How do you view the difficult events that show up in your life, or happen in the world around you? I'm open about the fact that I was very depressed during my residency, and even before that, it often seemed that life's events were relentlessly unfair. Yet something has happened to me over the last few years, perhaps as a result of the extraordinarily positive experience of finding my right place in the world. Somehow, I've become an incurable optimist.
Living in Mexico for several years played a big role in this. It's a very spiritual and optimistic place, despite the hardships faced by so many. I constantly heard the phrase: "por algo pasan las cosas" - "everything happens for a reason". Good or bad, it's all good. They see all life events as divinely ordained, no matter how difficult or painful they may appear on the surface.
I recently read an interview (on www.eqtoday.com, unfortunately it no longer seems to be available) with the father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, which made me feel very happy about having switched teams to join the optimists. When Seligman, a staggeringly prolific researcher, was asked to describe the one piece of information that he'd like every person to know, this is what he said:
"If you are a pessimist in the sense that when bad things happen you think they are going to last forever and undermine everything you do, then you are about eight times as likely to get depressed, you are less likely to succeed at work, your personal relationships are more likely to break up, and you are likely to have a shorter and more illness-filled life. That's the main discovery I associate with my lifetime."
This would be awful news if there was no way out of being pessimistic, but Seligman himself claims that he's a "born pessimist". Much of his work focuses on learned optimism, and the first thing his optimism programs teach is to recognize the catastrophic things that we say to ourselves when things go wrong.
Pessimists think that they (or their usual bad luck) are responsible for the bad things that happen to them. They think that one bad thing happening means that more are on the way. Optimists, in contrast, see negative events as being external and unrelated to them, isolated negative incidents that have no relationship to other aspects of their lives, or things that might happen in the future. I choose to see negative events as surprise circumstances that always, in retrospect, arrive with a gift hidden inside.
You can decide which attitude to have - who would you rather be?
Today, I thoroughly enjoy living with the attitude that "things will always work out". Whenever something challenging comes along, that's what I say. And if I forget, my Mexican husband reminds me. I may feel sorry for myself for a little while, but eventually I pull up my socks and start to look for the gift in the experience. I do what I need to deal with the situation, but trust that as a rule, things will work out well. And they always do, in some way - if I remember to look for it.
How optimistic are you when you talk to other people about their lives? There's a fine line between optimism and false hope, but based on the research that I've seen, I think we'd do well to encourage everyone around us to be optimistic, too. Especially when people are sick: research has shown that optimistic breast cancer patients have better outcomes than pessimistic patients, and a longitudinal study in Harvard students found that optimists were significantly healthier than pessimists throughout life.
Focus on your strengths, focus on your successes, and focus on all that's good about life. Even if you never have before, you can start right now. We have so much to be optimistic about - regardless of what's going on in the world right now, if you have access to the internet you have a better standard of living than millions of others out there. Be grateful for what you have, and know that all things work together for good, if you choose to see life's events from that perspective. It really is a choice.