Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Optimism: An Introduction to a Happier Life

Optimism: An Introduction to a Happier Life

If you wake up happy, feel positive about your life and look forward to good times, you can put this article down. Some people are born optimistic, and their sunny personality is a blessing for them, their families and friends. Most of us, however, get "down in the dumps" sometimes or feel unhappy and pessimistic most of the time. If you'd like to learn some tips to counteract these negative feelings, read on.

With life problems around us, how can we keep up our good cheer? It's important to try, for ourselves and others. If we can have a choice between feeling positive and negative, why not choose positive? Of course we want to feel good, but we don't always realize we have a choice about how we feel. Pessimists especially feel they are trapped by negative circumstances in their lives. Facing a difficult life challenge is hard enough, why add another problem by feeling bad about it? Sometimes we can change the life problem and sometimes we have to adapt. But we always do have a choice about how we feel.

If you are a pessimist you may be ready to put down this article now, perhaps thinking this information is just "psychobabble" and would never work. But, maybe that's just your pessimism talking. Please realize that both optimists and pessimists have approximately the same number of life problems. In other words, whether you see your life as "half-full" or "half empty", the number of problems is the same; the difference is how you cope with your life problems.

The first step in choosing a more optimistic and happy outlook on life is to realize that our thoughts are an important source for our feelings of happiness or unhappiness. We all have an internal dialogue in our heads that comments upon ourselves, our behavior and our life circumstances. Start by paying attention to your thoughts to discover whether they are positive or negatively toned. Positive and happy thoughts and an optimistic personality all go together. When you are feeling "down in the dumps", you will also be thinking similarly. Your internal commentary may in fact be an internal critic criticizing you and predicting negative outcomes for your life. There are specific techniques you can learn to help you dispute or counteract the negative internal commentary. This article will give you some specific techniques to counter pessimism and promote optimism, one aspect of your internal commentary.

When we think optimistically we tend to have positive thoughts and predict positive outcomes for our lives. Should, then, we all live like Pollyanna? Actually no, because false optimism does not reflect reality any more then false pessimism. Research has shown that realistic optimism is a desirable state of mind because it helps us deal with the setbacks we all encounter in our lives. If Pollyanna does not see the stone in the road, she will trip over it. A realistic optimist, when encountering that stone, will realize that it is just one stone in this particular road, there's a path around the stone and it's possible to make it around that stone to the other side. A pessimist may become discouraged when encountering the stone in the road, may feel the stone is too big to deal with or may not see the path on the other side. In other words, optimists are able to assess potential problems realistically and positively, seeing most life problems as specific, situationally-based and surmountable. A pessimist sizes up problems as permanent, personal and pervasive.

You can use these three key differences in thinking in order to change your thoughts from pessimistic to optimistic. The first difference is whether you judge a problem to be temporary or permanent. When you see a problem as temporary, you are likely to feel positive about discovering an outcome, and then you are more likely to spend the time to find a solution for the problem. The next key difference is whether you judge a problem to be related to your life situation or to your personal characteristics. When you believe that a problem is situation-specific, you are more likely to work to change the situation and improve the problem than when you judge the difficulty to be related to your personal failure. The last key difference is whether you judge the problem to be limited enough to be surmountable or so pervasive that you feel like giving up the battle. Reading about these differences, the pessimist is probably asking: what if the problem is in fact permanent, personal and pervasive? The answer is, you won't really know until you try different solutions. If you give up before you even start trying, the battle is already lost, and you're likely to feel unhappy and depressed and blame yourself for your failure.

This article is an introduction to the more lengthy and specific articles on this web site I hope you will feel encouraged enough to spend the time to investigate these concepts more fully and try out this approach for yourself. Like many good ideas, "it's easier said than done." Therapists, especially cognitive-behavioral therapists, should be familiar with these concepts and have expertise to help you understand and implement these coping strategies in your life.