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if only i’d known: optimism is the way to go

I’m a strangely pessimistic person. I say strangely because I basically believe in fairies and rainbows and unicorns and leprechauns and karma while simultaneously believing I never win anything and bad things always happen to me.

It’s a pessimism I rarely extend to the lives of others. Somewhere deep in my darkly twisted mind I believe (without reservation) that good things will befall my friends and family.  For them, anything and everything is possible.

Over the years I’ve noticed I’m not alone in this way of thinking. We’re more inclined to think good things will happen to others before they’ll happen to us.

It’s a thought process that becomes evident when your friends find themselves at the end of what initially appeared to be a really healthy and flourishing relationship. It again surfaces when your friend is overlooked for a job they really had their heart set on. Yet again when they don’t get the place they were sure was perfect for the start of a new era.

You believe wholeheartedly that all these “set backs” are just ways of biding time. Much in the same way you distract a loved one with menial tasks and burden them with pressing errands that really could be done tomorrow, only to lure them away from the house so that you may put into action a surprise party you’ve been planning for weeks. You’re fully aware that they’ll be momentarily annoyed, disappointed – angry, even – but you know that all will be forgiven immediately after that moment of ‘SURPRISE’. [Cue a cacophony of party poppers, party horns and a delayed Aunt who yells surprise a little while after the others, just for effect.]

The surprise scenario is how we (I) view life for others. The inbox flooded with rejection letters (what an efficient way to lower my self-esteem) and the boys and girls who break hearts are just tedious experiences buying time for the big surprise moment – the dream job, the love of your life, the perfect studio apartment WITH a balcony. But when it comes to evaluating our own lives we’re less optimistic.

We’re well aware of the challenges ahead and more than acutely aware of our own weaknesses. One does not become competitive for a job regardless of how brilliant their friends think they are. It’s flattering to have friends who believe in you but surely we have to be rational about our expectations and all of us claim to be rational, if nothing else.

Tali Sharot, author of ‘The Science of Optimism: Why We’re Hard-Wired for Hope’ says that even those who claim to be the most ‘rational’, ‘realistic’, even ‘pessimistic’ possess an ‘optimism bias’; a bias that means that although we’ll take sensible precautions, we have a deep-held belief that things are going to turn out just fine –sometimes even better than they actually do.

In an interview with TED, Sharot describes the benefits of optimism. ‘We now know that underestimating the obstacles life has in store lowers stress and anxiety, leading to better health and wellbeing — this is one reason why optimists recover faster from illnesses and live longer.’

Studies have often linked success with optimism. ‘Optimism pushes us to take chances — attempt a new job, a new relationship. It also acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy, as believing a goal is attainable makes it more likely to be.’

A recent study has shown that Australians are in a great position to be raging optimists. The research, conducted in the United States, surveyed people from 142 different countries and looked at their levels of optimism. It concluded that Australians are among the most optimistic 20%, with those living in Zimbabwe, Egypt, Haiti, and Lebanon being among the least optimistic.

A professor of psychology at Melbourne University, Nick Haslam, states that this optimism has a lot to do with personal experience.

‘People are more optimistic in countries that are doing quite well and despite all the naysayers, Australia’s economy and general quality of life is quite high.’ He goes further to point out that women tend to be more optimistic than men.

Go us!

But I think it’s safe to assume that we can all use a few healthy doses of optimism every once in a while (if only it came in a vitamin tablet). So below are a few quick tips for changing our outlook and assisting us in sending out positive energy.

1. Relinquish control. Goals are great things to have but can have negative consequences if you become so fixated on achieving them you can’t accept the setbacks no matter how minor. Sometimes your only job is to enjoy the ride

2. Be conscious of the good things and people in your life. Sometimes, taking the time to ponder our blessings makes it easier to survive a disaster.

3. Take some time to be by yourself. Taking time out means you get a chance to be at one with your mind, body and soul, which usually helps you keep things in perspective.

4. Laugh. Being around people who make you laugh or treating yourself to a funny book, play or film can help boost your spirits.

5. Exercise. Nothing keeps you happy and positive like a good kick of endorphins.

6. Find your passion. Some of us are lucky in that our jobs are our passions. Most of us are not so lucky and need to dedicate some time each week to doing what makes us happy.

7. Always identify a bright side, even if you’re not convinced it makes up for the bad. Sure, you didn’t get the job you wanted BUT it does mean you won’t have to move to be closer to work just yet.

8. Surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you. If you feel that somebody brings out the worst in you, perhaps it’s best to only see each other in the company of others and still only when necessary.

9 Visualise positive outcomes. No matter how horrible the situation is, do your best to envisage the ideal outcome rather than worst-case scenarios.

10. If all else fails, fake it till you make it. I only took two psych classes but I did learn that if you smile, even when you’re not happy, your brain doesn’t know the difference and eventually you’ll start to feel better. I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation to that but I won’t attempt it here.

Don’t worry, be happy.

Image by Sarah Chaabo @s_arabella

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