We often link optimism to simply being more positive. While optimism and positivity may grow from the same tree, optimism is the riper, healthier and tastier fruit. Nourishing us deeper than the fruits of positivity alone. Society has become obsessed with positivity, and no more so than in the industry I inhabit as a Life Coach who specialises in mental health. The reason I think we sacrificed cultivating optimism in favour of positivity is positivity seems easier to understand and appears to come with no downsides. We’ve also come to misunderstand positivity as the primary route to happiness.
We aware as to whether we believe ourselves to be optimistic or pessimistic, the metaphor of the glass being half full or half empty. This metaphor reminds me of a social media post I saw of an empty glass under which read ‘While you are working out if you’re an optimist or a pessimist I drank the water. I’m an opportunist!’ I digress. I believe the following statement by Emma-Sue Prince can support you in picking a side,
“Happiness and optimism are choices. But we also often turn away from happiness, surprisingly and this is because we are looking for it outside ourselves when it needs to come from within.”
While specifically referencing happiness rather than optimism, the language lends itself to dividing a room. The optimist will be open to the concept of happiness from within, maybe even accepting it. Whereas a statement like ‘it needs to come from within’ has the potential to send a pessimist running for the hills!
Whether you are an optimist keen to refine this skill or a pessimist tempted over to the other side, this article presents a case for optimism as a core skill for keeping depression at bay or minimising it if it takes hold. But optimism comes with a disclaimer, to use this skill without taking action can lead to depression. You cannot run the risk of merely thinking everything will be OK and therefore ignoring any thoughts or feelings that are negatively impacting you.
One of the primary requests life coaching clients make, is to be more positive and it is at that point I share with them the difference between optimism and positivity. Positive thinking often focuses on ignoring the negative and remaining positive, this risks missing vital facts about yourself, including your response, therefore reducing your self-awareness and limiting your learning. Optimism is about accepting the existence of the negative, understanding it and re-framing it in a way from which you achieve acceptance and learning. Like flipping a traditional metaphor on its head,
Every silver lining has a cloud!
I am a huge advocate for a person reviewing past negative experiences and taking learning from them to be able to let go of the negative emotions and move on healthily. I also believe we should ‘lean in’ to bad days rather than attempt to fight against them. Feeling anger, sadness, fear, shame, guilt, etc. are signals our brain wants to highlight an event, either internal or external, which has made us feel this way and from which we would benefit from understanding.
A key element of optimism which lends itself to mental health challenges is in seeing challenge as a problem worth solving. Something for which a solution exists even if you’re yet to find it. Coaching lends itself to dealing with depression, particularly for those who are natural optimists or seeking to be one. Coaching focuses on the future and optimism is future-centred. In coaching, you assess point A, which is your current situation, and define point B, which is where you want to be. You then design the journey in between the two points. You might briefly touch on the past in the same way if you’re packing for a holiday, you might recall what you took last time you went abroad and what you did and didn’t use.
When looking towards your future, optimism goes beyond setting a goal and beginning a process of visualisation, while this can help your unconscious brain buy into your potential to achieve the outcome, it’s action which is required to get the desired results.
A further technique essential for optimism is understanding, and if necessary revising, our internal dialogue concerning how we deal with and explain life events. Psychologist and author Martin Seligman terms this our ‘explanatory style’. I recommend reviewing his work on the ABCDE model for which I have listed some core questions:
- What was the event?
- How did you interpret it?
- What are your thoughts and feeling in response to your interpretation?
- What evidence can you find which disproves how you’ve interpreted it?
- Can you use this new evidence to create a more positive perspective?
What you are seeking to learn is whether or not you review events with optimism — acknowledging and accepting the negative aspects, highlighting the positive elements, accepting responsibility for your interpretation and involvement, remaining focused on identifying any solution and taking accountability for implementing this.
Like so many of the skills that support someone with depression either maintaining mental well-being or overcoming an episode, a primary objective is to understand and commit to self-care that works for you. Nothing impacts your ability to be optimistic like stress, anxiety, or depression.
A mandatory tool I utilise in all my coaching programmes is supporting a client to create a Vitality Checklist. Documenting all of the activities a person can complete daily, or weekly, to maintain optimum well-being. Where a person is seeking to enhance their optimism, they may choose to include actions such as giving gratitude daily. Gratitude goes beyond positivity as it requires you to identify tangible things for which you are thankful. Opening the door to there being more out there you can discover and be grateful for. It is by no coincidence when a client begins working with me, they list a few items and 12-weeks later they could fill a journal with things for which they are thankful.
In the book 7 Skills for the Future, author Emma-Sue Prince provides The Hallmarks of Healthy Optimism:
- Accurately assessing a situation and having a perspective.
- Seeing problems as a temporary and not pervasive. Being able to acknowledge your role.
- Having faith in your ability to implement solutions
Grow optimism daily and when challenge strikes it will be the biggest, tastiest and healthiest fruit from which to take a bite — sweet enough to take the bitter edge of the negative, providing you with the initial energy you need to identify a solution, nourishing you as you move forward with confidence, and leaving a lasting taste of achievement.