Why write about optimism when we are in the midst of a worldwide crisis and people are manifestly fearful and worried? Research in neuroscience and psychology clearly shows that, in this kind of high-pressure situation, everyone’s anxiety level increases, which activates the portion of the brain that processes threats—the amygdala—and steals resources from the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for effective problem solving.
The present is gloomy, and the future seems threatening. What to do and what to think? I invite you not to sink into pessimism … pessimism is a silent and odorless gas that poisons us. As Goethe said: «Pessimism is condemned to be a spectator».
This period is chaotic and it’s understandable to have a hard time being optimistic. Your attitude is a crucial factor in these trying times, and maintaining a positive outlook becomes important … results are optimized when the brain is positive.
Optimism … What it is, and what it is not!
Optimism is not just about being positive. Being positive all the time (especially in times like these!) is unrealistic. Optimism is not about falling into naiveté either… Far from magical thinking, optimism is not an illusion … The «illusionist» is content in formulating magic sentences and incantations.
The challenge of optimism is to inspire yourself and others around you to behave intentionally about the future. It’s being capable of facing the dark aspects of reality. It reconciles realism and critical thinking …. It’s a positive intelligence that some call «opti-realism».
Optimist is intelligent: it plans, takes into account the criteria of effectiveness, and uses our personal resources and intelligence.
Our human nature is to be optimistic. Otherwise, we would not grow, walk, fall in love or acquire any skills. Optimism is a momentum, a vital force that pushes us to go forward, to obtain, and to conquer. Optimism just needs to be activated, channeled, and then used.
Optimism versus Pessimism
Pessimism is useful when put at the service of realistic optimism. Pessimism obliges us to take into consideration the constraints, the difficulties, the obstacles, and all the possible failure factors, without ignoring or minimizing them. It pushes us to show initiative, creativity, imagination and allows us to mobilize all our resources. Listen to that suspicious inner voice, list its warnings, stay sharp, and think about how we could get there despite the pitfalls.
The difference between optimists and pessimists is that optimists make more decisions to protect themselves from announced risks than pessimists: they are convinced that their actions can influence their destiny and not that they are victims of fatality! Optimists believe that taking action will have more beneficial consequences than if they just «let it be».
Being proactive versus being reactive
Proactive behavior (developing a strategy, making a choice, taking action and assuming the responsability) is always more positive - in terms of self-image, confidence and vision for the future - than reactive behavior.
Being reactive is more instinctive, it’s led by our reptilian brain, which triggers our defense mechanisms. It is not rational. Although it is good to look for the opportunity hidden in each difficulty, it needs to be done proactively instead of reactively. It is important to take the time to digest the new situation and the emotions it triggers. Too many decisions are made hastily because they are motivated by the desire to survive or to jump to a more pleasant stage.
Being optimistic also means accepting that there are problems and situations that are definitely or temporarily impossible to solve.
Change your relationship with stress
Don’t get stressed-out about being stressed-out. It’s important to remember that stress has an upside. Remember the life experiences that most shaped who you are today and notice that these experiences most likely involved great stress. Stress is not just an obstacle to growth; it can be the fuel for it. Stress is an inevitable part of life, but your attitude toward it can dramatically change how it affects you.
Training your brain to be optimistic is not so different from training your muscles at the gym. Research on neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to change even in adulthood—reveals that, as you develop new habits, you rewire the brain.
To be «Opti-realistic» is to:
- Strive to oppose each fear or obstacle to its positive antidote, so as to rebalance thoughts and emotions.
- Consider unpleasant episodes as momentary, specific to a given situation and linked to reasons external to us.
- Develop the emotional endurance to withstand these trying times.
- Take a distant look at the situation and analyze each experience.
A good reflex is to take the situation into account and then ask yourself:
- What can I do now?
- What did this situation teach me (about me, about others)?
- What improvements can I make (training, information, ...)?
- What perspectives does it open for me (Changing my modus operandi, waiting for the right moment, ...)?
This keeps us from seeing ourselves as victims … you may not have control over the situation, but you still have control over how you will act in it – self-control!
Engaging in one brief positive exercise every day can help you develop optimism and have a lasting impact. Choose an activity that correlates with positive change:
- Jot down three things you are grateful for.
- Engage positively with people, even if virtually.
- Help a neighbor, a colleague or a friend.
- Meditate at your desk for two minutes.Exercise for 10 minutes.
- Take two minutes to write in a journal about your latest most meaningful experience.
- Choose one stress that you can control and come up with a small, concrete step you can take to reduce it.
In this way you can nudge your brain back to a positive mindset. The habits you cultivate, the way you interact with people, how you deal with stress—all these are good ways to start and can be implemented to increase your optimism and maintain a sense of well-being.
So here we are!
We are currently subject to an excessive dose of uncertainty. Psychological researchers have shown that intolerance to uncertainty is a fundamental dimension of what is called generalized anxiety, this sickly tendency to worry about what is uncertain, unpredictable and uncontrollable.
Before this event, we lived in an environment in which we exercised a certain control. This is no longer the case. This feeling of control is very important for our capacity for action and our emotional balance. Today the tolerable thresholds of uncertainty and loss of control may have been exceeded, hence our difficulties in remaining optimistic.
To get through the crisis, many efforts will be necessary; one of the most important is to build up our optimism. The falling tree always makes more noise than the growing forest: to become optimistic again, you have to become aware of your surroundings, not only of your problems, and listen to the forest growing!