Last Christmas I went home to see my parents for about a week. I see them only once or twice a year, and then only a week or two at most. When we actually see each other in person, deep conversations come out that never happen over the phone.
This time, my dad and I were on the golf course that was wet and green with misty Oregon rain. He was playing and I was his caddy. We were talking about my life and path (a parent’s favorite subject), and I was starting to get frustrated, as I often did when talking to him about this. It had always felt like whatever I say will be judged rather than supported by my parents. But what my dad said to me then was completely unexpected: “I believe you will be successful if you return to being your old self.” What might that be, exactly? I didn’t know what he meant. Then he said, “You used to be such an optimistic child. Once you find that again, everything will be fine.”
I was taken aback. It just didn’t seem fair: Of course I was optimistic as a child–very little children don’t have enough terrible life experiences to dampen their enthusiasm! It wasn’t because I’m a negative person that I’d carelessly lost my good attitude, but that my experiences have naturally shaped my perspective. Through ups and downs, and being burned by certain circumstances and not-so-great people, I’d lost that feeling of safety and trust that I’d had in abundance as a child. But what he said really stuck with me. Subconsciously I began making changes in my thought patterns to become more optimistic. This is probably the most important aspect of my growth in 2015.
When my anxieties and sad imaginings started creeping in, I channeled them into creative outlets instead. When people didn’t believe in me, I let them go despite the good memories and the warmth I still feel–it just wasn’t worth letting their opinions drive down my self-esteem. I believed in my own goal-setting and execution. And remember this yoga for solar plexus post and power-bringing solar chakra recipe? I was all about empowerment, at first willfully, and then more organically.
And after a year of trying to becoming more optimistic, I have to say it has made me feel so much better–not because suddenly everything has been “solved,” but because I’ve replaced a lot of my chronic anxiety with calm optimism. I have vastly reduced the amount of time I feel worried about the future (ie. curled into a tight ball in bed), and vastly increased the amount of time planning, executing, and feeling excited for the future. And just for that alone, I think my optimism project has been a great success. Just imagine if I didn’t have someone close who cares enough about me to point out, “Look you, you used to look at things on the bright side. Now you tend to think the worst of your circumstances. Fix that!” All I can say is, sometimes it takes someone else to say to you what’s impossible to see about yourself.
The great news is that optimism is considered the easiest personality trait to consciously cultivate. Here are some ideas to train yourself to become more optimistic. These might seem forced at the beginning, but as you go on it’ll feel more natural. Since we’re nearing the end of the year, how about making this your new project for next year? (Early New Year’s resolution?)
1. Keep a “Best Possible Selves Diary”: According to Stanford psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, writing down your ideal future makes you feel more optimistic and happier. This is one of the most scientifically supported exercises in positive psychology, so go ahead and give it a try. Take a few minutes (each day or each week) to visualize and write down the best possible scenario of your life. This isn’t about writing down unlikely fantasies, but making realistic though uplifting projections. Give some details to really flesh out your dream. For instance, this year I added to my list of dreams that I’d like to live somewhere where I can see the Eiffel Tower. I’d never have thought of that in 2014!
2. Do something that’s profoundly satisfying for you: And by this, I don’t just mean soothing and relaxing activities like watching Netflix while painting your nails. What activity makes you feel accomplished, self-confident, and fulfilled? What makes you feel, “Wow, I’m really good at this / this makes me feel energized and invigorated about life”? (See how this doesn’t apply to passive things like Netflix or social media or even listening to music and just chilling out?) Usually that means some level of challenge is involved–but that’s what’s going to make you feel a bit stronger about yourself every day.
3. Optimism isn’t just thinking, it’s acting: According to Suzanne Segerstrom, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky, simply thinking positively doesn’t make you an optimist–instead, “it’s even better to cultivate optimistic behavior—engagement and persistence toward one’s goals.” So while it’s a great first step to be meditating on new mantras and bathing in fairy dust, make sure you actually *do* things that show you believe in yourself. Don’t simply believe you’re going to make it–make sure you put yourself out there! (I know I know, take a right on Optimism, follow your Heart and go straight to Hard Work–seems to always come back to that).
Would you like to take your own optimism challenge? Let me know!
Related: How to Become More Optimistic
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Photo: Peter Bui via Flickr