How to Be Optimistic in Challenging Times

By FCPS & Fairfax County Government
April 28, 2021

There is no doubt about it, life has a way of throwing you a curveball and pushing you off balance from time to time. The whole world got one this past year and we are still trying to find a way to get our balance back. With the constant news cycles focusing on illness, death, social unrest and political drama, we are exposed to persistently negative messaging. On an individual level, everyone’s lives have changed dramatically and caused significant hardships and heartbreak for many.

Why is it that when faced with substantial life stressors some people seem to easily find the silver lining and bounce back? Scientists know that these people have a natural tendency towards optimism. Optimism serves as a good predictor for recovery from illness, increases work motivation and performance, improves relationships and promotes resilience. So, what is optimism and how can I get some?

Optimism relates to our thoughts and perceptions about the world. It is having hope and anticipation of, even expecting, positive things in the future. Now, optimism is different from simple positive thinking where one purely dreams or wishes for something. It is not magical thinking or a mere fantasy. It would be foolish to think that we will never be disappointed or discouraged, but optimistic people have a mindset that these events won’t last forever; rather, they are viewed as a temporary setback, and this motivates them to take constructive action.

Some people seem hard-wired to view the world in this way. So, what about the rest of us? Are we doomed to a half-empty version of life? Martin Seligman, Ph.D. found in his research that people can adopt simple strategies and actually learn to be optimistic. Learned Optimism helps people to master their thoughts by recognizing and controlling their negative judgements. We have a choice in how we view the world around us and how we respond to adverse events. Learned Optimism recognizes that we have a choice in our perceptions and have control over parts of our lives.  

Seligman encourages us to think about how we interpret events in our daily life. What kind of story do you tell yourself? When someone speeds past you on the road and then abruptly cuts in front of you, do you tell yourself “everyone in this area is arrogant and always trying to be first!” or maybe instead “wow, that guy is in a hurry, maybe his wife is in labor.” This is our “explanatory style.” There are three important elements here: permanence, pervasiveness and whether it’s personal. Seligman explains that the defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time (permanence), will undermine everything they do (pervasiveness), and are their own fault (personal). Optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case and are not because of personal failings.

Albert Ellis similarly utilized a technique in his model of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. His ABC method guides individuals in reframing challenging events. When people experience Adversity or an activating event, they automatically assign meaning to it. Their Beliefs about this event then determines their response and drives the Consequences. Like Seligman, Ellis found that people can intervene in their own negative thoughts and behavior patterns. By reexamining the initial event, challenging their unhelpful beliefs and replacing them with more optimistic thoughts, people can then choose adaptive responses.  

Here are some activities to try to help build optimism:

  1. When you are confronted with a challenge or defeat, reflect on the story you are telling yourself. Recognize and challenge negative self-talk.
  2. Replace these negative thoughts by reassigning: permanence (this is temporary), pervasiveness (it is not a reflection on everything you do) and whether it’s personal (not all your fault).
  3. Remember previous successes or take examples from favorite books, shows or positive role models.
  4. Engage in problem-solving that focuses on positive next steps.
  5. Shifting our thoughts and focus can be powerful mood changers. Make note of positive experiences during your day (for example...someone smiles at you, gives you a compliment, lets you go first, enjoy the sound of birds singing or the smell/taste of your morning coffee).
  6. Rather than focusing on negative events, create a daily practice of listing at least three things you are either thankful for or good things that happened that day. Say them out loud at dinner time or before bed.
  7. Find ways to help others: volunteer, send a kind note, make a donation or open a door for a stranger.

By cultivating a positive perspective, and choosing a more joyful outlook on life, we have the power to improve our overall life experience.

If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental health challenge or crisis, text HOME to 741741 to reach a crisis counselor, call 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or call 911.

The Healthy Minds Blog shares information related to youth mental health and wellness for an audience of parent, educators and community-based providers. Articles include tips and strategies for increasing wellness and resiliency, as well as fostering success at home, at school and in the community.

The Healthy Minds Blog is a collaborative project between Fairfax County Public Schools and the Prevention Unit of the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services. It is part of the Healthy Minds Fairfax (see below) initiative, designed to support emotional wellness in youth and families.

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