“Choose to be optimistic, it feels better”. – Dalai Lama XIV
Would you call yourself an optimist?
For years, I would have answered this question with a no… I preferred to think of myself as a realist, with a bent toward cynicism and pessimism. I didn’t hold with the idea of pretending that everything was wonderful when it clearly wasn’t.
I also prided myself on recognizing that some things simply couldn’t be changed and didn’t waste my time trying to remake bad situations. I tried, instead, to accept them for what they were. The smart money wasn’t in a Pollyanna approach to the world; there were just too many difficult things in life. I couldn’t possibly be an optimist, because I was a realist.
Why was it so hard for me to walk on the brighter side of life? The crux of the issue, for me, was ego. I equated a pessimistic mindset with intelligence. I wanted to be taken seriously, and I thought that pointing out and dissecting problems meant I was thinking more deeply about life.
Ah, youth. Life has taught me some lessons in that regard, and the fundamentals of my learning can be found in what’s called positive psychology, which is a scientific study of what goes right in life. What I had failed to realize is that optimism doesn’t deny the low, difficult times in our lives, it simply recognizes that:
“What is good in life is as genuine as what is bad.… What is good in life is not simply the absence of what is problematic.… And third, the good life requires its own explanation, not simply a theory of disorder stood sideways or flipped on its head”. Christopher Peterson
There’s a term, eudaimonia, which can be traced back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and refers to the “pursuit of virtue, excellence, and the best within us”. Another interpretation is “blessedness”. And that’s what optimism comes down to; the recognition of how blessed we are, regardless of immediate circumstance or difficulty.
What I’ve learned over time is that pessimism is easy. Cynicism is easy. What’s hard is tackling the challenges of life and staying positive in the face of them.
And to be clear, it’s not recognizing problems that makes you a pessimist, it’s how you choose to deal with them. (Hint: bemoaning circumstances, pounding your breast and pulling out your hair do NOT actually influence the state of the world. It just makes you miserable to be around and sucks the joy out of your life.)
I’ve had the privilege of being close to people who have dealt with nearly unimaginable trials and have risen above them, becoming the strongest, most hopeful people in my life.
These people don’t deny the terrible things that can happen; they’ve lived through them and they’ll acknowledge how difficult there were (and are). But without exception, each one of them says “Here is what I’ve learned. Time is precious. Life is precious. Appreciate all of it- the good and the bad- and learn to recognize everything beautiful that comes your way”.
They know that however difficult life can be, something good can be found in it. They’ve also helped me recognize that so often, good comes shining through in someone else. They lead me gently toward that idea that yes, there is darkness, but there is also light.
Experience has taught me to stay close to these people who feel like sunshine, and to work toward being that person myself. It just feels better.
And you never know… you might be the light in someone else’s darkness.
(If you want to read more about the premise of positive psychology, check out this article, it’s excellent: https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/what-is-positive-psychology-definition/. )