I had a very sad experience this past week. A family had lost their baby, in the hospital, within 24 hours of their birth, from an accident. The air was heavy with compassion, as well as the underlying fear that something just as horrible could happen to us – by accident. The intensity of the grief was palpable, and I was in awe of how humans can actually make it through an experience like that.
Many people do get through life’s formidable challenges and continue with their lives, albeit changed. I got to thinking about resiliency, and how some people seem to take life’s blows – big or small – with relative grace, and others get thrown and sucked down by relatively less stressful events. What was up with that?
What helps people bounce back (or stay steady to begin with)?
I’ll give two examples of different perspectives that I’ve seen recently (names changed, of course).
If life could be graded, Christina would give hers an F.U. Her new job is stressful, her teenage daughter is struggling with depression, she and her husband are fighting a lot lately, and she hates herself for the extra 30 pounds she’s carrying.
Christina feels hopeless and her life seems depressing and dark. Every setback reinforces her feelings of pessimism and grim certainty that nothing will ever get better.
Barbara’s struggles seem just as daunting. Her husband just lost his job, two months after the birth of their first child. She is responsible for her elderly mother, who is becoming increasingly frail. To make things worse, her best friend and main support is moving to another state (yikes!) and the landlord just raised the rent by $200. Despite all this, Barbara gives her life a strong B+ and knows there are some A+wesome days ahead.
I’ve done my share of studying and exploring mindset and it’s effect on resiliency and optimism. A lot of my interest started because I grew up in the ghetto, and I wondered why some of us “got out,” and others didn’t. Most people don’t believe me when I say that about the ghetto, but then I point out that the movie Dangerous Minds was based on my neighborhood, and then they believe me.
Growing up, I watched most of my friends join gangs, drop out of school, and have babies by the time they were 16. I had a gun pointed at my face, point blank, when I was 15. When he pulled the trigger he aimed it just left of my head to be funny. To top it off, I had a schizophrenic bipolar father, an (ahem) challenging and aggressive mother, and I walked around – literally – with holes in my shoes.
But dangit, if that paragraph had you wanting to buy me a Coke, let me tell you: I was somehow happier than my other friends were.
For a long while I thought I was messed up somehow. For realz! Like I didn’t understand some “mature” truth about life that somehow made it suck more.
Then I started to pick up on the fact that despite my father being schizo-affective, when he wasn’t having paranoid delusions, he was actually super funny and positive. And my mother, while needing a few courses on anger management back then, was utterly unfailing in the way she supported anything I wanted to accomplish, and bounced back from adversity pretty quickly. And it was REAL! For both of them!
Somehow, our life wasn’t “ideal,” but we were going to have enjoy it anyway. And my parents always said, “Obstacles can become opportunities.” (We heard a baptist preacher give a speech at a graduation once, and he went through each letter of the alphabet like that, e.g. challenges into consciousness, and they stuck.) My one other friend from my neighborhood who went to college? Also optimistic. Ever since we were kids it was obvious.
Snap! I started thinking that while optimism wasn’t the only reason, it was probably a big one.
Using the examples above, I’ll bet your bottom dollar that unlike Christina, Barbara sees her setbacks as temporary obstacles to be overcome. To her, crises are a part of life, opportunities for her to gain wisdom and courage.
Put simply, some people are optimists and others are pessimists. However, optimism isn’t an accident–it’s a skill that can be learned, one that can help us feel better, resist depression and greatly improve our lives. I learned it from my parents, for sure. Studies have also shown that some part of optimism (a SMALL part) is indeed a biological wiring of our brain but – HEY! If you have pessimistic tendencies, don’t go down the “permanent” path – it is malleable! You can teach yourself, and learn, how to be optimistic. And that means you can teach yourself to be healthier and happier.
I Can Learn to Be Optimistic? Prove it!
Psychologist, clinical researcher, and bestselling author Martin Seligman has spent 25 years studying optimism and pessimism, and is one of the founding leaders of the Positive Psychology field. In his book, Learned Optimism, he states that pessimistic thinking can undermine not just our behavior but our success in all areas of our lives.
“Pessimism is escapable,” he writes. “Pessimists can learn to be optimists.” Does this mean when you are optimistic that you walk around ignoring suffering and negativity? Hellz no! It means you learn to not spiral down into a place where you are doing yourself more harm than good. And it means you don’t spend all your energy trying to protect yourself from suffering because you get that it is a part of life, so you might as well get on the bouncing-back-quickly bandwagon and learn some skillz. It means that you give yourself and others the benefit of the doubt, and you have a more positive experience in life, and more happiness, even if nothing else in your life changed.
So why not, right?!
By altering our view of our lives, we can actually alter our lives, Seligman says. First, we must recognize our “explanatory style,” which is what we say to ourselves when we experience a setback (aka gremlin alert). By breaking the “I give up” pattern of thinking and changing our interior negative dialogue, we can encourage what he calls “flexible optimism.”
He believes that focusing on our innate character strengths (wisdom, courage, compassion), rather than our perceived failures boosts not just our moods, but our immune system. Research has shown that optimistic people tend to be healthier and experience more success in life; therefore, he encourages parents to develop the patterns of optimism in their children.
Practicing “spiritual optimism” is another way to improve the quality of our lives. Joan Borysenko, psychologist, speaker and author of several books, including Fire in the Soul, encourages people who experience feelings of despair and hopelessness in times of crises to remember it takes courage to live, and that we can find that courage by facing our fears, finding support and using meditationm or prayer.
Similar techniques outlined by Dr. David Burns in his book Feeling Good: “The New Mood Therapy,” have been effective in treating depression. He believes that changing our thinking has a profound effect on our moods, including cases of severe depression. It’s not our lives that depress us, he writes, but our thinking about our lives.
There are multiple theories out there, and a growing body of decades worth of research, supporting the idea that unless Christina begins to change her thinking, her life’s outlook may remain bleak and dismal. Barbara, however, is likely to experience more satisfying and fulfilling years ahead because she believes her life is filled with “challenges and opportunities,” rather than “struggles and obstacles” (same same, but different).
Where do you fall on the scale of optimism vs pessimism? Check out the UPenn site where they have all sorts of fun positive psychology tests (Optimism Test, Compassionate Love, Authentic Happiness Inventory to name a few) that might help you learn more about where you can grow, and where you’re already dropping into how awesome YOU and your life are.
Keep an eye out in April for my upcoming FREE teleseminar, “What the Hell Just Happened!? Adapting to Change.” I’ll probably change the title, but that sounded fun for now;) If you want to get on the wait list, let me know here and I’ll send you early registration (I will limit it to 20 people so we can interact during the call).
In the meantime, try a daily practice of waking up and practicing gratitude first thing in the morning (=before you even get out of bed, even before you open your eyes, or have sex). Its a great way to set the tone for your day’s mindset.
Note: Ana Neff is known as the Ziji™ Mentor. She helps individuals awaken their lives and personal success with confidence, clarity, and passion. Her monthly Ziji Up! eZine goes out to hundreds of subscribers. If you are ready to take your life and your world to the next level, you can learn more about her coaching programs and download her FREE Getting Clear Guide by visiting www.ZijiLife.com