With the trials of the past year, optimism is likely harder to come by than it ever has been for most people. We’ve been through the ringer when it comes to stress, our finances, isolation, and political upheaval, and for the most part we’re all just praying for a break.
Talking about positivity under such circumstances can be downright controversial – mostly because everyone’s personal circumstances are so different, and some of us are far more privileged than others when it comes to our day-to-day lives. In my case, I mark a clear line between blind “positivity” and “optimism,” for the simple reason that each word carries a different meaning for the average person.
Positivity is the search for “the good” in every situation, even if said event is decidedly bleak. These days there’s been much talk about “toxic positivity” that encourages people to hide, cover up, or deny their negative feelings and experiences for the sake of cultivating “good energy.” I feel that such actions are not only unhealthy but also disingenuous – toxic positivity benefits no one.
True optimism, in the context of this post, is more about resilience than positivity. Rather than looking for the “good,” optimism is the simple determination not to let the bad overwhelm any given moment. This is easier said than done. It requires a careful cultivation of mindfulness, self-reflection, and personal accountability that can take time to solidify.
The results are well worth the effort – in fact, for some of us true optimism may be our only shot at making it through the current era intact.
Here’s a guide to cultivating optimism in your daily life, and along the way I’ll add in a few reminders about what optimism is not. The key is to be reasonable with yourself and others without losing sight of anyone’s potential (least of all your own). Things may not be great, but we’re still here. Somehow, we’ve got to go about the business of living.
We might as well do so with some measure of hope for the future and appreciation of the present, right?
Define What Optimism Means For You (Within Reason).
All of us well-meaning human beings have a tendency to aim very high when it comes to our self-improvement goals. While honorable, this isn’t helpful when you’re trying to develop real, lasting optimism…especially during particularly challenging times.
Mindsets are shifting, dynamic processes, not specific “things” you can change day to day. Optimism is no exception. To develop it you have to learn to be kind to yourself, and the most important part of that is learning to be reasonable with yourself.
The idea that “you can do anything” or “you can be anything” is laudable, to be sure, but it’s also not realistic. All of us have perfectly human limitations and boundaries, and we shouldn’t pressure ourselves to surpass them for the sake of some distant, lofty goal. Optimism relies on facing life with your eyes wide open – it’s not a concept meant to distract you from reality by presenting some unattainable peak of human development for you to scale.
If you want to be more optimistic in your everyday life, step one is to sit down with yourself and admit where your expectations vs. your limitations are. What does “optimism” mean to you? What can it mean to you? Knowing the answers to these questions is what allows you to actually pursue a mindset shift that will last.
Again, resilience is key to true optimism. Knowing that you can look at certain things more mindfully but can’t bring yourself to approach isolation and grief with a smile is reasonable. Accepting that you don’t have everything you want or even need right now, but sitting down and looking at the ways you can get those things in the near future, is reasonable.
Demanding that you approach every incident or challenge with unwavering positivity and perfect motivation is not reasonable. Asking your mind to neatly and efficiently process everything that’s happening without stumbling over the details isn’t reasonable.
You have to know what’s fair to ask of yourself before you can move forward with the optimistic process.
Make A Commitment To Take Stock – Regularly.
How often do most of us sit down and list out our circumstances, blessings, and challenges clearly? In my experience the answer is, rarely. We simply “don’t have the time.” Right now, a lot of us probably feel that we don’t have the energy, either.
Taking stock is an essential component of cultivating optimism, however, because true optimism relies on realism. Knowing where you stand allows you to see where you can go. The operative word here is can. No one should force themselves to believe in the impossible – that’s not optimism, that’s delusion. Eventually it turns into disillusionment.
When you take stock, all you’re doing is taking a breath and making notes about who you are, where you are, and where you’d like to be. You can do this in many ways. Gratitude journaling is one method for counting blessings, but it may not look hard enough at your challenges. You need to view both in order to become optimistic in any lasting sense.
My personal technique is to simply take a sheet of lined paper and categorize it into sections labeled “blessings/current assets,” “challenges/hurdles,” and “dreams/goals.” Some of my blessings might include “I am healthy and get to make an income through writing.” Right now a challenge could be “helping my dad handle the Covid death of his father/my grandfather.” A dream or goal would be “publish all seven of the books in my most recent WIP romance series by x date.”
These lists are simply signposts marking the current circumstances in your life. Try not to use overly emotive language in the challenges section – be honest, but don’t be overtly negative. When we write things down we tend to see them more clearly, and it becomes easier to put things into context. Most of the time we emerge from such an exercise with a new perspective.
In our case, we’re aiming for that perspective to grow more optimistic over time. Which brings us to the next piece of advice…
Embrace The Power Of Small Rituals.
Not all of us can claim to be skilled at developing routines. Lord knows I can’t! But all of us, no matter how distractible or undisciplined, can develop what I like to call “small rituals amidst a big life.” All this means is that I turn regular, everyday things into rituals.
That’s the beauty of the human mind – we get to decide how significant things are, and no one can tell us otherwise once we make that choice.
Waking up and opening the blinds of my room, letting in the sunlight and gazing out at the forest, the stream, and the birds outside my window? That, to me, is a powerful daily ritual. Getting up early so I can spend at least an hour reading in silence while sipping my coffee? It’s one of the most influential rituals I have.
All through my day I have turned “little” things into rituals – and by this I mean that I intentionally think of them as sacred, inherently spiritual activities that have a much deeper significance than their outward appearance.
This is an entirely internal perspective that I have cultivated for years. I have given my mundane daily routines ritual significance by reflecting on them, by giving thanks for them, and by speaking of them reverently to my loved ones. When I can, I invite others to embrace them as well, and each time it has made a measurable difference in their ability to face the day with optimism and strength.
When you imbue your day with sacredness, all of your challenges and hurdles become holy, too. Whether you are a devout atheist or actively practicing a specific religion, sacredness is something born of awareness more than anything. Optimism, too, is built upon awareness. The two concepts fuel each other.
Inject ritual power into your small tasks, and you’ll embrace your inner optimist without even realizing it.
Finally: Expect Grace, Not Perfection.
This is in no way a comprehensive guide, and I know that much of my advice on optimism is more metaphysical than direct. Ultimately every person is going to define optimism by their own standards, and will fit it into their own unique experiences, beliefs, and circumstances.
When it comes to strength of any kind, optimism included, no one can tell you what it is and isn’t. You have to decide that for yourself. By keeping in mind the practices I’ve outlined here you will, I hope, move closer to that definition in a way that is as imperfect and practical as you need it to be.
We are messy people living messy lives. The world is often frightening, confusing, and filled with unknowns – but you are here, and life is to be lived according to your values, your strengths, and your dreams. Optimism is simply one more tool that will help you live authentically and with grace.
To summarize, optimism depends on three things above all else:
- Honestly and reasonably defining “optimism” to suit your life and your needs as a unique person.
- A dedication to “taking stock” of your life regularly and honestly – with a focus on clear insight.
- An appreciation of “small rituals” each and every day, to give yourself the strength and sacredness necessary for true optimism to flourish.
If you work at optimism day by day and little by little, you’ll see your life shift dramatically over time. Above all, be kind to yourself, acknowledge your strengths, and persevere with an eye for the potential contained in every moment.