Over the past two years we have lived through a global trauma. We’re exhausted from dealing with fear, hopelessness, anxiety, demoralization, burnout and depression. But, there are some people who are able to remain optimistic because they use a set of skills that can help.
Let’s start with some good news: Anyone can learn optimism because it’s a skill, not a talent, which means it can be learned and refined. By studying and modeling people who consistently maintain optimism through difficult times, you can add these skills to your healthy coping mechanisms toolbox.
You’ve probably read elsewhere about how powerful gratitude is. You may already keep a gratitude journal, and that’s a wonderful first step, but are you really maximizing what you can get from practicing gratitude?
In my coaching conversations, many people share what they are grateful for and follow it with a giant “but.” If you say “I’m grateful for my family, but… ” you’ve dismissed the gratitude and prevent yourself from feeling grateful in the moment. “But” has a specific purpose in our language: It negates everything that came before it. If you want to use gratitude to shift your mindset and become more optimistic, you must live in gratitude, not just talk or journal about it.
In moments when things look bleak, pause to notice anything you can feel grateful for and focus on it intentionally. With a little practice, this becomes a habit. Test it out the next time you’re having a conversation that takes a negative turn. In the middle of talking about all the things going wrong, stop yourself and insert a few comments about what’s going great. In fact, this is the appropriate time to use “but” because you can negate all the negative stuff you just said: “This is bad, and this is bad, but, I have a wonderful family that I love and who loves me. We will get through this together. I’m so grateful to have such wonderful people in my life.”
You have the opportunity in that moment to break the negative cycle and feel gratitude instead. Pay attention to how your breathing and posture change when you pause to feel grateful in the moment. Experience the shift through your whole body and embrace it. This technique will train your mind and body to interrupt pessimism with gratitude, and it will get easier the more you do it.
If you’ve been gratitude journaling every morning or night, try adding this throughout the day. If you haven’t kept a gratitude journal before, or if journaling isn’t your thing, take this technique for a test drive. It’s a great way to shift your mindset with minimal effort, and your optimism muscle will grow stronger every day.
Positive future pacing works by imagining your future exactly how you want it to be. This technique is effective because it can train your mind to rewire anxious thoughts into positive ones. The future hasn’t happened yet, which means every thought you have about the future is created entirely by your imagination. Your imagination is within your control, so you can teach yourself to focus on the positive future you want instead of dwelling on pessimistic what-if scenarios.
So many people get caught up worrying about what might happen, and this creates an unwanted pattern of negative thoughts and expectations.
- Has there ever been a time when you expected the worst and it didn’t happen?
- Have you ever expected the best and that didn’t happen either?
Of course. Now think about both times and consider how much calmer and happier you felt when you expected the best outcome instead of the worst. You can’t predict the future, so you might as well focus your energy on what you want to happen. This will help you maintain a more optimistic mindset over time. As an added bonus, when you focus on what you want, it’s easier to find it. The subconscious mind is designed to identify important information and recognize resources and opportunities to help you get what you want.
To future pace effectively, think clearly about what you want and exactly how it will look, sound and feel when you get it. Try this: Tonight, when you’re laying in bed, imagine the details of how you want tomorrow to go. Create a movie in your mind and watch the day unfold exactly how you want. Imagine waking up feeling energetic and happy. Picture yourself getting out of bed at exactly the right time and feeling rejuvenated. Watch yourself move through your day with positive feelings and succeeding at everything you do. Run through conversations you will have and how well they will go. Make it a movie of your perfect day.
If things don’t go your way, how would you prefer to respond in that moment? You can future pace the way you handle rejection and disappointment using the same exact skill. Let’s say you’re waiting to hear about a job you want. First, future pace the way you want it to go and imagine getting the job and feeling excited, motivated, accomplished, happy and so on. If you still feel the need to shore up any residual what if I don’t get it thoughts, you can future pace how you will react in that scenario. You can imagine yourself feeling calm, centered and positive because another opportunity will present itself and you will be ready for it. You can also imagine learning from the experience and using it to propel you into the future you want.
Practicing positive future pacing trains your brain to focus on what you want, which makes it easier to achieve and gives your mind something to look forward to. This skill helps you create a habit of positive subconscious mental expectancy, and it’s a powerful way to develop optimism.
Remember, the future lives in your imagination. Do you really want to feel anxious and uncomfortable leading up to an event, especially if it’s weeks or months away? Or would you rather feel optimistic about it and enjoy your life in all the space between now and then? The time will pass either way, the difference is how you get to experience it. You get to choose.
Most articles like this one make optimism seem outrageously easy, as if the writer is a positive feelings guru who never has a bad day. That’s a fantasy. Everyone has bad days and that won’t change even after making a habit of these practices. The difference is that you learn how to shift your mindset in those negative moments. Learning these tools can change your life only if you consistently practice them. Optimism is a skill.
Plan for how you will use these tools. Set reminders to practice gratitude throughout your day and to positively future pace regularly. If you commit to being more optimistic, you will be. It’s a choice you get to make over and over for the rest of your life because you’re a human being with free will—embrace it. The future is coming no matter what, but how you prepare for it, and how you feel along the way, is up to you.
Photo by @limf/Twenty20