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Practicing Optimism Can Improve Your Mental Health

You don’t have to be born optimistic; you can practice hopeful thinking.

Ian Taylor on Unsplash
Source: Ian Taylor on Unsplash

It’s a brand new year, and I’ve heard many people say they feel cautiously optimistic about the future. After a year like 2020, people are clinging to any ray of hope they can find.

While it can feel good to have a positive attitude about the prospects of a fresh start, it can also feel scary. Maybe you’re hoping to find a new job or grow professionally. Or maybe you were hoping to meet someone special this year. Initially, it’s exciting to look forward, to plan, and to dream. However, when things don’t come as soon as we think or hope they might, the excitement and hope can quickly turn to fear, doubt, and pessimism. It can be hard to sustain a genuinely optimistic perspective when life is so full of uncertainty.

I am often asked why being optimistic is important. Many of those same individuals tell me that being optimistic only leads to disappointment when good things don’t come to fruition. They say that it’s emotionally harder to deal with the outcome if they have been hopeful and optimistic beforehand. After all, if you don’t expect good things to happen, you won’t be nearly as disappointed when they don’t. I understand what they are saying because disappointment can be painful. Regardless, optimism is important to mental health.

First, let’s clear up a common misunderstanding about what optimism means. According to Oxford Languages, optimism is defined as “hopefulness and confidence about the future, or about the successful outcome of something.“ This does not mean that we can’t still have questions or doubts. Also, it does not mean that we feel certain that everything will be OK. I like to differentiate between superficial optimism and genuine optimism.

Superficial optimism is convincing ourselves that things will turn out the way that we hope. We may believe we need to do this to protect ourselves from having to deal with doubts. We may also feel pressure from others to be hopeful during uncertain circumstances. But this kind of optimism doesn’t last, and it can leave us feeling empty during difficult times.

Genuine optimism, on the other hand, means understanding why we feel hopeful. We may feel hopeful about the future because we remember that we have gotten through some tough times in the past. Others in our lives who love and support us may contribute to our feelings of genuine optimism. They believe in us and know that we are strong. They offer us support and compassion. Additionally, genuine optimism stems from our awareness of the resources that we possess to get us through hard times. For instance, we may recognize that we are creative or a good problem solver. Therefore, we know that we have some skills that will help us reach our goals. Basically, we are not expected to be optimistic for no reason at all. We draw from our experiences, our relationships, and our personal strengths and skills to build a hopeful and positive attitude about our future.

Sometimes, though, even when we know we have support and we know that we have gotten through hard times in the past, the future can feel daunting. We may wait for months to find a new job, to work out financial struggles, or to resolve conflict in a relationship. It begins to feel like the bright future that we hoped for will not be a reality. During uniquely challenging times, we must target specific aspects of our lives, rather than focusing on an overwhelming big picture. Perhaps we are struggling in some aspects of life, but we can recognize small victories and areas of growth or resilience. Below are a few ways to do this.

  1. Make a list of different categories of life, such as physical health, social support, work/career, finances, leisure, special skills and talents. Can you identify areas where life is going well, or even relatively better?
  2. If you have trouble with the first task, ask someone you trust to help you. Maybe they notice areas of your life that are going well or particular strengths that you have. Hearing validation from someone who cares about you can lead to positive feelings.
  3. Identify a specific step or milestone that would increase your hopefulness. For instance, if you’re in the midst of a job search, while the end goal might be getting a new position, smaller wins like getting an interview are reasons to be optimistic as well.
  4. Practice being hopeful. Think of some reasons to be hopeful throughout the week. You might not think of something new each day, but if you are paying attention to what’s going on around you, you may find hope in unexpected places.
  5. Spend time with people who are genuinely optimistic. Talking to others who have remained optimistic in the face of hard times can be inspiring.

Mental health is positively affected by an optimistic worldview. Optimism increases motivation, reduces persistent feelings of depression, reduces anxiety, and improves overall quality of life. But the feelings have to come from a genuine belief that there is reason to hope.

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