Over the last several weeks, all of us have experienced major life changes. The needed response to the spread of COVID-19 virus has uprooted your daily routine, pushed you to become more isolated, and likely impacted your work and financial situation. You may be speculating about ways this may permanently impact your life moving forward. Understandably, this would lead all of us to feel stressed, anxious, and worried. Given so much change happening so fast, can you still find ways to be optimistic?
The answer is a resounding YES! Not only can you be optimistic, it’s important for your mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
First, let’s talk about what optimistic thinking means. Optimism means you acknowledge many outcomes to a challenging situation, not just the positive ones. Optimism doesn’t mean you deny negative thinking. It does mean that you allow for the possibility of something good. Think of optimism as thinking accurately, not just positively.
The fact is, negative things happen in your life. It’s important to acknowledge them. Feelings of fear, anger, stress, anxiety, sadness are all common and normal emotions. Pessimistic thinking says, “This is going to be a disaster. There is no way I will recover.” However, optimistic thinking says, “There will be some tough times ahead, but there is still a lot I don’t know about what the future holds”.
See the difference? Optimistic thinking at least acknowledges the chance of some good outcomes. Optimism gives you options, which makes it possible to find solutions.
Seeing all possibilities helps you feel hope, even when you experience fear and anxiety. This is crucial! Pessimistic thinking, on the other hand, leads to feeling hopeless. It’s much more difficult to find solutions if you’re only thinking about the negative outcomes. You are more likely to give in and give up.
Optimistic or accurate thinking has other benefits as well. Research shows that optimism leads to increased confidence, resilience in the face of adversity, more autonomy, greater sense of well-being and even faster recovery from health problems. Those that don’t practice optimism are more likely to complain of physical ailments as well as experience higher levels of anxiety.
So how can you develop habits of optimism? Start with the following five steps:
- Consider multiple possibilities. You do not have to ignore less favorable outcomes, just don’t ignore the favorable ones either. Don’t confuse pessimism with realistic thinking. If you’re only thinking of one outcome then you’re not being realistic. Instead, you’re limiting your options. Try to think of silver linings that could come from the challenge as well. What potential good can come during or after this experience?
- Challenge your thinking and revise if necessary. Pay attention to how you are defining the problem and what it means to you. Are your thoughts accurate? If you make a mistake and tell yourself “I am stupid” – that’s a lie! Mistakes are not a sign of your intelligence. If a thought is not accurate, revise it right then and there. “I may have made a stupid mistake, but I am not stupid”. This revision leaves open the opportunity to learn from the mistake instead of defining yourself by it.
- Identify polarizing thoughts and eliminate them. This happens when you think in extremes, using words like “always” and “never” which push you towards pessimism. These thoughts are rarely true and make it difficult to find solutions to problems. Remember, optimistic thinking is accurate thinking. Try to think of exceptions to polarizing thoughts. For example, if you are thinking “we will never recover economically”, ask yourself if that’s the only accurate outcome. Has our society recovered from past economic challenges? Yes – The Great Depression, for example. Once you see exceptions exist, it’s easier to consider more hopeful outcomes.
- Eliminate catastrophic thinking. This type of thinking happens when you focus on the worst-case scenario. It’s inaccurate because you can’t predict the future. It’s one thing to worry something may happen, it’s another thing to expect it. This robs you of hope. Ask yourself if those predictions are realistic. For example, in a severe weather situation you might think “this is it, I’m going to die in a tornado!”. Consider the statistics – what is the likelihood this will happen? A quick internet search shows it is very unlikely. Optimistic thinking recognizes the possibility but emphasizes a likely result.
- Think of possible solutions. Once you’re open to multiple outcomes and not constrained by polarizing or catastrophic thinking, you can build hope by brainstorming solutions. How can I address this partially or fully? What steps can I take to address the problem? How will doing this make my situation better in the short-term and long-term?
Right now, we are all feeling significant challenges from the COVID-19 outbreak. It is normal to be feeling significant fear and stress, among other things. We are feeling worried about our health, the health of our loved ones, and the impact this will have on our finances and the economy as a whole. While there’s much we can’t control about this, we can control our thinking. Developing habits of optimistic thinking helps you find hope and solutions in the face of significant challenges. For a deeper dive, I highly recommend “Learned Optimism: How to Change your Mind and Your Life” by Martin Seligman.