Can You Embrace Optimism After a Lifetime of Sadness? Yes, If You Want to!
I was working with a client recently on his public speaking. As part of an exercise, I asked him to recount a sad memory.
He paused. And then he paused again. And then he paused some more.
“Wow, that’s really tough,” he said, visibly struggling to call up a sad memory. “Something sad… hmmm. Give me a sec.”
After a minute or two like this, I finally interrupted him. “Can I lend you one of mine?”
The Importance of Reframing
This guy is lucky. Clearly, he hasn’t experienced as much sadness in his life as I have.
At least, that was my first thought. But the more I worked with him, the more I realized that it wasn’t just that he’d somehow managed to escape tragedy, even well into his 60s.
It was that he’d made a conscious choice to be optimistic.
I’ve noticed a similar quality in one of my colleagues. We will deliver a workshop together, and afterwards, he will immediately declare, “Well, that should translate into a business opportunity.”
Regardless of how well the workshop actually went, I’ll find myself responding, “Yeah, maybe. But what if… the CEO is felled by a tree/I contract a life-threatening case of meningitis overnight/Brexit wipes out all communications consultants now and forever more/Fill in the blank…” You get the idea.
We’ve experienced the exact same workshop. And yet one of us walks out and shouts “Hooray!” while the other one worries, “What if it all goes to sh#$?”
This same colleague has taught me a lot about the power of positive thinking.
I had already discovered the power of affirmations for my writing life – courtesy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way – long before I met him. But now I’m regularly applying affirmations to my work life as well.
On a daily basis, I’ll find myself uttering things like: “I’m a great salesperson” or “I enjoy client relationship management,” and “I’m highly skilled at empowering people to achieve their full communications potential.”
Even when I only half-heartedly believe them, I find that these affirmations help.
As does meditation. One of the great virtues of the mindfulness app I listen to every morning is that it encourages me to discover the “blue sky” inside – a happy place where the clouds part and the birds chirp and the rays of sunshine fill my world.
A lot of the focus in mindfulness is on accessing that blue sky feeling. Over time, you come to realize that it’s not something you need to reach for outside yourself; it’s something that’s already there.
The Power of Hope
The research bears this out. I was struck by a couple of recent experimental studies which show that if you induce people to be optimistic, they can actually change their behavior.
In one such study, providing simple assets – such as a cow or other livestock – to poor people in developing countries led to increased labor and other investments on their part.
In another, respondents in U.S. soup kitchens were asked to recall a time they felt positive about themselves. This, in turn, resulted in more effort in playing simple games, compared to those who did not receive the “optimism prompt.”
Hope, it turns out, is a powerful motivator.
Dreams of Hope
Perhaps this message is beginning to sink in.
As someone who is haunted by recurring dreams about test anxiety and getting lost, I recently had one of those classic dreams where I was in a play and didn’t know the lines.
But in this dream, the ending was different. Instead of freaking out and succumbing to the performance anxiety, I chose instead to improvise the scene at hand. And, lo and behold, it worked out.
Just as with affirmations and blue sky thinking, maybe my bad dreams are trying to tell me something: I’m actually OK. All will be fine.
Perish the thought!
What kind of thoughts fill your mind lately? Do you feel sad or optimistic most of the time? Have you caught yourself sinking in anxiety and depression? Have you experimented with positive affirmations? Do you think they work? In what ways? Please share in the comments below.