December 3, 2017

How to Cultivate real Optimism—instead of just “Thinking Positive.”

It feels like the world has gone off the rails.

We may be tempted to tune out, weep, and rage to anyone who will listen. But this is not a time to hide and “think positive,” nor is it a time to wallow in despair. It’s a time to both feel our pain and shift our consciousness.

Creative solutions become available when we shift out of the mindset that created our current problems. In this way, choosing to cultivate optimism can change the world because it opens up a new way of seeing.

Here are seven invitations into a grounded kind of optimism that doesn’t require stuffing down or bypassing our feelings:

1. Let’s first stop re-traumatizing ourselves.

No one forces us to open news websites, Facebook, and Twitter over and over again. That’s on us and our addictive brains looking for a fix. It’s like rubbernecking when we pass a car wreck. Do we really have to bog down traffic to satisfy our morbid curiosity? Let’s be deliberate about when to take in the news and for how long. When we close the computer, let’s focus on what we want to create with our lives, breathe fresh air, and connect with an actual human or a pet. We have choice here. Let’s use it.

2. Let’s shift our minds’ focus. 

We are hard-wired to remember pain and suffering more than pleasure. A gazillion times a day, our minds notice what hurts, when we feel slighted, and what went wrong. Because of this wiring, we tend to forget what went well and what we did right.

How often do we give thanks that water comes out of the tap when we turn the handle? When I was a kid visiting my family in Venezuela, we had running water in the mornings and evenings for a few hours. To have water throughout the day, we filled pots and the tub, and we boiled what we needed to drink. To this day I appreciate having hot and cold water on command. Being grateful for what’s working helps us build resilience for the harder times.

3. Let’s be more conscious about the kind of attention we’re asking for from others.

I used to think that if I didn’t share my pain we wouldn’t feel connected. There’s some truth to that, in that if we gloss over our inner world to stay “surface-safe,” we end up malnourished. But there’s real danger in bonding over our wounds. In order to continue relating to one another, we have to continue making our wounds primary in our lives. When one of us steps off that wheel toward healing, the friendship has to shift or it will end. Let’s base our friendships on more than wounding so that we can stay connected through the ups and the downs.

4. Let’s feel our feelings, then ask what desire they point us toward.

Every complaint is a veiled desire. Instead of stopping at the complaint, let’s take the extra step to ask ourselves what the desire is underneath it and move toward making that happen. I have lived with chronic pain for over eight years and used to complain about it. Once I shifted my focus to the desire underneath the pain, which was to love and respect my body as the accurate barometer that it is, I began to experience more joy, even in the midst of the pain. Finding the desire under the complaint increases our power to create fulfilling lives instead of keeping us mired in suffering.

5. Let’s choose pronoia instead of paranoia.

Pronoia is the view that life is happening for us instead of against us. Whether we believe in pronoia or paranoia, we will find evidence for the viewpoint we choose, so we might as well choose the viewpoint that supports our agency. When I’m stressing out, I’ve learned to ask, “How could this be happening for me?” Then I wait for an answer to emerge. Sometimes it feels contrived and awkward, but often I gain a useful insight into the situation that reduces my stress.

6. Let’s each figure out why we’re here.

Viktor Frankl said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.'” He survived the Holocaust by finding meaning in his experience, which gave him a reason to survive. If we focus on what gives us meaning, we have more power to survive adversity. Having a sense of purpose is also an excellent filter against which to measure our actions. We can ask ourselves, “Does what I’m about to do or say take me toward where I want to go or not?” If not, we can choose whether or not to proceed, which keeps us in the driver’s seat,

7. Let’s cultivate self-awareness.

Viktor Frankl also said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Real optimism is born out of living in alignment with our deepest selves, which is a skill we can cultivate through meditation and self-inquiry. The more people on the planet able to choose to respond to life out of creativity and clarity, the more we can innovate a sustainable world in which everyone’s basic needs are met—a world worth being optimistic about.


Author: Marie-Elizabeth Mali
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Social Editor: Yoli Ramazzina

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