Apparently, at some point in my life, I “learned” that it’s safer to expect things to turn out badly. Then you’re always either right or pleasantly surprised, right?
Well, yes, but that’s a bit limiting. The thing is, if you believe you can do something, you’re more likely to try it, more likely to stick with it, and thus more likely to actually do it. You miss out by expecting the worst, and it feels pretty crappy.
Your perceptions color your experience of life. This is true for everyone, and there’s no getting around it. Perceptions are subjective—they’re based on your interpretations of each situation you encounter. The great thing about that is it means you can change them.
Start thinking like an optimist
The biggest difference between optimists and pessimists is that optimists assume good things are permanent and pervade every area of their lives, but assume bad things are temporary and isolated to their limited context.
For example, say I try to call a friend but can’t get through and don’t get a call back. If I’m an optimist, I’ll assume that the friend will call back eventually, it’s nothing personal, and all of my other friendships are still readily available. In contrast, if I’m a pessimist, I might start freaking out that the friendship is over, in fact my whole social life is headed down the toilet, and it’s all because I’m fundamentally flawed, so nobody likes me.
It’s the flip side for positive events. Let’s say I write an article and submit it to a magazine I’d really like to see it published in, and then it gets accepted. If I’m an optimist, I will explain it as being a good writer and having a lot of success in life as a whole, whereas if I’m a pessimist, I’m more likely to say it was a fluke, or I just got lucky this time.
It seems pretty obvious that the optimistic approach will lead to more positive feelings. But is it foolish to think that way?
I say no. For most situations in life, you’ll never know the real explanation. Did that guy on the freeway cut you off because he thinks you’re a loser, because he just had a fight with his wife, or because he’s in a huge hurry to get to the restroom? Unless he actually hits you, chances are, you’ll never find out. So what would it hurt to assume his bad driving was due to his own issues, and you just happened to be nearby?
In reality, very little that happens is personal. People are pretty self-absorbed, and most of the time, they’re not thinking about you. If they do something thoughtless, it’s most likely just that: thoughtlessness. Even in the rare case that someone is trying to hurt you, it’s because they’re screwed up or suffering in some way—it’s still really not about you. If you take it personally, you’re making up an explanation that is not true and makes you unhappy. Not much point in that.
Any time you have a choice, choose to explain good situations to yourself as pervasive and long-term, and bad situations as temporary and isolated. Refuse to take bad things personally. Even if you don’t believe these explanations at first, just assume them for the sake of argument, and see how it works out. I’m betting you’ll like it enough to stick with it.
What’s great about pessimism
Now that you know the secret to optimism, let’s look at how to take advantage of the best pessimism has to offer, too. It would be tempting to assume that, since optimism makes you feel good, pessimism is bad, so we should avoid it, but that’s not completely true. Pessimists are good at foreseeing difficulties and potential bad outcomes. You can use this ability with optimistic thinking to make yourself even more likely to succeed. If you think of bad ways your project may turn out or things that could go wrong, use that information. Think ahead, prepare better, develop workarounds for possible problems and roadblocks. Then, if something starts to go wrong, you’ll be ready to head it off or fix it. When you do, feel free to explain it to yourself as optimistically as you want. I suggest something like “Yeah, I did it! That could have been a disaster, but I made it a success! I always succeed because I’m such an awesome pessimist!”
That ought to do the trick.
This post has everything you need to start being an optimist, but if you want more information, I recommend Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman–he’s the expert on learning to be an optimist.