6 Keys to Balancing Optimism /Pessimism

From the keyboard end of this blog, it’s pretty easy to talk about theory and advice. Effective practice is an entirely different matter. In fact, writing helps me to better understand my challenges as often as it is sharing hard-earned wisdom.

Finding the right blend of optimism/pessimism is one case in point. I can go either way, depending on whether I have had my hot button pushed or some unresolved emotion simmering beneath the surface. When I have my emotional house in order, it tends to be pretty easy for me to stay on the positive, optimistic side.

Some folk lean toward pessimism even without that simmering emotional undercurrent.   Either way, I think it’s important to keep in mind the following concepts when trying to find balance:

  1. Have perspective – Recognize that all events are neutral. We assign meaning and value to them, which are purely subjective. In other words, there is no hard and fast rules regarding whether to take a pessimistic or optimistic view on life events. Likely you are choosing your perspective more out of habit than any real thought. Be more intentional and less emotional about your interpretation of events. If you tend to one extreme, practice viewing it from the other.
  2. Optimize strengths – Your strength might become your burden if you misuse or over use it. Those with a positivity strength may be unrealistically positive, and those with a problem-solving (restorative) strength may be overly negative. Develop your toolkit such that it allows you to take a more balanced perspective.
  3. Learn optimism – Optimism can be learned (see the book Learned Optimism for more details). There are 3 parts to optimism: pervasive, permanent and personal. Optimists tend to think good things are pervasive (universal and ubiquitous), permanent, and to a lesser degree personal (the result of one’s behavior), whereas bad things are not. Pessimists tend to believe the opposite.   Consider these factors and challenge your habitual thought patterns. For example, thinking my good luck and good health will last forever is unrealistic. In order to take good care of myself and increase the odds of good health and longevity, I must recognize the risk involved in an unhealthy lifestyle and act accordingly.
  4. Put limits around your habit – Thoughts and focus are a habit. Recognize your habit to think in a given pattern, then give yourself permission to indulge in that habit but define an end point. Then spend some time deliberately practicing the opposite behavior. If that’s difficult for you, partner with someone who can help you find more balance. Schedule that balance into your day, process or project so you are sure to follow-through each time until it becomes your new habit.
  5. Evaluate before you speak or act – You might be going off on one extreme internally, but be deliberative about how you express yourself. Reflect to find a more balanced perspective or delivery method for a given audience and situation. For example, thinking through your points before speaking or acting and finding a more neutral tone can make you more persuasive and effective. Notice people’s reactions when you act more deliberately. Do they respond in a more favorable manner? If so, keep it up. If not, try something a little different.
  6. When in doubt, err on the positive – Well-being expert Tom Rath (author of Are You Fully Charged? The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life) recommends that we spend 80% of the time being positive. This will improve your interactions, relationships and productivity.

As with all habits, they take time, effort and commitment to change. Reflecting on what you plan to do, anticipate opportunities to practice the change, and reflecting again afterwards will help make theory a reality. In addition, writing and discussing your plans and outcomes add another level of commitment to your new goals. In the end, change is about good old fashioned hard work. Pretty soon, your new behaviors will feel natural and you’ll wonder what the big deal was.

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