The Wonders of Optimism: Thinking Your Way Back to OK

Pensive womanOne thing that human beings have in common is the desire to feel OK. Everyone is working on it every day, whether they realize it or not. They’re trying to feel OK and to avoid feeling terrible.

Unfortunately, people often don’t realize that they are OK, until they’re not.

If you look for the silver lining in things—which I highly recommend—the silver lining of getting sick is that it helps us appreciate when we’re well. Suddenly, I’m nostalgic for those halcyon days when I could breathe through my nose. I remember myself as an agile sprite, gliding through my day, before this cursed back pain.

Then the pain goes away and I’m back to OK. Actually, I feel phenomenal about being OK. Not feeling terrible brings me great joy. But a few days pass and I slip back into the unconscious OK-ness of everyday life.

Some physical and emotional pains don’t go away so quickly, though. People want to get back to OK, but they don’t know how or how long it’s going to take. Those pains require the stamina of a mule and a few other skills, too.

One of those skills is optimism. Optimism buoys the spirit like a lifeboat on rough seas.

When you’re optimistic, you have the energy to tackle obstacles and find ways around them. You keep moving. When you’re feeling hopeless, it’s hard to put one foot in front of the other.

Optimism is the belief that things will get better.

Even if a person isn’t a natural optimist, he or she can reignite that fire using another skill called cognitive flexibility. This means being able to think about something from multiple perspectives. It means keeping an open mind. Instead of “I know …” it’s “maybe I could see this differently.”

If one way of viewing a situation makes a person feel hopeless and another way of thinking makes a person feel optimistic, which would you choose? Some people see negative beliefs as realistic and optimistic beliefs as fantasies. That’s one perspective—and not a very helpful one.

So, even if you’re pessimistic, there’s hope in the realization that you may be wrong.

If someone isn’t attracted to you, you might think, “I know I’m not attractive” and feel very discouraged. With cognitive flexibility, you can see different explanations. Maybe … she loves someone else. Maybe … I need a new pick-up line. Maybe … I’m not his or her type … but I’m someone else’s type.

If one way of viewing a situation makes a person feel hopeless and another way of thinking makes a person feel optimistic, which would you choose? Some people see negative beliefs as realistic and optimistic beliefs as fantasies. That’s one perspective—and not a very helpful one.

Another benefit of cognitive flexibility is being able to find meaning and a positive outcome from a bad experience. In other words, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”

A long time ago, I pursued an acting career. That was my dream. I auditioned a lot, got rejected a lot, and wasn’t having a ton of success. Finally, one day, I got a great part at a well-respected theater. I was so happy. I thought my dream was beginning to come true. And then they had to cancel the show. I was devastated. I felt so powerless.

But out of this disappointment I created meaning. The meaning I created was that I couldn’t rely on others to allow me to do the work I wanted to do. I realized that I had to take some power into my own hands and create my opportunities. So I wrote, produced, and performed a one-woman show. This turned out to be one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.

A terrible disappointment had a very positive impact on my life. It taught me to take action, and it taught me that I could turn a bad situation into an opportunity for growth.

It’s OK to not be OK sometimes, but it’s also a healthy instinct to try to get back to feeling good. Tools such as optimism can help people think their way back to OK.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Rena Pollak, LMFT, CGP, therapist in Encino, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Gracie

    Gracie

    June 10th, 2015 at 11:52 AM

    I strive to be a positive person in all aspects of life but I swear my husband drives me to negativity! He is the most negative person that I know! If there is a dark side to something then you can leave it to him to find it. He hasn’t always been this way and I don’t know if he is depressed or unhappy or what but lately he can’t see the good in any situation AT ALL. It literally leaves me in tears at times because I feel like he is dragging me down with him and I just don’t want to feel like I am traveling that road.

  • Rico

    Rico

    June 10th, 2015 at 9:12 PM

    Hi Gracie
    I used the following approach

    1. What was our wedding commitment re being happy & ok?
    2. Are you doing ok or are you happy?
    3. If not, why not?
    4. What would you like to do to change it?
    5. Offer to assist where requested to. If not required to, don’t.
    6. Check in from time to time

    Happiness is a personal choice

  • Gracie

    Gracie

    June 11th, 2015 at 1:10 PM

    Thanks Rico! we are still trying!

