To Hell With Pessimism! Here Are 8 Ways To Cultivate Optimism In Life
Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.
— William James
Evolution has primed us for pessimism. Always anticipating the worst-case before it happened is what allowed our ancestors to survive. If you didn’t constantly worry that you wouldn’t have enough food, you probably wouldn’t have enough food. And if you didn’t see potential threats in every shadow, at some point something would jump from one of those shadows to gobble you up.
It was a brutal world. Here’s a scientifically accurate artist’s depiction.
But we no longer live in that world. Even with pandemics, terrorism, drug cartels, and all the other dangers that abound, we are remarkably safe. Especially if we’re fortunate enough to live in a Western-style free(ish)-market democracy. Here, our lifestyle choices are far more likely to do us in than any external threat.
That knee-jerk tendency to anticipate the worst — let’s call it the pessimist instinct — may have served us then, but it is now maladaptive. The explosion of anxiety disorders in the modern world even as we’ve grown safer is, I think, one evidence of this. Another may be the increased prevalence of assorted hysterical apocalypticisms, such as those related to the environment, Covid, the economy, and so on. (Serious concerns and debate about an issue are legitimate. Hysterical apocalypticism — as History conclusively demonstrates — is not).
So, to maximize our success in this world we need to deliberately and consciously cultivate pessimism’s opposite: Optimism.
While pessimists may roll their eyes at optimists, thinking they are naïve, it’s quite the reverse. Optimists choose their interpretation of reality, based on values. Pessimists interpret reality based on primitive perception-distorting instincts that are now disadvantageous.
Pessimism is backward.
Optimism is evolved.
So don’t be a damn dirty pessimistic ape.
Be a damn fine optimist instead. Here are some ways to begin cultivating your optimism.
1. Embrace Gratitude
Be grateful for what you have, for all the opportunities and freedom you enjoy, for your talents, for your health, the experiences you’ve had, for the lessons you’ve learned (including the hard ones), for the fabulous people in your life.
While you’re at it, be grateful that you’re alive at all. It’s a rare feat to have lived, and rarer still to continue doing so once having been alive. The odds against both are astronomical.
It’s now pretty well established that people who regularly feel and express gratitude tend to be happier, less anxiety-prone, and more effective than those who don’t. They tend to be nicer, more tolerant, and more generous people too, in my experience. There’s a reason “ingrate” is a pejorative.
So take some time every day to think of something or a few somethings for which you’re grateful.
If you keep a journal, write out a gratitude statement each morning or evening. “Today I’m grateful for . . .”
They don’t have to be huge things. Every day little bits of light shine on us. The barista who gave you a free croissant. The adorable play of puppies in the park. The beauty of leaves turning colors in the Fall. The cool new song you discovered. The cute guy who smiled at you. The nice ass on the cute guy who smiled at you.
Reasons for gratitude abound.
2. Turn Off The News
I know I’m beating a dead horse with this one, but . . .
News Flash! The News is bad for you. It’s also not news and hasn’t been for some time. It’s mostly ideology-distorted propaganda and sensationalism.
You know this.
Manipulation and profit are the goals of mainstream news. Not a better-informed population.
You know this, too.
News is designed to trigger the most primitive parts of your brain with fight or flight, rage, and fear. Rage and fear are kryptonite to optimism, which means the news is too.
Does anyone ever think, “Boy oh boy do I feel like watching something inspiring and uplifting news. Howsabout some news?”
Plus, you have 0% influence of 99.99999% of everything you consume in the news, anyway. I think that’s why most self-styled news junkies I encounter aren’t more effective at living productive, meaningful lives. They’re just more effective at being miserable and, of late, mean-spirited.
So to grow more optimistic (and effective), avoid the so-called news. Or at least significantly reduce your consumption of it.
3. Learn The Facts
Speaking of the news, here’s something that it never tells you: The world is getting better and better. There’s a mountain of data spanning decades (and longer) showing marked positive indicators for everything from human life-expectancy, to education, to violence and war, to caloric intake, to human rights, to income and standard of living and, yes, even to the environment.
Darker facts — like mortality and violence spikes during Covid — can give us a distorted picture of reality when not viewed through a wider historical lens.
So do a little digging into the facts. Here’s a short video from Reason.com with some encouraging data.
If you want to dig deeper into encouraging data, check out these books:
Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know: And Many Others You Will Find Interesting, by Ronald Bailey and Marian L. Tupy.
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, by Hans Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund.
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker.
The truth is out there. And there’s a lot to be optimistic about.
Note: I get a small affiliate commission if you use the above links. =)
4. Laugh More
Gaddamn, so many people have become such humorless prudes over the last few years. Recently, Dave Chappelle was taking heat for being “offensive.” As a GenXer he’s having none of that shit.
As another GenXer I say, good for him.
Outside of the free speech issue (which is hugely important to me, and ought to be for everyone, but not the topic at hand), we need to be able to laugh at the serious stuff.
Especially the serious stuff.
The big, challenging, confusing, messy, sometimes-enraging, sometimes-frightening issues of modern life.
Humor is a healthy and indispensable coping mechanism. It lightens our burden. The laughter it evokes releases stress. Good comedy brings us together by helping us take ourselves a little less seriously. Well-crafted punchlines play to the ridiculous, point out our absurdity, and shine lights on the awkward aspects of the human experience that we sometimes try to avoid, or that make us uncomfortable (Jokes often work precisely by exploiting and prolonging discomfort).
Laughter is good medicine. Physically, mentally, emotionally, and even socially (Humorless ideologues make piss-poor friends, neighbors, and citizens).
