is that optimism can be learned and pessimism can be unlearned. Again, it’s not to say that all optimism is good and all pessimism is bad (that’s a conversations for another day). Also, it doesn’t mean that optimists can’t have pessimistic moments or vice versa. A bad event is a bad event and everyone is going to feel bad about it. The difference, however, as Seligman states in his book, is that “in optimists, a failure produces only brief demoralization” (p.76). It’s short-lived. Optimists rebound faster and take control of their situation. This is why they are generally healthier, happier, and higher-achievers.
If you’re excited about Friday, something might be wrong…
Friday is great. For most of us, it’s the last day of the workweek and the beginning of the weekend where we can be relax, be lazy if we want, and actually do the things that we enjoy. We can stay at home, or we can go out. We can spend time with family and friends rather than our manager or boss. However, if we’re excited about Friday, and we spend the greater part of our week in anticipation of Friday, then do you wonder that something might be wrong?
Think about it.
We’re happy on Friday night, Saturday, and the greater part of Sunday. Sunday night comes around and we start dealing with the Sunday night blues. We’re dreading the fact that our weekend, our mini-vacation, is over. We come to the realization that we now need to start preparing for the worst part of the week – Monday. On Sunday night, we’re sad that the good part of the week is over and now the bad part of the week is about to begin. Then comes Monday and we try to survive. On Tuesday it’s a little easier to survive. On Wednesday, we’re somewhat adjusted to the week and feeling okay because it’s hump day and half the work week is over. Thursday is also okay because it’s almost Friday, but Friday needs to get here soon! On Friday, we jump for joy because it is FINALLY Friday!
Our whole work week revolves around waiting for Friday night. However, is 57-71% of our week so bad that we’re just waiting and waiting for the moment to arrive where that part of the week is over? And we expect to live 40+ years like this where from Sunday night to Thursday we’re just waiting for Friday? Here’s an excerpt from a few talks by Gary Vaynerchuk that describe the problem with Friday:
To live your life where you love Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday, and despise Monday through Thursday or Friday morning… it’s devastating to me because you’re wasting too much of your life, and I’m trying to put pressure on the conversation to say if you love Friday that much, then you really need to look at Monday through Thursday
If you start your week being sad, and it progressively gets better, you have a problem. We spend way too much time in our lives doing our jobs. When you’re spending most of your life working, it’s important that that thing is on point. It’s a math game. If you’re spending 83% of your time, 72% of your time, 64% of your time on something you hate, that’s devastating.
We basically live to work. If you’re not happy, where are you going?
Let me say this – being excited about Friday is not necessarily a bad thing. We should be excited to have more time for ourselves, our families, and our non-work related interests. However, if you’re excited about Friday, but you are dreading Monday, then THAT is a problem. If you sleep eight hours a day and work 40 hours a week, you’re spending about 36% of your waking hours at work. You can probably add in an additional 10-15% for overtime, commute, and when you’re not at work but thinking about it. That’s almost half of your waking hours every week.
We’re never going to be in a situation where we’re 100% happy or a 100% satisfied with our work life, and sometimes we might even have to do a job that we do not like. However, if you’re so eager for Friday and not about Monday, I strongly encourage you to find what you love and pursue it, or find a way to transform what you do into something you love (or at least find bearable). If you can do that now and it’s feasible, then do it. If you can’t do it now because it’s not feasible, find a way to make it feasible.
It’s easy to fall into the trap and say to yourself “I just don’t like work” or “I am in a situation where I can’t leave my work and find something else even though I dislike it,” but if you don’t make a change, you’re going to be spending almost half of your waking life for up to 40+ more years miserable and just waiting for Friday. Find a way to make it happen. Either transform your work or find better work.
Find your ideal self
In Positive Psychology, there is a concept called the “ideal self” or “best possible self” which refers to creating a picture or visualizing yourself at your best. Many research studies have found that when you visualize your ideal self, it increases your mood, increases optimism, and is associated with decreased illness.
This makes sense.
It promotes a positive mindset. Rather than worrying about the future, you focus on the potential for your future to be better than your present. Also, similar to visualizing yourself cross the finish line, it gives you a temporary boost of motivation and encourages you to work towards achieving your goals.
If you want to try the formal intervention that has been developed and validated by researchers, here is how you do it.
Best Possible Self Exercise:
- Start off by brainstorming and writing down some sentences that describe what your ideal self looks like in the future. Focus on attainable goals and try starting the sentences with “In the future, I will…” Organize your brainstorming by writing about these three domains of your life:
- Personal (how your ideal self is physically, spiritually, and psychologically)
- Professional (how your ideal self is in terms of position, accomplishments, level of expertise, occupation, skills, etc…)
- Relational (how your ideal self is in regards to relationships and contact with loved ones, friends, colleagues, etc…)
- Using what you created in number one, write a detailed and coherent personal story. It does not have to be super long, but it should be realistic and make sense.
- Perform a 5-minute imagery exercise where you imagine the story you wrote. Perform this imagery exercise once a day for as little as four days or as much as two weeks.
In this exercise, you are generally given about 20 minutes to complete steps 1 and 2. Here are some excerpts from the prompt that is given to participants:
Your best possible self means imagining yourself in a future in which everything has turned out as good as possible. You have worked hard and you have managed to realize all your life goals. You can envision it as satisfying all your life dreams and development of all your best possible potentials… think of and write down your goals, skills, and desires you would like to achieve in the far future for each of the three domains, and finally merge these into a personal story like a diary.
The problem with this exercise (and its solution):
Before I discuss the problem with this exercise, I would like to highly encourage you to give this exercise a try. You don’t have to follow all the steps, but I would recommend at least spending a few minutes to perform the imagery exercise and imagine your ideal self. Go out for a walk, put on a nice soundtrack in the background, and visualize. It’s a form of introspection and helps to put things into perspective in terms of where you are now and where you want to be in the future.
However, there is just one problem with this exercise — it gives you a high and a taste of a positive future, but it does not bring you any closer to it. Don’t get content with the momentary positive feelings it gives you. If you want my opinion, here are the three steps you should take for this exercise to be successful:
- Visualize your ideal-self
- Use the positive emotions and temporary motivation it gives you to create an action plan to achieve that ideal future
- Execute the plan