Everybody hates Ned Flanders. He’s the irritatingly perfect neighbor nobody needs. And yet, it looks like the Ned Flanders of this world are doing great. Your annoyingly optimistic friends are probably making more money, enjoying better relationships, and living longer than you are. There’s some good news though. You can learn how to be more optimistic as well.
Are You Wired for Pessimism?
There is some research backing up my claim. Experiments in the 60s – conducted using methods that every sensible person would deem today at least questionable – led us to think of helplessness as a learned attitude (at least partially). Psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier gathered some dogs and divided them into three groups. Dogs in group one were lucky, and they were not administered any kind of shock. Dogs in group two did get electrical shocks, but they could stop them by pushing their noses on a panel. Finally, dogs in group three were given shocks without any way out. Then, dogs were one by one placed in a box with two chambers. They just needed to jump over a barrier to avoid the shocks. Dogs in the first two groups quickly realized what they had to do. Dogs in group three did not even try. Life had been harsh to them, and they concluded that there was just nothing they could do.
As I’m writing this, I’m just feeling bad for the dogs. But there is a lesson to be learned here. The single most-telling hallmark of these “pessimistic” dogs is that they concluded that bad events are unchangeable. Life gives you shocks, and you can’t avoid them. Even when, in fact, you can. Pessimistic people tend to do something similar. They look at setbacks in their life and think that they are permanent, that there’s nothing they can do to help themselves out of their misery. This leads us to the most straightforward answer on how to be more optimistic.
Argue Against Yourself
Recognize what you’re telling to yourself. Your somewhat clumsy answer to a message from someone you like doesn’t mean that the conversation is doomed and that it’ll inevitably turn into shit. Think about what you did get right up to that point. Recognize how catastrophic what you’re saying to yourself really is, and then argue realistically against it.
This doesn’t imply by any means that you should unrealistically talk yourself out of dire circumstances. Maybe no amount of optimistic thinking can help you right now. And that’s fine – because the dark night you’re in is a message to change your life.
Change Your Perspective
When you feel naturally attracted to the most catastrophic interpretation, imagine the best possible outcome too. This time you’re not arguing realistically against yourself. Let’s say you’re applying for a new job and that some of the answers you gave on your interview were not well-thought. Maybe they revealed some of your weaknesses. Your first thought may be: I’ll never find a job, I’m just a mess. As a counterbalance, imagine getting that job right away, maybe even tomorrow. Between these two poles, you’ll find a more realistic interpretation. Maybe your interview didn’t go great, but they’ll give you a second chance. Or maybe you’ll need to send a few more CVs before landing your dream job. While not as pleasant as the most optimistic scenario, you’ll get a far better outlook than the one with which you started.
These exercises can turn even the worst pessimism into something much more manageable. You need some hope in your life. While detaching through meditation helps manage anxiety, sometimes you need to acknowledge that much of our mental life is about the future. I can’t just accept fate as it is. I need to know that I can go on and do something good in the future. If you’re feeling the same way, here’s some motivational music to start your day with a more optimistic perspective.