June 17, 2024

“Harnessing the Power of Optimism”

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If you’re too tired to read, you can listen to this on Apple or Spotify.

Have you ever noticed how some people radiate hope even in the darkest times? This isn’t mere positivity; it’s something much deeper and more powerful: optimism.

I speak about optimism because I believe it is the single most powerful tool that leads to a fulfilling life. Optimism is not to be confused with positivity. Telling someone to “stay positive” isn’t helpful when things go wrong. It has the opposite effect.

In her TED Talk, Tali Sharot, a renowned neuroscientist, explores this concept. She explains that optimism starts with one of humanity’s most extraordinary talents: mental time travel. This ability to envision ourselves in the future is critical for our survival. It allows us to plan ahead, save resources, and endure hardships for a future reward.

This is not far from my post on discipline, where I vehemently argue that visualizing what you want for your future self is a powerful way to start (or stop) doing something in the moment. Optimism and discipline are intrinsically linked.

Optimists understand that life can be challenging, but they hold onto hope for a better tomorrow. While hope alone isn’t a strategy, it is essential because it inspires and motivates us to keep moving forward and envision a new reality. However, hope is just the beginning. What sets optimists apart is their ability to take deliberate actions to improve their future. In essence, optimists actively work towards better outcomes by making intentional choices.

The distinction between a victim and an optimist is stark. A victim blames others for their plight and takes no responsibility for outcomes. In contrast, an optimist recognizes problems and actively seeks solutions. For example, feeling a negative emotion is part of the human experience. I know we aren’t supposed to label our feelings as positive or negative because they just are – but that idea grates on my nerves, so I’m doing it anyway. Optimists understand these feelings are temporary and develop action items to expedite their passing. The other alternative is to remain in the “woe is me” mindset and wallow in these emotions, convincing yourself that you have no control over your well-being.

The structures you build in your life support you when you are trapped in the darkness. They can be whatever works for you. Here are two proven strategies to build resilience:

1) Sleep. Everything looks so much different in the morning than whatever you’re commiserating at night. If you want a magic pill for what ails you, get 8 hours of sleep. Trust me on this one.
2) Move your body. Just move, whether it’s a walk around the block or an intense workout. In “Spark,” Dr. John Ratey explains how exercise optimizes brain function and reduces anxiety.

When I feel helpless and hopeless, I force myself to take a walk. The days I think I can’t go for a walk are the days I know I must. I’m not saying a walk will solve your problems, but you will feel better after you move. And feeling better alters your outlook.

Prolonged psychological ailments require professional help. But for everyday challenges, optimists develop self-awareness, recognize the dark clouds, and set structures in motion to combat negativity.

Hellen Keller was born deaf and blind. Take that in for a moment. To have rational thoughts as you are now inside your head, but to be trapped in the darkness where you have no sense of the site or sound beyond your conscious thought. And yet, Helen Keller learned to write on a grooved board over a sheet of paper, using the grooves and the end of her index pencil to guide her writing (let that sink in). She eventually penned an essay on optimism of all things. She said, “If I am happy in spite of my deprivations…my testimony to the creed of optimism is worth hearing.” Keller didn’t succumb to her circumstances; she chose to thrive.

If Keller felt sorry for herself, she wouldn’t have remained in that state. Most of us would not deny her the right to be a victim when dealt such a hand. But she didn’t. She took the reality of her circumstances and consciously chose to learn to communicate and eventually thrive in life.

Some of the bad things that happen to us in life result from our choices. But some things aren’t our fault. If someone did something to harm you, you bear no responsibility. However, how you let it affect you is what determines the trajectory of your life. This is not to be understated. How many people do you know who cannot let go of the harm done to them and wear victimization like a second skin? They blame their bosses, institutions, or exes for the damage inflicted upon them, and their mission is to ensure everyone knows it. If you are obsessing over the person or institution that harmed you, let me offer you a truth bomb: you are wasting your one wild and precious life.

Optimism is a form of courage. It requires acknowledging problems, taking responsibility, and trudging through the mud. The reality is that it doesn’t matter if we’re suffering from self-inflicted harm or harm bestowed upon us—the key to our happiness and well-being is the ability to get to the other side. As Keller noted, true optimism understands the cost of life’s sorrows. We appreciate happiness because we know sadness.

None of us can know happiness without knowing what it feels like to be wretched in sadness. We can’t appreciate the sunshine without being trapped in a torrential downpour. The juxtaposition of dark and light allows us to consciously and pragmatically comprehend that both will befall us.

Optimists understand that the power to shape their lives lies within themselves rather than in external forces or waiting for fate to intervene. As Benjamin Hoff eloquently states in “The Tao of Pooh,” we don’t need to shift our responsibilities onto a deified Spiritual Superman or wait passively for fate to knock on our door. Instead, we must believe in our inner strength and use it actively. Optimists turn their hopes into tangible actions by taking control and making deliberate choices, thereby creating opportunities and solutions that drive their lives forward. This proactive mindset distinguishes an optimist from those who feel powerless in the face of life’s challenges.

Self-awareness and deliberate choices build resilience. Once you realize you have the power to create your life, you start acting your way into happiness. It’s hard but being miserable is harder.

In an overwhelming world, choosing optimism is a radical act of courage and hope. It’s about acknowledging the storms but believing in the sunshine beyond. It’s about facing challenges head-on and building the resilience to rise above them.

As we navigate life’s ups and downs, remember that our power lies in our choices. By embracing optimism, we transform our lives and inspire those around us to see the possibilities in every situation.

Onward and upward, my fellow disrupters.

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