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Honestly, one of the most important responsibilities I have towards my client is reinforcing in them their sense of optimism.

My best resource for optimism is a 2002 book by Martin E. P. Seligman called Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.

Dr. Seligman created a field of psychology called “Positive Psychology. He became the president of the American Psychological Association in 1998 and he was the first president to focus on something other than pathology and diagnosis of psychiatric and psychological disorders. He moved the entire organization from describing what was wrong with people to advocating for “positive psychology.” Big deal. Really big deal.

He coined the study of learned hopelessness. You have heard of it. So, you shock the dog each time the dog tries to go out of the room and eventually the dog stops trying. You put the dog in another room with no shock and the dog does not even try to go out the door. You punished the dog so much that the dog has learned he is powerless and so he stops trying. Get it? That is learned hopelessness.

Honestly, this is where so many of us live. We give up without even trying.

Well, in working with that concept, Seligman discovered that you can learn to be optimistic.

Let us define optimism first by contrasting it to what most people think it is: Positive thinking.

Positive thinking is the notion that if you think good thoughts, things will work out well. Optimism is the feeling of thinking things will be well and be hopeful. ~ Martin Seligman

Where positive thinking can be considered Polly Anna-ish, optimism is a lot more concrete. It is also a discipline, or a practice, to continue to pivot your thoughts towards a good and hopeful outcome. Often with positive thinking, people try and numb out feelings and try and drown out fears and concerns by repeating positive affirmations.

The dictionary definition of optimism is “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.” The etymology of the word comes from optimum – the ‘best thing.’  It is also the belief that good must ultimately prevail over evil in the universe. (Ha! See why I love this so much?)

The beauty of optimism is that it approaches problems from an empowerment standpoint.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of optimism in a way that explains what it does:

The essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration,of vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it to his enemy. ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Wow! I found this language so strong and so persuasive – “to claim the future for himself and not abandon it to his enemy” – This means don’t abdicate your thoughts to anticipated failure. That is learned hopelessness. Instead, choose (last week’s building block) to pivot that thought towards something good, towards the optimum outcome.

Here is an example of how it works:

Your leadership role is weighing heavily on your mind. You have to speak to a person you supervise, and you do not want to. You do not like conflict. Well, the story you are telling yourself about conflict has put you in a state of learned hopelessness.

  • It is going to end up as a yelling match.
  • You will not get your point across.
  • You will be misunderstood.
  • You will end up having to fire the employee.
  • That will put you in a bad mood.
  • You will get nothing done for the rest of the day.
  • Then you will go home and snap at your husband.
  • Now you will get into a fight with him.
  • And what he said last week to you is still ticking you off!

And on and on.

Do you see what happened there?

How about if you just asked yourself one of the following questions instead:

  • What would be the best outcome in this scenario?
  • I know I don’t like conflict. How can I reframe that?
  • What if a new and better relationship comes out of this conversation?
  • Is there something here for me to learn?
  • How can I bring empathy (or any of your core values) into this situation?
  • Is there a gift I can salvage from this situation?
  • I really want this to work out well for both of us. How can I contribute to that?

First of all, asking questions instead of making definitive statements moves you from finite binary black or white thinking and allows you to open up soft nuances of shades of grey.

Second, begin to look for evidence that disputes your natural default setting.

  • But I have been in a lot of conflict situations that ended well.
  • Come on. Just last week, I had a talk with ABC person and it ended well.
  • Am I really mad at my husband or what?

Third, pivot towards the general outcome you want. You may not have specifics but if you anticipate a good outcome, it will go a long way to drive the situation or conflict towards something constructive, and productive.

Seligman has an ABCDE approach to using optimism:

  • Adversity– This is the situation that you are facing. Name it. Be aware of it.
  • Belief– This is your interpretation of the situation. Examine your beliefs.
  • Consequence– This is the action you take to resolve the situation. Even how you think about it is an action.
  • Disputation– This is when you dispute the situation, your belief about it and the consequence (ABC) with evidence to challenge your negative thoughts. Use great questions here.
  • Energizing–  You will feel energized once your disputation thoughts condition you into more positive thoughts and behaviors. This tells you that you have turned the corner on it.

Once again, it is all about aliveness! That energizing makes you feel more whole and alive.

Seligman says that pessimists have an explanatory style that is negative on three fronts:

“The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.”

You see, the pessimist thinks everything negative is permanent (things will never change), pervasive (everyday all day) and personal (I am broken).

Not you and not I!

We are developing our optimism muscle and we believe stuff happens but it is not permanent (As they say in the land of my birth: “No condition is permanent”); the sun rises a new every day with a whole new set of options and possibilities, and I may even have some short comings but I am more than capable to handle this situation.

It’s a mindset y’all – it is a way of looking at the world and believing that the good will always outweigh the bad.

Why is optimism so important?

Studies show that optimists live happier and healthier lives and are more successful at work.

There is a popular video of a TED talk by Susan David about False Positivity. That is a different story. With optimism, we are not saying hard feelings don’t exist. They do. What we are doing is cultivating a way of dealing with such hard feelings in a life-affirming way.

Beloved saints, my hope this week is that you will have daily moments when you catch yourself and you pivot your thoughts. My prayer is that you will remember that nothing is permanent, and that you will find beauty as it fills your day and that you will affirm yourself as whole, nothing broken, nothing missing.

Y’all, that is what hope in action looks like!

What questions, or thoughts, do you have about optimism? Leave a comment and let me know.


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