Those of us who want to build better lives that also help the world tend to be suspicious of optimism. Being optimistic causes you to sit on your butt and do nothing about world problems, right? We need anger, fear and desire to motivate us, no? But what if I told you that the science shows that a 20-minute optimism exercise can actually help you be more effective in building a better life for yourself and a better world for others?
How can you do something about climate change if you are optimistic about it? How can you work to fix racial inequality if you feel hopeful? How can you even fix your own life if you are not driven by desire but feel optimistic? Doesn’t optimism sap your motivation?
Also, optimism is a buzzword that comes out of self-help, and those of us more interested in world-help than self-help tend to disparage the self-help movement and what comes from it. We sometimes think it is selfish. But what if some of the techniques actually helped us to be better change-makers? That’s what the strategic use of optimism can do, according to the science.
Here is a section from my book How To Be Alive on optimism, including a concrete, scientifically-tested exercise that can help you be a more effective lifequester and changemaker:
Developing Your Optimism Muscle
My friend Ryan works as a freelancer. He told me, “If I think about how I didn’t make enough money last month, I have to get up from my computer and do something else because I feel too anxious. If I think about the ways I did make money last month, I can sit down happily and keep trying.” What you think upon grows, they say. You bring toward yourself what you hold in your mind.
It’s the same with the world. If I think that climate change is overtaking us and there is nothing I can do, I don’t bother speaking, or when I do, my speaking is lackluster. But when I think about the huge number of people I have met who are trying to do something in their own way or the seventy thousand people who have done No Impact weeks, I’m inspired. Being grateful for the good things in the world gives me energy to make more good things.
We can hold a vision of the world we want to live in. We can give thanks for a wonderful world and help that wonderfulness spread to others. This is much better than feeling guilty for what we have and being paralyzed by our shame. This is part of the essence of optimism.
In her book The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky, positive psychology researcher and author, quotes her graduate school supervisor Lee Ross: “[Optimism] is not about providing a recipe for self-deception. The world can be a horrible, cruel place, and at the same time it can be wonderful and abundant. These are both truths. There is not a halfway point; there is only choosing which truth to put in your personal foreground.”
Practicing optimism doesn’t mean avoiding the ills in the world or negative information. In fact, research shows that optimists are more, not less, vigilant about risks and threats. Perhaps that is because they can deal with them and don’t have to deny them. They are also aware that good things depend on their efforts and they don’t have to wait around for the world to fix things for them.
According to Lyubomirsky, if you are optimistic about your goals for yourself and the world, then you are more likely to put effort into achieving them, so optimism is self-fulfilling. You will also keep trying even when you perceive the obstacles and setbacks. Research shows that optimists are more likely to persevere even in the face of difficulty.
In other words, when faced with huge world problems, optimists are both more psychologically resilient and more likely to embark on projects to help the world. It’s better for the world and for yourself if you are an optimist. Meanwhile, all it takes to be an optimist is work on maintaining an optimistic outlook—keeping your eye on the clear paths instead of the obstacles.
Keeping A Best-Possible Self And World Diary
One exercise scientists have shown to enhance optimism and feelings of well-being is the “best possible selves” diary. I have adapted it for lifequesters and called it the “best possible self and world diary”:
Sit quietly with a pen and paper for twenty to thirty minutes. Visualize a future in which everything has turned out the way you wanted both for yourself and for the world, one, five, and ten years from now. You have worked hard and tried your best and the world and your life have changed in the ways you worked for. Now write down what you imagine.
Think positively. For example, visualize a world not without fracking but with clean energy and drinking water. It’s not so much that you want to build a world with no fossil fuel companies so much as you’d like to build a world where communities own their own solar energy plants that offer local jobs and clean air.
It may not come naturally at first, but if you keep this up as a regular practice, studies suggest that you will see changes in yourself and in your life. You will also gain insight into your future and your goals for yourself and for the world. You also, yes, feel happier.
What about you? Do you have experience with this or other optimism exercises? Have you experienced times when optimism has mad you more effective? How did you conjure that optimism?
It would be so great if you would let us all know and leave a comment on this post by scrolling below. It is amazing for me and other readers to hear your thoughts.