You’ve likely heard the expression, “Is the glass half empty or half full?” This refers to being able to see stressful situations, and the world in general, in either a pessimistic or an optimistic manner.
Pessimists are those who see the glass as half empty, whereas optimists see it as half full. Pessimists tend to think more about falling short or failing in the face of challenges, while optimists see themselves as conquering those challenges—perhaps not right away, but eventually.
A huge difference between pessimists and optimists is in how they think in times of stress and adversity. When things don’t go well, pessimists tend to blame themselves and tend to see their problems as permanent.
Let’s say you have a pessimistic view. If someone breaks up with you, you might say, “No one I find attractive will ever like me back.” This implies there’s something wrong with you and that you don’t measure up. Thinking this way is likely to stress you out because it makes you feel powerless. Your defeat (in this case, not being able to find a mutually satisfying relationship) gradually becomes tied to how you view yourself, as someone who can't ever find satisfying, healthy love.
Knowing When Things Are Looking Up
Optimists, on the other hand, are hopeful. When things don’t go well, they focus on what they can do to try to make things go better the next time around. Optimists understand that they’re never really defeated because they can develop their abilities in many ways that might help them reach their goals. So, as an optimist, if someone you're into breaks up with you, you might say something like, “Yes, this hurts but I know my value and I will meet someone else who does too.”
The power of optimism is well expressed in a quotation often attributed to philosopher and psychologist William James (1842–1910): “Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.” Thinking optimistically calms down your reacting brain, and it keeps the amount of cortisol released in your body more stable. Less cortisol, as you may remember means feeling less stress, which is a good thing! Expecting good things to happen (generating positive thoughts) will influence you to feel and behave in ways that’ll help you achieve better outcomes when you face challenges.
You may think that you’re simply a natural pessimist, and optimism is something that only other people can do. Although it’s true that some people are wired to be more optimistic than others, it’s a skill that anyone can learn. Noted psychologist, Martin Seligman, showed through his research that we can learn to be more optimistic by training ourselves to do so.
Below are two optimism boosting activities (adapted here for most ages) from my book, The Stress Survival Guide for Teens, to help you practice becoming more optimistic.
Flipping to the Upside
Reflect on a current situation that you don’t believe will turn out as well as you’d like it to. What are the beliefs that go along with seeing this situation in a negative light? Take a moment to identify the feelings and bodily reactions that you’re experiencing now or that you experience whenever the situation seems the worst. Now ask yourself the following questions:
- What messages from my past or from others are leading to my pessimistic view of this situation? (Consider those stubborn, lingering soundbites floating in your mind, such as “He’s out of your league,” “There’s no way you’ll get that job,” or “Just saying—they really didn’t seem interested in what you were talking about.”)
- Why else have I been buying into the idea that things won’t go as well as I’d like them to?
- What would it actually take for this situation to go well for me?
- What unique strengths and values have I learned that I possess and that I can use to increase the chances of things turning out well?
Now you’re beginning to think about things more optimistically. Has your view of the stressful situation changed for the better? If so, take a minute to go through the same process whenever you sense that you’re being too pessimistic or your reacting brain is telling you that things are hopeless. Flipping to the upside can ease your stressed-out mind and spur you to take positive actions to get through the situation just fine.
Let’s shift now to an activity (developed by researcher Laura King and popularized by Sonja Lyubomirsky) that focuses the power of optimism by having you look at your long-term success and happiness to help you feel better now. You can use it any time you feel down about your life in general. In doing so, you’ll be training your brain to take a more optimistic view of your overall future!
Seeing Your Best Self Through Time
Close your eyes and think about your life right now. Then slowly start to fast-forward. Imagine that everything is going as well as it could be in the next few months—academically, socially, in your personal life, and in your job, if you have one. What have you accomplished, and what are you doing? Visualize your best possible life six months from now, in all that detail. Have you thought of everything? Good.
Now visualize your best possible life one year from now. You’ve worked to overcome your challenges and are making progress. You’re a year older, a year wiser, a year closer to your long-term goals.
Then imagine your best possible life five years from now. You’ve had a lot of successes. What does your family or romantic life look like, and how are you keeping your relationships strong? What exciting places is your career taking you?
In what ways are you already on the road to creating this bright future for yourself? Does focusing on a positive future help lift your mood in the present? Does reflecting on being in these great future scenarios inspire you to take any particular actions to achieve what you’re visualizing? Does focusing on a positive image of your future self help you feel less stressed?
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