The Optimism Challenge, Continued

More Thoughts for Positive Living

Posted Aug 18, 2017

Since I suggested this challenge and received a few comments, I want to clarify what I mean by optimism and make some more suggestions going forward. Thanks to everyone who has undertaken this journey and made suggestions, either online or face-to-face. I think these clarifications will help make this a richer experience for all of us while steering clear of some of the pitfalls of positive thinking.

Deposit Photos
Source: Deposit Photos

First, optimism does not mean denying empirical reality or creating “alternative facts” (in Conway-speak). Having a positive frame of mind does not mean that I am entitled to say that climate change is not real or that racism is not really a problem. I can still accept scientific and social scientific conclusions, remaining within the “reality-based community.” Optimistic or positive thinking requires me to claim the power that I do have, to use my voice to advocate for positive change in the world. Optimism requires that I step up to the plate and swing at the ball with all of my might, even if I swing and miss. If I see a problem in the world that is causing me pain and hurting those I love, I must take action, even if it seems inadequate. Doing something is almost always better than being a passive observer.

Second, sometimes optimism requires changing tactics. Suppose an optimistic stockbroker were to always buy and never sell, believing that whatever goes down must go up. This stockbroker would soon be pretty broke! If something isn’t working for me, in any area of life, I have to recognize that and change tactics. Life is something of a grand experiment, taking place on different scales--personal, interpersonal, national, and geopolitical. We have to try different solutions to the problems that we encounter until something actually works. We have a great deal of intuition about when something is working and when it isn’t. That feeling that happens when an approach “clicks” is really wonderful, whether you call it “flow” or “optimization” or some other buzzword. We know when things work as they should.

Another thought that occurred to me is that optimism requires a daily recharge. Everyone has a different neurological and biological set point: some people are just not going to come across as being overjoyed at being alive. We can easily slide back into a glum mood at the slightest provocation. That’s why meditation and mindfulness are so useful: we have to develop little rituals for ourselves to get back on the right track. I have suggested morning, midday, and evening as good times to do this, but really there is never a wrong time to purposefully uplift our spirits. Sometimes this might mean tearing ourselves away from social media to find a few quiet moments of reflection. The noise factor tremendously mitigates our ability to find a calm center.

I have to ask myself repeatedly, “Who do I really want to be?” I really have a choice, each and every day. I can sit and feel sorry for myself, believing myself to be a victim of circumstance, or I can claim my agency and freedom. Claiming my freedom simultaneously entails accepting responsibility for everything that happens in my world. I have to honestly reckon with the problems that arise, asking myself if I have really done everything that I might have done to avoid adverse conditions. Some pain will inevitably come with this decision to accept responsibility: instead of blaming someone else for my problems, I now have to recognize myself as the author of my own destiny. This burden is nonetheless much lighter than the weight that I would have to carry if I were to go down the path of self-pity and resignation.

Gratitude naturally goes along with the process of trying to be more optimistic. As I look on life in a more positive light, my problems fall into proper perspective. Those of us who have the free time to be writing and reading blog posts on our advanced technological devices are already among the most privileged people to ever walk the face of the planet. If we are not dying of starvation and disease, if we have sufficient food and clothing, if we have a roof over our heads, we should go through life feeling grateful and trying to make the world better for others. The little annoyances that so often consume our mental outlook are just that—annoyances. Once we stop making mountains out of molehills, life progresses much more smoothly. Our mental space is free to find solutions instead of dwelling on problems. We become more free and spontaneous.

I hope these suggestions help you as you continue with this challenge. If you are just joining us, please read the previous posts, and let everyone know how you are doing in the comments. Let us know if you have sensed a shift taking place in your life as you have consciously begun to change your frame of mind. Please share, even if you feel like your victories have been small. We all need some small wins in order to get to the big wins. Thanks so much to all of you, and here’s looking forward to more of the good things in life!