How to Make Your Optimism Soar

All of us can pump up our optimism quota; we can build our personal stores of positivity and hope. Here’s how.

Soaring Optimism“Whether you think that you can or think that you can’t,” said Henry Ford, “you’re usually right.”

And right, too, was Mr. Ford’s astute observation.   Our beliefs about what we can achieve play a key part in our motivation, determination and success in any endeavor.

Optimists—those who believe in their goals, in the likelihood of their acquiring the means to achieve them, and in themselves—are much more likely to achieve success than the pessimist, whose thoughts are filled with doubt.

The good news is that all of us can pump up our optimism quota; we can build our personal stores of positivity and hope.

Where you currently fall on the optimism/pessimism continuum is a matter of how you habitually evaluate your experiences.  In other words, it’s rooted in the kinds of stories you tell yourself about the things that happen in your life.  Note that word “habitually.”  Your views aren’t inborn; they’re  interpretation styles that you learned, and you can learn to change them.

In his book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, positive psychology founder Dr.Martin Seligman describes three facets of how we explain a situation to ourselves.  And it’s these three facets that are measured in the Learned Optimism Quiz that I mentioned in my last post.

If you took the quiz,  you may be wondering what that terms meant in the breakdown of your score.  (If you haven’t taken the quiz, you may want to stop reading here before you take it, because this information may skew your score.  Take the quiz first if you’re curious about your optimism level; then come back.)


The Three Faces of Optimism

The test scores are measurements of the three facets of optimism that Dr. Seligman identified: Permanence, Pervasiveness, and Personalization.

Permanence means you think the situation will endure over time, that it’s relatively unchanging.  Pervasiveness means you think the situation affects everything in your life.  And Personalization means you think of yourself as the cause of what happened.

When bad things happen, pessimists think they will last forever, or that they will happen over and over.  Not only that, but the bad thing ruins everything for them and it’s all their own fault.

Optimists, on the other hand, think that the bad thing that happened is a temporary situation.  It happened and it’s over.  Tomorrow will be a new day.   They also see the unhappy situation as having limited impact.  It might affect how well they do on the report they have to give today, but it has nothing to do with their family life or how much they enjoy their partner.  And they tend to put the blame for it outside themselves.  The bus was late today.  The dog ate the homework.

When good things happen, the stories optimists and pessimists tell themselves are exactly the opposite.

Pessimists think the good thing was a fluke; optimists think it’s the way things normally go.  For the pessimist, the good thing is an isolated event; the report went well, but it doesn’t mean the dinner date is going to be great.  The optimist lets the happiness of the good thing generalize to all aspects of her life.  The pessimist gives the credit for the good thing that happened to something outside himself:  “Thank goodness the questions he asked were the ones that I happened to know.”  The optimist gives herself credit:  “I’m always so well-prepared.”

This is what the scores on the Stanford quiz describe:  whether you think bad things are permanent, all pervasive and your fault, and whether you think good things are enduring, universal in scope, and to your credit.   Your overall score is the total of your scores for interpreting fortunate or good events minus your scores for interpreting the unfortunate or bad ones.

Here’s a little chart that makes it easier to visualize:

Watch Your Words

I started last week’s article by quoting my pessimistic friend Jake: “Nothing ever works out for me. Every time I think things are finally going smooth, something happens.”  Did you notice the words “nothing” and the phrase “every time?”

Along with “always,” these are key words to watch for when you set out to see how you are evaluating situations.  Whether they’re flags of a positive or negative way of looking at something depends on whether it was a good or bad event.  (Check the table above.)

It’s the negative evaluations that you want to watch for when you’re planning to build your optimism.  Listen to yourself for phrases like these:

  • I’m such a bad . . .
  • I’m no good at . . .
  • I can’t ever . . .
  • I’m so (stupid; ugly; worthless; clumsy; useless; careless; irresponsible; undisciplined; lazy; forgetful; old; fat; etc.)
  • I’ll never be able to . . .
  • I’m so terrible at . . .
  • It’s all my fault


Antidotes for Toxic Words

When you catch yourself using phrases like this, stop and hear what you just said.  Then ask yourself:

  • Is that really true?  What evidence do I have?
  • How else could I look at this situation?
  • When have I acted differently in this kind of circumstance?

For more information about how to deal with these kinds of Automatic Negative Thoughts (“ANTs”) and phrases, see Making Ants Dance: The Practice of Overcoming Negative Thoughts.

Paying attention to the way we talk to ourselves about what is happening in our lives, how we interpret and judge things is half the battle in correcting habitual pessimism.


Building Hopefulness

If you haven’t yet downloaded the free Quick Start Guide offered at the top right of the page, please grab it!  In it you’ll find eight powerful practices you can put into play to help you build more positivity in your life.

Among the most powerful of these is the Three Good Things practice.  You can also read about it here.

If you want to boost your capacity for hope-filled, optimistic living even more try these:

  • Learn and practice meditation.  Here’s a good video on the basics (Bear with the quick advertising lead.):

How To Meditate on Howcast


  • Identify your strengths and play with using one of your top five strengths for a week at a time.  You may want to keep notes on your experiences.
  • Savor past successes and good times.  When you’re enjoying yourself, slow down and get into the feeling.  Look back on the times you succeeded in the past; remember the details and how good you felt.  Try to recapture the feeling.
  • As awkward as it may seem at first, learn to brag a little.  Practicing saying good things about yourself to yourself and to others.

Remember that what you focus on tends to expand in your experience.  You’re free to continue cementing your habit of looking at and generalizing the things that go wrong.  Or you can decide to begin paying attention to, and celebrating, all the things that go right.

The wonderful thing about positivity—as study after study shows—is that it builds on itself.  Once you can generate three positive experiences for yourself for every negative one, you’ll have entered the upward spiral of increasing positivity where optimism soars.

Yes, it takes some effort.  Yes, you do have to pay attention and do the work of questioning your negative evaluations of your circumstances.  But you can get hooked on feeling more hope, satisfaction, confidence, meaning and happiness pretty quickly, and the payoff for the little bit of work involved is phenomenal.  It’s like waking from weeks of gloomy days to discover that the sky is endlessly blue and the sun is shining—just for you.



Photo: stock.xchange

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