“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
If there is one thing about social media that can both warm my heart and make me cringe it is the plethora of kitschy, optimistic quotes it produces, tweeted and re-tweeted, posted and shared amongst the masses. True – I love a good, heart-opening, tingle-inducing bit of wisdom. But the flood of optimism sometimes drowns the inspiration before it reaches my shores. And yet…
I continue to subscribe. Because when it comes down to it it’s who I am: a big ol’ optimist. I just can’t resist. Even when my Pages feed is in optimism overload, I can retreat, unplug, tune out, feeling grateful (even while mildly annoyed) that a community of optimism thrives just a click away and is ready to deliver as soon as I am open and ready to receive.
What is it to be an optimist? What do I take this to mean? It does not mean that harsh realities pass us by as we strut the cakewalk of life. It does not mean that every moment we feel ourselves brimming over with beauty and joy. It does not even mean hoping and expecting our challenging and distasteful circumstances to change.
“What if life was not happening to you, it was happening for you?” Anthony Robbins
To be an optimist means to accept circumstances and choose to see them as opportunities for change: opportunities to grow, to expand, to transform, and to shift. To optimize is “to make as effective, perfect, or useful as possible; to make the best of.” Being an optimist requires taking responsibility for our choices. Responsibility. We can think of this as our ability to have a response, to be accountable for and in charge of how we respond, of what we choose.
To optimize is a choice.
What happens when we choose to greet every person, situation, and circumstance in our life as an opportunity – an opportunity to refine ourselves, an opportunity to practice being conscious of the choices we are making?
We transform our reality.
Challenges, when we optimize them, become opportunities to learn, to grow, to evolve – opportunities to walk our talk, and to connect with who we really are, and what we choose to be. This is the yoga of optimism. To optimize, to make the best of, requires acceptance; it calls upon us to release our resistance to the present moment and be open to the infinity of possibilities offered to us that can inspire creative responses to challenging situations.
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Winston S. Churchill
Let’s be really clear: there is nothing FLAKEY about being an optimist (although I am learning to embrace my inner flake… she’s got it goin’ on). Sometimes optimists get this questionable rap, as though to be an optimist is uninformed and naive. But we are talking about brain science here – about as UN-flakey as one can get.
As it turns out, Optimism, along with its cousin Happiness, is a learned trait. With practice, our brains can be trained to adopt an optimistic state of mind*. And research is all over this. People who are generally optimistic have better physical health, perform better at tasks, are better able to manage their stress, and have healthier relationships. Regardless of how gooood it feels to choose optimism, it is easy to continue to get hung up on “facts”. So, check it out – now we skeptics have some science to soothe our rational minds.
How is your brain wired? How would you like it to be? Look, it’s okay to want to feel good, and it’s okay to see the glass as half full. And, at the end of the day, we all can only speak with any real authority from our own experience. So try it on. Play the optimist for a week and see how that works for you.
Here are some exercises to get you started.
- Practice becoming mindful of your thoughts. Pay attention to what you are thinking about. In practice, this can feel like one of the furthest things from easy. Our minds are bombarded with up to 60-80,000 thoughts a day. One thought leads to another and away we go, not even aware of much of the chatter in our brains, but physiologically responding to it nonetheless. Can you relate? Most of us at some point have found ourselves stressed out, our heart rate beating a little faster, our chest feeling tight, our throat constricted, our temples throbbing, our gut turning over. Many of us have just gotten used to a little bit of baseline stress like this in our bodies. Pay attention to these signals. Notice them and then bring your attention to your train of thought for some indication of where this stress is coming from. Where has your head been? Begin to notice what your mind is feeding your body.
- Tell yourself some new stories. Once we learn to become more attentive to our thoughts we can practice reframing our thinking about the circumstances and situations in which we find ourselves. This is a conscious choice: to look at a situation with fresh eyes, to find the opportunity – the silver lining – in the difficulty. This is what distinguishes an optimist from a pessimist, this capacity to change perspective.
- Get over yourself. It is hard not to love our own drama. But, desirable as it is to bask in the glory of our creations, we can practice shifting the focus outside of ourselves, away from our drama. And one brilliant way to do this is through gratitude and service. Go out of your way to do something for someone else. Google random-acts-of-kindness to get inspired if you find yourself coming up empty.
Feeling a bit self-conscious? Start by introducing the idea of optimism to the kids in your life. They’ll be all over it. Kids have this way of giving us the permission we do not give ourselves to wear rose-coloured glasses, reach for the stars, and drink from glasses half-full.
*Interested in how your brain rewires itself? Google neuroplasticity. It’s all the rage.
“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” Dr. Seuss
Resources for your browsing pleasure:
And, must give credit where credit is due: thank-you, Coach Taylor. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0758745/quotes