The other night, I was having dinner with my sister and brother-in-law. They’d just returned from a two-week-long vacation in Seoul, Shanghai, and South China Sea. My sister, as usual, was the one telling most of the story. And though she had nice things to say about the trip, I couldn’t help but notice that she also had a lot of strongly negative opinions, from the wrong kind of music blasting at their resort, to difference in smoking culture (basically, a lot of it everywhere, indoors and outdoors). My happy-go-lucky brother-in-law was resigned and also not understanding why she couldn’t just focus on the positive parts of the experience (unbelievable cuisine, kindness of strangers, exotic landscape).
Between the two of them, I could completely relate to my sister–it’s not for nothing that you are family. Maybe it’s genetic disposition, maybe it’s our shared upbringing, but we are two peas in a pod when it comes to *noticing things* very keenly and intensely. An unpleasant comment or incident that might not even be picked up by some more chill person can rattle us pretty deeply. While we are not unfairly judgmental, and often genuinely complimentary toward others, we definitely dwell (let’s say obsess) on negative experiences more than we should.
The problem is, this doesn’t just stop with our assessment of past experience. This tendency also unconsciously affects our assessment of present and future. As human beings, no matter how rational we think we are, most of the time we are functioning from guesses, rather than logic. And these guesses are based mostly on our past experiences (or more precisely, how we view those experiences). Learning from past experience is indispensable and saves us time, but it also can unfairly color our expectations of the future.
For example, let’s say you were between jobs and looking for your next opportunity. Consciously or subconsciously, you look back on your past job search and how that uncertainty was so painful and anxiety-inducing; and that might lead you to assume that this job search is going to suck just as much, or maybe even ultimately fail–despite the fact that logically, you have succeeded in a job search before and that should statistically give you more confidence. The more you are conditioned to reflect on your past negatively, the more you transfer those assumptions into the future, so you think more pessimistically than you even realize.
Optimism doesn’t just make your life a little rosier–it also bears significant tangible benefits. More optimistic entrepreneurs get more investment funding for their businesses; optimistic students end up performing better academically in college even when they have struggled at first. Fortunately, optimism is not so much a trait some lucky people have and others can’t have, but something you can strengthen with practice and awareness. Here is how to become more optimistic.
1. Identify what is causing your anxiety / pessimism about the future.
Let’s say you were about to go on a first date. Instead of feeling excited, you feel anxious, wondering if this will also not be a great date. You begin having thoughts like, “Why do I even bother going on these? These dates never turn out great, and even if I have a good time, chances are he won’t even ask me out again and I’ll be disappointed.” How much of it is caused legitimately by your current date? And how much of it is leftover from past love interests who, after all, were completely different individuals than this one right here? Would it be fair if your date was having doubts about you, because of his own past bad dating experiences? (Uh, no). The more you understand where your fear comes from, the more you will be able to de-bunk any unfair assumptions.
2. Re-write your past experience narrative.
As a creative exercise, try writing your most “honest” life story. At the end, give yourself an ending that predicts your future. Depending on your tendency toward pessimism, this story might come out sounding pretty negative. Then, write another version of your life story, this time in the most positive light possible. Give yourself an ending to that story, too. Compare the two stories and you might be surprised by what a huge difference there is in both past experience, and future predictions. Choose the story with the ending you prefer–and stick to telling yourself that story, over and over again.
3. Be inspired by optimistic people.
Sometimes the best thing to do to stay positive is to absorb and learn from naturally optimistic people. I’m constantly inspired by optimistic people and how they are able to see the brightness, rather than anxiety, in uncertainty. You could even ask them what makes them feel so confident and optimistic about the future. They might say things like, “When I see obstacles, I know that they are temporary, and that I’ve overcome similar obstacles in the past. It might be painful now, but I know it won’t last forever.” Hearing these perspectives may help you apply them toward your own life.
4. Keep visual reminders.
Collect whatever it is that keeps you inspired and optimistic. A vision board filled with favorite words, photos, and mementos is a great option. Try pinning inspirational quotes on Pinterest, or keeping your Peaceful Dumpling newsletters in a folder so you can go back and read them whenever you need that extra rush. 🙂 Not a visual learner? You might try inspirational audio books, or those favorite songs that make you feel that the future is bright.
How optimistic are you? What makes you feel more confident about the future?
Photo: Kainet via Flickr