The Power of Optimistic Action
Behaving optimistically makes things better even when we feel bad.
Posted February 20, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
I signed on lines marked by yellow-sticky arrows while the loan officer described the fine print. It took about 15 minutes. I was 25 and had just purchased my first home.
In the parking lot, one arm dangling out the window of my green Mazda, I called my parents on the flip phone.
“Great,” Dad said. "Here's your mother."
“Pretty exciting,” said Mom.
“You’d better hang on to that job of yours now. You’ve got a house payment to make.”
She knew I’d been unhappy in my public relations position and that I wanted to go out on my own and work as a full-time writer. What she didn’t know was that I had already resigned from my public relations position.
I had no savings. No other income. No clients. I’d done a lot of work to prepare. I knew some of what I was up against, but knowledge wouldn’t pay the bills. This isn’t an endorsement of that decision.
But I believed I would succeed and that optimistic outlook made the difference.
We all fall on the spectrum somewhere between optimism and pessimism, and surprisingly, research shows most of us tend to lean a little more toward the positive side of things. I do.
But that doesn’t mean I’m blissfully happy, or even cheery. Plenty of negative thoughts keep me awake at night. Those things motivate me too because, like most optimists, I believe my efforts can make a positive impact.
Optimism, you see, isn’t only about attitude, it’s also about our behavior. I can feel negative about my health and still go to the gym to exercise because as an optimist I believe my actions can improve things. If I work out, I’ll get healthier. Then, I'll feel better. By choosing optimistic actions, I create better outcomes that lead to better feelings, resulting in the creation of more things to feel good about.
Optimists, according to researchers, tend to do the things they need to do to reach their goals because, notably, they believe it will make a positive difference. They believe their efforts matter, so they get off the couch and get moving. They engage with the world.
These kinds of action-oriented approaches may also help optimists live longer, according to research.
Optimists often eat healthier, stop smoking more frequently, exercise more often, and manage stress in a way that doesn’t decimate their nervous systems or immune function.
Optimism was the only edge I had when starting my writing business. Though my stomach ached with anxiety at times and I was filled with self-doubt, I kept at it. I worked long hours, studied, practiced, hustled. I took small jobs nobody wanted. I did the dreaded cold calls. I diversified, writing newspaper articles and brochure copy and corporate newsletter articles. I made a lot of mistakes. Big stupid ones. But I learned. Adapted. Kept going. Believing that my persistence would pay off.
But the myth that you must always be cheery and happy to be optimistic gives optimism a bad look, because who can do that? Hard things happen. I feel bad sometimes. Depressed even. Still, I can behave optimistically even when I’m feeling pessimistic.
I don’t worry if the glass is half full or half empty. I figure it’s refillable, and next time I'll get a margarita.
To understand optimism is a behavior and an attitude is such a relief. It means that even on my bad days, I can still persist, create, contribute, and succeed.
This requires deliberate action, though. When I fall into a rut and don’t feel like anything I do matters because the world is going to end anyhow, I remind myself of the power of optimism. Here’s how.
- Practice gratitude. This is the easiest way for me to move the optimism dial up a notch. Give thanks. For your breath, for the cat sitting on the page you are trying to read, for your shoes. It doesn’t matter. Pause. Become aware. Then list it, say it, or sing it, whatever works, just leave time each day to take in what is good.
- Adopt a growth mindset. When we can see setbacks or failures as learning opportunities rather than a reflection of our own character flaws and limitations, we feel better, sure. But it’s also motivating because we are more excited to try again, knowing that we can learn what we need to know to improve. When something isn’t working, just say, “I just haven’t figured it out… yet.”Whenever I have a proposal rejected, I do this, reminding myself, "It just isn't ready yet." Then I get busy making it better to send out again.
- Take a minute for some "best-selfies." Put down the phone, drop the camera, pick up your notepad, and turn on your imagination. I read about this practice in a study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry and have been doing it ever since. Start fantasizing about your best self. What will you and your best life look like five or ten years from now? Get specific, but stay focused on a positive future, rather than the challenges you’ve faced in the past. Take a minute to think about how healthy and energetic you are (five years out), how your book has become a bestseller and your husband is adorable and you’ve got checks worth $3,250 filling your mailbox each day and your hair is styling and your team is winning. Whatever it is, create the best possible life in your imagination and feel your optimism increase.
It’s been nearly 29 years now. And the writing gig? It’s worked out. I’ve written some books. Thousands of articles. Now, a podcast. Never missed a house payment—sold that little home years ago for something a tad bigger.
There have been setbacks, for sure. Disappointments, yep. Worries, at times. But I always believed I could find my way through. I still do today. Maybe that's why I have.