In a previous post, we made the claim that optimism — or more specifically, determined optimism — is a skill that can be learned and eventually mastered.
That’s a subtly revolutionary statement. If optimism can be learned, then we don’t live in a world in which some people are naturally more inclined to see things through rose-colored lenses. Instead, things like positive thinking and hope for a better tomorrow are equally available to all of us.
We just need to learn how to tap into our internal reserves of optimism, and that starts with shifting how we think about certain things. Put another way, we need to re-orient our mindsets to focus on the possible.
Extra Space Storage already has plenty of customers around the country who are embracing this mindset:
- There’s one of our customers in Columbia, South Carolina, a single mom of three who lived in a hotel with her family while she worked tirelessly to get on her feet. Eventually, the day came when her family was able to move their things out of storage and into their own home.
- There’s one of our customers and her partner in Indianapolis, who rented a storage unit while they got their home ready for the baby they were finally able to adopt.
- There’s one of our customers in Hemet, California, who is blind but still loves going to the movies. He says just being able to listen gives him enough to go on so he can imagine what’s happening on screen.
If you’re looking forward to imagining that brighter tomorrow, but don’t quite know where to start, here is how to train your brain to focus on the positive, on what’s possible.
Start By Visualizing Your Better Future
The team behind the wellness app Happify has put together an excellent infographic that illustrates the ways happiness and optimism can translate to an all-around more fulfilling life. That infographic has two pieces of advice that deserve some special attention.
First, the team recommends that we all visualize our best possible selves — and take the time to translate those visuals into words. “Once a week for four weeks, write about the best possible version of yourself in different arenas: work, family, social life, etc.,” they say. “Write freely for 10 minutes. Then, take five minutes and write a specific goal for yourself in that arena.”
Then, positively reinforce those goals by speaking and acting as if you’ll achieve those without a doubt. “You can train yourself to be more optimistic by thinking more positively about your future and repeatedly telling yourself positive messages such as ‘I can do this’ and ‘I will achieve this goal,’” they write.
Of course, there’s always that inner critic, that devil on your shoulder, who will push back against such statements. The trick, Australian clinical psychologist Jessica McCallum writes at Confident Life, is to acknowledge that inner critic, give it a chance to speak, then let that criticism pass by like a leaf in the wind.
“Tuning in and recognising your negative self talk takes practice, but it is imperative,” she says. “You cannot change your thoughts if you don’t know what they are to start with! Take a week and write down any negative thoughts you have throughout the day. Even if it is hard, try to write them down exactly as they are (e.g. ‘Urgh, such fat thighs,’ ‘What’s the point?’ ‘I suck at my job’). See if you can find any patterns to them, and note how often you have them.”
Once you identify when your inner critic is going to speak and what she is going to say, you can push back against those thoughts. McCallum suggests that after you have started a written record of your negative thoughts, begin a new column on that page where you can write in arguments against that inner critic.
So, next time “I suck at my job” comes up, you can write in, “Actually, I did the best I could today with what I was given.”
Plan for Ways to Grow Into Your Better Self
With an image in your mind of what your better self looks like, and the tools to manage your inner critic, you can begin to envision the path you’ll take to your better tomorrow.
Tali Sharot, Ph.D., tells Shape an easy first step is to simply start making plans — whether that’s dinner with friends on Friday, a summer vacation, or even an exercise program you know you can stick to. “You should always be looking forward to something.”
Be sure to include backup plans because, as we know, things happen. That way, your happiness doesn’t live and die with the attainment of super-specific goals.
“Rather than focusing on achieving one specific goal, create A, B, and C goals for yourself,” Shape’s Mirel Ketchiff writes. “Your A goal is your ideal (go to the gym five times a week), your B goal is something that falls short but that you would still be happy with (do at least 20 minutes of yoga at home), and the C goal is the better-than-nothing option (do something active once a day, even if it’s just a five-minute walk).”
Same thing for Friday dinner plans: If restaurant A is all booked up and you can’t get in, have a fallback Restaurant B.
And remember, it’s always OK to scale back plans or slow down when things get hectic. “Much of my anxiety arises when I’m rushing, when I feel the pressure of a deadline looming, or fall into that busy-ness trap that ensnares so much of the world,” says yogi Rica Lewis.
“The push to do, do, do can get me down — fast. But I have learned to think positive even when piles of work litter my desk, and obligations have overtaken my calendar. It might seem counterproductive to slow down when there’s so much chaos. But that’s the best time to breathe, to take a quick walk to reset my emotions and to get my head in the game.”
Learn How to Manage Frustrations and Bad News
With a better you visualized and your path laid out in front of you, you’ll have a better idea of what you can control — and what you can’t.
A lot of the frustrations that life throws at us come from the “what you can’t control” column, unfortunately. Determined optimists find two ways to manage those frustrations:
- Be prepared for whatever it is life decides to throw at us.
- Be mindful about the things we can control.
Let’s start with that second point. Much of what gets us down (and what feeds our inner critics) comes from sources we can simply turn off. Think cable news and social media. “Find ways to shape your news consumption so the information you’re getting is not putting you into a negative or anxious overload,” psychotherapist Dr. Robi Ludwig recommends.
That’s not to say bury your head in the sand or seek blissful ignorance from the challenges of the world, Dr. Ludwig cautions. And don’t just focus on good news — this will only give you false perspectives about the world.
But there’s nothing wrong with scaling back your media consumption habits, especially when that media diet features the fake news, angry politics and unreal representations of other people’s happiness that social media can foster.
In fact, blogger Sara Elizabeth recommends taking regular breaks from social media. “Negative ideas and thoughts abound on social media — not only the comments you see from other people but also the thoughts you may have about your value as you look at staged, retouched photos of other people,” she says. “Take a break (at least a week) from social media and see what happens.”
For those things we cannot control, humans have one particularly useful tool for dealing with life’s troubles: Forgiveness.
“Harboring anger toward yourself or others you feel have wronged you can significantly hold you back in life,” Kerry Petsinger, DPT writes at Lifehack. “You absolutely must learn to forgive those who have hurt you to be truly free. Amazing things can happen in your life when you let go of your anger, resentment, and bitterness.”
By being able to let go of past troubles, you’ll be able to move forward, inching every day closer to the version of yourself you most like to imagine when you close your eyes.