Those who just meet me or even know me pretty well often believe I’m a naturally optimistic person. It is true that when I take strengths assessments like the Clifton StrengthsFinder and VIA Survey of Character Strengths, Positivity and Hope are among my top five strengths. I’ve even been running two community optimism groups for the past two and a half years. But the truth is that I’m a recovering catastrophizer. Thinking optimistically is something I learned and still work on every single day because it didn’t come naturally for me.
For many years, I was just the opposite of optimistic. When any little thing didn’t go according to my plan, I believed the whole plan would surely fall apart. I felt that big and small challenges were solid proof that life would forever be hard and unfair. Even when things were going well, I figured it couldn’t last very long. I was perpetually anxious and worried about everything. I believed worrying was a mechanism for controlling my future. But, it never seemed to work. Eventually it just led to neck and back pain, TMJ, and panic attacks. Something had to change. I needed a complete perspective overhaul.
There have been a few practices that have helped me to beat anxiety, pessimism, and catastrophizing. I still use them every single day to maintain a positive outlook for the present and future, and I love helping others to the same.
These are 5 strategies for thinking optimistically:
- Catch & Dispute Negative Thinking:
Last year when I was driving to one of my monthly optimism groups, I overestimated how much gas I had in my tank and suddenly realized as I was halfway there that I may not have enough. My initial thought was, “I’m going to run out of gas.” My immediate next thoughts were, “I’m going to get into an accident. I’m going to be stranded. I’m not going to get to my group on time. All my group members are going to leave and never come back. The library is going to cancel my group indefinitely.” Quite a leap from just being low on gas. But since I’ve trained myself to catch and dispute my negative thinking, within less than a minute I began challenging those thoughts and rationalizing outcomes. I determined where the closest gas station was and thought, “If I go down to zero miles range, I’ll pull over to the side of the road. I’ll call the library and tell them what’s happening and I’m going to be late. I’ll walk to the gas station and get a gas can. I’ll fill my tank and go to my group late or cancel if I need to. My group and the library will understand because they know I’m responsible and care about them.” When we make a practice of catching our negative thinking as its happening, we can dispute it and think with realism and optimism.
- Be Grateful for What You Already Have:
Take note of all you currently have—important relationships, triumphs over challenges, goals you’ve achieved—these are blessings. They are also evidence that you already possess the internal and external resources you need to get through tough times and achieve your goals.
- Complain Less:
We all need to vent our frustrations sometimes, and it’s healthy to get it out when something is bothering us. But when we turn a little venting into regular complaining to friends, family, or on social media, we make negative thinking a consistent state of being.
- Laugh through Little Stressors:
Laugh when you’re already running late and then you hit traffic. Laugh when you spill coffee on your cell phone. Laugh when you type up a big project and somehow manage to lose or delete it. Laugh when someone rear ends you on the highway and then speeds away. Life happens, and sometimes it helps break inner tension when you let yourself see the humor in little daily stressors. It reminds you that there’s nothing you can’t handle, and this too shall pass, even when there’s some frustration you need to deal with first.
- Have Faith in the Process:
In moments of challenge, we have no idea what the future holds. Yet, it’s amazing how so often down the road, we can see why we needed to go through what we did. Perhaps it’s the wisdom we gained that helps us in the future or allows us to advise another. Maybe it’s a better opportunity, relationship, or experience that opens up as a result of where we’ve been. I believe God takes us exactly where we need to go, even when we don’t know why at the time. When we have faith in the process, we can believe there is hope for the future.
Today, I find myself optimistic regularly. I typically expect the best, and when something good happens, I view it as a sign that more good is to come. When I do find myself catastrophizing, I can talk myself out of it within a minute or two generally (or about an hour when I was involved in a hit and run last year)! I even find that my optimism helps me visualize all the things I want to see happen in the future, almost as if they are already occurring. Somehow I feel that this positivity and visualization transforms my dreams into realities. Thinking optimistically carries a little magic for sure!