Train Your Brain to Be Optimistic
Many people struggle to stay optimistic, especially in the workplace. After all, there are many reasons to be pessimistic: a difficult economy, global competition, a business ethos that seems to reward criminals and penalize truth-tellers.
Nevertheless, your ability to succeed depends heavily on your ability to remain optimistic. I'm not talking about seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. I'm talking about trusting your ability to cope, regardless of what life throws at you.
Pessimists don't just miss opportunities, they can't take advantage of opportunities that drop into their laps. They're so convinced that everything is awful that they can't figure out how to make things better.
The True Source of Optimism
As I've pointed out before, everybody has rules that they use to interpret the meaning of events. Pessimists have rules that make it easy to be miserable and difficult to be happy. Optimists have rules that make it easy to be happy and difficult to be miserable.
Pessimists let just about anything--like getting caught in traffic--make them upset. Their "what makes me miserable" rules have a low threshold. As a result, they're constantly experiencing life in a way that makes them more pessimistic.
Pessimists also have "what makes me happy" rules that have a high threshold, such as "I'm happy when I get a brand new car." Since such events are uncommon, pessimists rarely have experiences that justify being optimistic about the future.
Optimists tend to have rules that do the exact opposite. Ask optimists what make them happy and you'll hear something like: "any day above ground is a good day" or "all it takes to make me happy is a smile."
Optimists also have rules that make it difficult to be miserable. Many can barely remember a time when they were consistently unhappy, and then it's because something unusually sad happened, like the death of a loved one.
Create Rules That Make You Optimistic
In a previous post, I provided a simple method to create and instill a set of beliefs (i.e. rules) that make you happier. That method was taught me by my mother, who stayed optimistic even while confronted with breast cancer.
I was talking about my mother with a relative recently and it emerged from the conversation that I'd left out an important step. So I'm going to go over the method again, with a bit more detail:
1. Write down your current rules.
Take out pen and paper (important: do not use your computer) and write out your current rules, using the following format:
- I'm unhappy when the following things happen: (list)
- I'm happy when the following things happen: (list)
Don't make a huge project out of it. Accuracy is less important than the "feel" of the rules. The rules that pop into your mind immediately are usually the most significant.
2. Consider the results you're getting.
Step back for a moment and consider those rules as if you were reading what somebody else wrote. Do those rules create an attitude of pessimism or optimism? Do they make it easy to be miserable and difficult to be happy?
I can almost guarantee that's the case because, if that weren't true, you wouldn't be bothering with this exercise. The reason you've gotten this far is that there's a part of you that knows that your rules are bringing you more pain than pleasure.
Take a moment to consider why you believe those rules. In most cases, it's because you're afraid to be disappointed. You've set your expectations of life low so that you have an automatic excuse for failing.
3. Create some better rules.
Now it's time to get creative. Get out a second piece of paper, take a few deep breaths, and then ask yourself:
- What day-to-day common events could make me feel happy?
- What unusual, uncommon events could make me miserable?
The wording of these questions is important. You're thinking about possibilities at this point (i.e. "could make me") not your current reality. List out as many things as you can for the first question. Keep the second list short; only really serious stuff.
When you've finished with your list, write down your "optimism" rules in the following format:
- I am happy when [event]
- I am miserable only when [event]
Once again, the wording is crucial.
At this point you should have two pieces of paper, in your own handwriting, one documenting your current "pessimistic" rules and the other documenting the "optimistic" rules you'd like to believe.
4. Burn the old rules.
I fully realize that this sounds completely corny. Even so it works, and here's why.
You are a human being. For the past 125,000 years, one of the defining characteristics of being human has been the mastery of fire. Fire is part of every religion, from the actual worship of fire to the use of candles in churches.
The importance of fire is in your DNA, in other words, and by burning those old beliefs, you are reaching into the very depths of your subconscious and telling yourself that those beliefs are no longer real. They no longer count. The fire has made them into ashes.
Crumple the ashes into dust. You're done with that way of thinking.
5. Post the new rules where you'll see them every day.
When you burned those old rules, you created a vacuum in your mind. Your mind wants to fill that vacuum and it will "glom onto" whatever it's exposed to on a daily basis.
Post your new rules beside your computer or on your bathroom mirror. Or both. Just be certain that you write out every copy of those rules in your own handwriting, so that your brain "knows" that they belong to you.
If you follow the above steps, you will inevitably become more optimistic. You'll be happier, healthier and much more likely to see the opportunities in life and work, rather than wallow in the challenges.
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GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist
Geoffrey James is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed over a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is "Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts that You Need to Know."