Optimism is Actually a Choice!
Lunch with my brother Fred
I had lunch with my brother on Saturday at Bob Evans in Sidney. It’s the halfway point for us between Dayton and Lima. During lunch he asked me, “So what’s happening with you?”
I told him, “I’m blogging about my experience of anxiety.”
“I didn’t know you had anxiety,” he said, “so what’s it like. Maybe I have anxiety too.” His openness and curiosity were so encouraging to me.
I told him about feeling a sense of impending doom that just comes over me for no good reason. “It’s not like someone just announced there’s an atom bomb about to be dropped, or that the Martians are on their way to take over Lima or what it must feel like to hear a doctor tell you that you have cancer,” I said, “because if that happened the feelings of impending doom would be based on something real. My feelings just come over me like a dark cloud.”
I told him about my ruminating thoughts that were so intrusive they hijacked me even when I was doing something enjoyable. Then I confessed to him the third anxiety experience which I had never told anyone before. “I’ve had this weird sense that my worrying actually prevents bad things from happening. I ruminate and worry about something bad that might happen and then when it doesn’t happen I credit my worrying for avoiding it. When my co-workers asked me why I worry so much I would tell them that if they would only worry more, I could worry less. Since they don’t worry about things that might happen, I have to worry for everyone.”
It was at this point a few years ago that even I knew that I’d crossed a line from normal thinking to abnormal and I knew that I needed to find a better way.
It was then that I discovered Positive Psychology and the phrase that began a huge change for me – Optimism is a choice! - I had always believed that people who were optimistic were that way because: a) they had a lot of money; b) they had a great job; c) they had a great home; d) they had a great marriage and family; and e) they had perfect health and perfect bodies. So optimism was always out of reach because I could never achieve all of those at once.
Then I read something that really startled me – All of these things I believed were the cause of optimism and happiness only accounted for 10% . . . Then what does cause happiness? The answer was unbelievable – It is the choice to feel optimistic. Optimism is the cause, the underlying cause of wealth, health, relationships, and more. Optimistic people literally create their own experience. Incredible! Here I’d lived for so long, decades, in this cloud of doom and worry, like the character Pig Pen with a cloud of dust surrounding him in the Snoopy cartoon and all the while the first step out was to lift my head above this cloud I’d created.
Ok, I though, it’s nice to say, “I feel optimistic” a hundred times, but how do I get to that feeling? How can I create this choice for optimism?
Martin Seligman – Tell a new story
I discovered the author Martin Seligman, one of the founders of Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who gave some practical tips on how to create optimism:
Focus on gratitude and appreciation – look for things you appreciate - remember and record what you are grateful for – identify and think about what you love and look forward to, and
Start telling a new story – stop talking about your worries, fears, and anxieties and start thinking about and talking about what it is that you’d like to have happen.
So I went back to my journal and began to make lists because I love to make lists.
I listed as many things as I could think about that I was grateful for.
I listed people and things and opportunities that I appreciated
I wrote lists of things that I loved to do.
I wrote about what I was looking forward to.
And I kept writing and slowly a light began to shine through this dark cloud I’d carried and I recognized that now I was creating the light from within. The cloud was beginning to break up.
Above the battleground
Now when dark thoughts begin I could shift my thinking to something I loved, something I felt grateful for or appreciated and slowly my mood and outlook began to lighten and I discovered that if I did something I enjoyed, even something simple like cleaning off my desk, I could actively take charge of my thoughts and mood
One Lent I announced to my family that I was giving up negativity for Lent. “I am only going to speak positively about everyone and everything and if I don’t have anything good or positive to say than I am not going to say anything at all.” My middle daughter, Kara, looked at me, smiled, and just said, “Thank God!”
I didn’t realize until that moment how much my own dark thoughts and mood, even unspoken, had affected her. This was a revelation. The answer seemed almost too simple, yet in this simple practice of actively looking for and seeking what I loved and appreciated I was feeling relief in a way I’d never felt it before. And it was impacting every part of my life.
As I talked about my discovery of Positive Psychology with colleagues and friends they asked me to speak to their staff about it and I realized that there were a lot of people, just like me, that needed to hear this message that optimism is a choice.
I kept reading and discovering more and more until one day I stumbled upon what was to become the third step in my recovery. Author after author identified mindfulness practice as the single most effective way to experience inner peace, serenity, and calm.
I wanted to know more. That’s when I found Mindfulness Based Stress Relief (MBSR) based at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center headed by Jon Kabat Zinn. This would literally change my life.
Next: Manic Mike become Mindful Mike