  • Louisa

    Louisa

    June 11th, 2015 at 5:16 PM

    One of my favorite quotes ever has been about making lemonade a=out of lemons and that was highlighted within- love it. There are going to be those times when you feel so down and like nothing will ever be right again, and if you don’t take a stand and make it worthwhile then it won’t be.

    Life is not always going to be easy… but it is what you make of it. Make it something to be happy about and proud of.

  • Polly

    Polly

    June 12th, 2015 at 7:59 AM

    It really does help when you have someone else in your life who helps you maintain that positivity!

  • Rico

    Rico

    June 12th, 2015 at 8:41 AM

    Hi Polly

    You know I can write a whole dicitation on how to be okay.
    So I will keep it very brief.
    Never hand your power to be happy, positive or okay to someone else
    Never do it

  • Russell

    Russell

    June 17th, 2015 at 8:00 PM

    I couldnt agree more.No one is resposible for your happiness or un happiness but you

  • Rena Pollak, LMFT

    Rena Pollak, LMFT

    June 12th, 2015 at 10:46 AM

    Great comments! My blog “I’m OK, You’re Not OK…and That’s Perfectly OK” addresses everything you’re talking about. It’s understandable that the pessimistic feelings of people that surround you and that you love can affect your own mood. It’s important to use self-care when choosing how much time to spend around discouraging people. If it’s your spouse, you may need to work together on this issues as well as increasing your personal coping strategies.

  • Mike

    Mike

    June 12th, 2015 at 5:26 PM

    To a depressed person (me before antidepressants) or to a person overwhelmed with many years of burdensome chronic physical pain with no relief in sight (me now) it can provoke some pretty negative reactions to be told I should be optimistic. However, I’m “down with” cognitive flexibility. Also I find self-compassion is one way of making something positive out of pain – self-compassion is the hope that the suffering can be eased without there being a need for the pain itself to be changed. This seems to be really critical, especially for someone hopeless – with “metta” (Buddhist lovingkindness) and compassion, there is no need for conditions to change in order to apply them. So there is no need to form the belief that conditions can change. There is no need for evidence that things will change. In fact you can be fairly certain that things will get worse and you will die, but still apply metta and compassion.

  • Shubhra

    Shubhra

    June 12th, 2015 at 6:45 PM

    Many thanks for this brief and yet very inspiring article. It really reminds us all of the importance of not being a victim. We always have a choice. Always.

    Thanks very much.

    Regards

  • Mike

    Mike

    June 12th, 2015 at 11:04 PM

    Shubhra, that’s the thing, we DON’T always have a choice. Clinically depressed people can’t choose to be optimistic. That’s not to say there is nothing that can be done. For instance, when I was clinically depressed and went to a therapist, he showered me with kindness and compassion each session, and I walked out of each session in a better mood. He also addressed my cognitive framework and over time that shifted. But it REALLY distorts the situation to say we always have a choice. It’s nowhere near that simple.

  • Rico

    Rico

    June 13th, 2015 at 12:38 PM

    I think it is that simple when you begin to think how you were able to decide that you will feel better whenever the therapist showered you with……
    You were able to distinguish that the emotions the therapist was displaying were good for you
    How were you able to do so?

  • Carl

    Carl

    June 14th, 2015 at 3:54 AM

    Being realistic should not always be seen as a negative neither should optimism always be seen as a positive. Life should be viewed as a risk assessment, what are the chances of something going wrong or right, weigh up all the pros and cons and at the end ofthe day make a well informed choice. Some factors are out of our control, whether you accept that or not is down to the individual, realistic, accept these and plan accordingly and you will have a renewed optimism, a realistic optimism.
    I have found this approach works for me.

  • taryn

    taryn

    June 17th, 2015 at 8:19 AM

    Think positive and be positive!

  • Rena Pollak

    Rena Pollak

    June 17th, 2015 at 12:21 PM

    I would like to recommend the book “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. I don’t want to give away the message of the book, but I thought it was very empowering…especially when coping with powerless situations.

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