If life could be graded, Anthony would give his an F. His work has been really stressful lately, his closest colleague has just left the company, he was transferred to another department, and he hates himself for the extra 50 pounds he’s carrying.
Anthony feels hopeless and his life seems depressing and dark. Every setback reinforces his feelings of pessimism and grim certainty that nothing ever gets better.
Barbara has many of the same struggles: her husband just lost his job, seven months after the birth of their first child. In addition to her full-time work responsibilities, she is responsible for her elderly mother, who is becomingly increasingly frail. To make things worse, her company has just announced a restructuring that may result in Barbara’s staff being halved. Despite all this, Barbara gives her life a strong B+ and knows there are some A+ days ahead.
Unlike Anthony, Barbara sees her setbacks as temporary obstacles to be overcome. To her, crises are part of life, opportunities for her to gain in wisdom and courage.
Put simply, some people are optimists and others are pessimists. However, optimism isn’t an accident—it’s a skill that can be learned, one that can help us feel better and greatly improve our lives.
Martin Seligman, psychologist and clinical researcher, has spent 25 years studying optimism and pessimism. In his bestselling book, How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, he states that pessimistic thinking can undermine not just our behavior but our success in all areas of our lives.
“Pessimism is escapable,” he writes. “Pessimists can learn to be optimists.”
Optimism is not just a feel-good strategy. When we focus our attention on our innate character strengths (wisdom, courage, compassion) and all we have, rather than our perceived failures and what we don’t have, we boost not only our moods, but our immune system and success levels as well. Research has shown that optimistic people tend to be healthier and experience more success in life.
To alter our lives—and the challenges we face—we must first recognize what we say to ourselves when we experience a setback. By breaking what Seligman calls the “I give up” pattern of thinking and changing our interior negative dialogue, we can encourage optimism.
Practicing “spiritual optimism” is another way to improve the quality of our lives. Joan Borysenko, author of Fire in the Soul: A New Psychology of Spiritual Optimism, suggests that we remember that it takes courage to live, and that we can find that courage by facing our fears, finding support and using prayer or meditation. Again, it’s not really our lives that depress us but our thinking about our lives.
So unless Anthony can begin to change his thinking, his life may not change. Barbara, however, likely will graduate to even more satisfying and fulfilling years ahead because she believes her life is filled with challenges and opportunities.