So look for the humor, both in the world’s foibles and in your own. We are silly little geese sometimes. Especially in how we take ourselves ever-so-seriously.
Watch more comedies, more stand-up (Good stand-up. Not boring ideology in faux comedy drag stand-up). More funny cartoons, too. And some Three Stooges, while you’re at it. Oh! And I Love Lucy. She’s the funniest of all. Timeless.
5. Visualize Successful Outcomes
Since we so often default to imagining catastrophic outcomes, we need to practice deliberately displacing them by visualizing positive outcomes.
First, whenever you catch yourself starting down the doomsday road of imagining all that could go wrong, stop and replace it with a positive alternative vision. Fantasize about everything going smoothly and without a hitch. See yourself handling whatever challenges you are currently facing, with the cool grace and power of a Shaolin monk.
Second, don’t just wait for catastrophic thinking before visualizing success. Make it a daily discipline. Create a visualization routine where you imagine success with an important major goal you’re currently working on, or where you imagine living your ideal life.
When visualizing, try to evoke positive emotions. Feel excited, confident, secure, grateful . . . whatever positive emotions you might feel were the visualization a reality.
Consistently feed your mind with these positive emotion-infused visions of success, and greater optimism will follow.
6. Welcome Setbacks
A friend recently said he was wrestling with a number of options for a goal, and couldn’t figure out which to choose because he didn’t want, “the rug pulled out” from under him.
I told him this was wrong thinking. While it’s important to weigh options and make the best choice you can, we need to undertake our goals with the expectation that the rug WILL be pulled out from under us. Inevitably. Probably many times.
It’s part of the game.
The only way to avoid rug-pulls is to not play at all. Which is what most people do and why they live lives beneath their full potential.
So anticipate, even welcome, setbacks as inevitable steps on the path to success. All that matters is that you commit now to getting back up each time that rug is pulled out from under you. Over and over again, as many times as it takes.
That was my advice to him, and it’s my advice to you.
When you undertake your goals (and life generally) with this a priori assumption that setbacks are inevitable, they stop being antagonists to optimism. Instead, get rolled up within your optimism.
As in: Here’s my ideal path to success. It’s smooth and easy. But, if it doesn’t go quite so easy, that’s okay too. It’s just a different route to the same successful outcome.
7. Mind Your Language
Become more conscientious about your word choices. The language you use reinforces the beliefs you hold, and the beliefs you hold influence how you experience life. How you experience life, in turn, influences the language you choose to describe your life.
The easiest part of this cycle to consciously control is your language. And you can create a virtuous cycle, if you choose positive, affirming, optimistic language.
Conversely, it can be a depressing cycle if your language is negative, defeatist, and pessimistic.
Start by purging “I can’t,” from your vocabulary, entirely.
Notice too when you frame things in negative terms. I struggle with “I’m worried.” As in, “I’m worried about the state of the country.” Or, “I’m worried about my back getting worse.” These are little more than negative affirmations. So I’m working to replace the word “worried” with “concerned.” Concern doesn’t have the same dark emotional gravity to it. It allows more room for me to think optimistically.
So, be mindful with your language and look for your own go-to words or phrases of pessimism and negativity. Begin replacing them with superior words. Ones that, if not entirely positive, at least make room for the positive.
8. Use Loving Kindness Meditation/Prayer
Much of our pessimism comes from our view of other people, individually but especially collectively. Reinforced by the news and social media, backwards and harmful political tribalism is on the rise. Demonizing those who disagree is increasingly, disturbingly, common. Tolerance is out, ideological puritanism is in. And if you don’t agree with me on that, you are literally HITLER!!!
Try to see individuals as individuals, rather than as mere group identities. Even when they trumpet those group identities and seem to have little else (pity them).
And when looking at the individual, try to remember that they — like you — are a complex, imperfect being.
Also, strive to see that they aren’t finished yet. People change. People evolve. I sure have, thank God. Haven’t you?
This is an ongoing work for me — and maybe always will be. I have far more hatred in my heart than I’d like (I’d like to have NONE). One method I’ve been using the last year or so is a slightly modified version of Buddhism’s loving-kindness meditation. Though for me it’s half-mediation half-prayer.
Here’s how it works . . .
First I focus on myself because if I can’t have loving-kindness towards myself, I can’t have it towards others. The meditation takes the form of an affirmative prayer thus:
“I am well, I am peaceful, I am happy.”
Or I may expand it to: “I am well, I am peaceful, I am happy, I am loved [or “safe,” or “free.”].
Then I extend it to people I know or random people I pass while taking a walk, “May he be well, peaceful, happy, and free.”
Or I may start thinking of some group that I dislike and pray, “May each of them be well, peaceful, happy and loved.”
Finally, I may extend the meditation-prayer geographically, starting with myself and visualizing an expanding circle of loving-kindness emanating outwards . . .
First to surround my city, then my state, then the country, the continent, the hemisphere, the world, all the way to the entire universe, ending with: “May all sentient beings everywhere be well, peaceful, happy, and loved.”
This practice helps soften my feelings towards my, and others. It makes room for a more generous and therefore optimistic worldview.
Try it and see if it helps do the same with you.
Cultivating an optimistic worldview may not be easy, but few worthwhile endeavors are. And it is a profoundly worthwhile endeavor because it will make you happier. More, in being happier, you’ll become more successful. In being more successful, you’ll have a greater range for being a positive force in the world. In being a more positive force in the world, you’ll be more of an inspiration and cause for optimism in others.
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