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Optimism: Why it’s helpful to hope

Optimism can feel hard sometimes. It’s normal to struggle to see what good can come out of something difficult. But, optimism is a strategy that can help you to see a way forward more clearly.

What is optimism?

Optimism is a way of thinking about events that happen in our lives. In Positive Psychotherapy, authors Tayyab Rashid and Martin P. Seligman (2018) define optimists as having the following traits.

  • Optimists attribute setbacks to external factors more than blaming themselves. They understand the role the economy, political landscape, or bad luck might play in a setback.

  • Optimists relate setbacks to specific events in their life, instead of all events in their life. They see setbacks as a specific event, not a reflection of past mistakes or struggles, or who they are as a person.

  • Optimists perceive setbacks as temporary, not permanent. They understand new opportunities will arise. When one door closes, another door opens.

Optimism inspires action

Optimism helps to protect against despair and hopelessness.

It encourages you to imagine a different future and take important steps towards new opportunities or solutions, instead of feeling stuck.

How to cultivate optimism

Here are some strategies to help you develop optimism during difficult times.

1. Acknowledge your feelings

If you want to develop optimism, the first step is to know having difficult emotions is normal.

Feeling sad, angry, upset, or any other challenging emotions, is a perfectly normal response to a crisis. It’s important to acknowledge your feelings – a process called validation.

Validation is about making space to acknowledge your thoughts, feelings, and urges without jumping in to judge them, push them away, change them, or act on them immediately. And, importantly, showing yourself some understanding for having these emotions.

Once you’ve validated your feelings, then go on to the following steps. While it may be tempting, or a habit, don’t skip the validation phase. It really helps to acknowledge and process emotions before going into what else might help.

2. Get specific

An enemy of optimism is generalisation. Sweeping statements, such as “the world is falling apart” or “everything is going to pieces” often trigger feelings of hopelessness.

Instead, try to get specific. Relate the crisis to a specific event, instead of “everything going wrong”.

Specific here may mean “due to the global situation, I fear for my job”, or “my child is really worried,” or “my partner and I have been arguing a lot”.

3. Attribute responsibility

Here, it might help to draw a pie-chart and draw up the different things causing the current problem.

This can help to put things in perspective, localise the problem, and realise and focus more on what is in your power to change.

4. Focus on what you can control

Optimism is far better for your mental wellbeing when it’s grounded in reality (Rashid and Seligman, 2018). Being optimistic is not about staying positive no matter what. It’s about identifying what’s within your control and looking for realistic solutions.

A pessimist might focus on everything that cannot be changed. An optimist will look at what’s possible and focus their efforts on moving forward.

Focus your energy on what you can control and change. A Worry Map can help you identify what’s within your control so you can create a plan of action.

5. Avoid cliches

Cliches such as “always look on the bright side” or “everything happens for a reason” are well-intentioned but can be unhelpful. You’re more likely to feel a true sense of optimism if you can brainstorm specific, concrete opportunities and solutions (Rashid and Seligman, 2018).

6. Reflect on times when something good came from something hard

Think of other times when something bad has happened and see if you can identify something good that came out of that experience.

Contrary to point 5, one cliche that’s useful for optimism is “when one door closes, another door opens” (Rashid & Seligman, 2018). It’s a reminder that crises – even catastrophic ones – are temporary.

If you’re struggling to think of examples from your own life, ask your friends and family if they can share stories and examples.

Looking for glimmers of hope isn’t about underestimating a crisis or setback, or dismissing it’s very real consequences. It’s about cultivating optimism so that you acknowledge the door that may be closing, while looking for the doors that might be opening. Then take steps – no matter how small – towards solutions.