Choosing Optimism

Each day we are faced with hundreds of choices from the moment we wake up.  Some of the most important choices we make each day reflect our attitudes towards ourselves, others, and life in general. 

We can choose to look at things optimistically or pessimistically.  We can choose to be helpful or adversarial in our interactions with others.  We can choose to be kind or critical towards ourselves and others.  We have ultimate control over our attitudes and our reactions in any given moment.

The choices we make determine how our world is reflected back to us and ultimately shape our future.  Consider the mood you woke up in today.  Were you joyful and excited for the possibilities of your day?  If you were positive and happy, your day more than likely continued on an uphill trajectory.  On the other hand, if you woke up feeling anxious or depressed, my guess is that you had a less than stellar day. 

One of my favorite things to ask people is "What's the very best thing that happened to you today?"  You would be surprised at the answers I get.  The pessimist finds it nearly impossible to come up with an answer to this question.  They typically expect their day to be stressful and unsatisfying.  They're usually right because this is the reality they are creating for themselves.

The optimist, however, might go on a detailed tangent about their interaction with a barista or co-worker.  They light up when reliving the good aspects of their day.  Their expectations are vastly different from those of the pessimist.  They expect good things to happen and, you guessed it, they're usually right.  Again, their attitudes and expectations create the reality they experience.  There's a great quote by Henry Ford that says, "Whether you think can or you think you can't, you're right."  It's really all in your attitudes and beliefs.  Change those two things and your entire life can shift in incredibly positive ways.

I recently read a fantastic book by Martin Seligman entitled "Learned Optimism."  For those of you unfamiliar with his work, Martin Seligman is one of the pioneers in the positive psychology movement.  For years, psychology was focused on more on understanding what was "wrong" with people and focused on diagnosing and understanding various disorders.  With the inception of positive psychology, the perception shifted to focusing on people's strengths and the notion that things like joy and optimism could be cultivated.  

A key point in the book focused on the three P's relating to people's explanatory styles.  The three P's are permanence, pervasiveness and personalization.  Optimists view setbacks as temporary, while pessimists view setbacks as permanent.  Pessimists view challenges as all encompassing events in their lives, while optimists look at difficulties as singular incidents that can be overcome.  Optimists tend to not take negative events personally, while pessimists believe that they either contributed to or are responsible for the negative event. 

The irony is that when good things happen, both the optimist and pessimist have a completely opposite reaction.  The optimist believes that when something good happens in their life (say a promotion for example) it's something that will continue to happen, that it's just one of many good things that will happen in their life, and that they are responsible for this achievement.  The pessimist, on the other hand, believes that the promotion is just a fluke, probably resulting from some grave error on the part of the powers that be, and ultimately doesn't believe they played any part in the good event happening.

Optimism and pessimism really boil down to choice -- a choice in the attitude you choose to adopt. The fantastic thing about choice is that you have hundreds of opportunities each day to make new choices.   If you find that one of your choices produces an undesirable result, you can always make another choice, and another choice, and so on.  You literally create your own reality based on the decisions that you make from moment to moment.  One of the most beneficial choices that you can make based on these studies is to learn to cultivate an attitude of optimism.  You will not only lead a more happy and peaceful daily existence, but your future will be impacted in countless positive ways as well.