Living with Heart: Hope, Optimism and Future-Mindedness

Hope
“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”  ~Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

 

Of all the character strengths, one of my very favorites is the strength of “hope, optimism, and future-mindedness.”   When you have hope, when you believe there’s a reason to keep on, your life takes on a luster and an energy that encourages you even on the darkest days.

I’m talking about hope as a noun, a state of being.  Yes, sometimes it has an object attached to it and acts like a verb:  I hope he wins.  I hope it doesn’t rain.  But even then, what we’re really saying is that we have hope inside us, that it’s active in our lives.

Hope is a kind of positive expectancy that things will turn out well.  It believes that good outcomes are possible, even against all odds.  And it believes that even when the outcome we wanted doesn’t materialize, we’ll eventually discover that, in the long run. our disappointments contribute to our greater good.

The creators of positive psychology’s Character Strengths Survey describe someone who scores high in hope, optimism and future-mindedness this way:  “You expect the best in the future, and you work to achieve it. You believe that the future is something that you can control.”

The future is a pretty big place.  Maybe believing that we can influence it is a safer bet than believing we can control it.  But hope and optimism definitely give us stronger cards to play, and they motivate us to take the actions we can to bring our influence to bear.

How to Build Hope

If you’re a bit low on hope right now, I have good news for you.  Hope, like all the character strengths, is a bit like a muscle.  Give it some attention and exercise, and you can build it up.

Hope expert Dr. Anthony Scioli suggests five strategies for building hope:

  1. Set Goals.  Pick something that you would like to accomplish.  It doesn’t have to be anything big, just something you think is within your capabilities that you would feel good about accomplishing. Having a goal gives you some clarity in your life and a sense of purpose.
  2. Enjoy Good Relationships.  From your list of family members and acquaintances, pick one or two with whom you can be open, who won’t make you feel guarded or defensive.  As one of your goals, make a decision to spend time with them once or twice a week, even its just for a good chat on the phone.
  3. Manage Your Stress.  Dr. Scioli suggests that you identify your preferred way of coping with stress:  “Problem solving, seeking support from others, praying, planning in advance, or avoidance.”  Then, he suggests, “make a commitment to practice one or two strategies that are not part of your normal coping repertoire.
  4. Deepen Your Spirituality.  What feels spiritual to you?  Spending time in communion with your God, or higher power?  Involvement in a social organization?  Being with good friends?  Think about ways that you can spend more of your time in this area to build your sense of faith in life’s goodness.
  5. Develop a Personal Mission Statement.  What would you name as the central theme for your life?  What would give you a sense of purpose and meaning?  Accomplishing some larger goal?  Mastering a skill?  Serving others in some way?  Dr. Scioli suggests placing your written statement in a visible place to motivate you when life threatens to get the best of you.

Other practices that can help you build your hope muscle include:

  • Taking care of your health:  It’s a lot easier to feel hope when you’re full of vitality.  Get enough sleep and exercise, eat wholesome, unprocessed foods, and keep yourself well-hydrated.
  • Watching your self-talk:  Practice noticing what’s right in your life, what’s good in a situation, how well you did something, what traits you appreciate in yourself.  Learn to pat yourself on the back now and then.
  • Practicing gratitude:  It will help you notice the goodness that surrounds you and to develop your sense of life’s bounteousness and opportunities.
  • Practicing self-compassion:  Learn to be kinder and less blaming toward yourself.  Become your own best friend and supporter.  Give yourself credit for your efforts and positive attributes.
  • Accepting personal responsibility: When you accept that you’re in charge of creating your future success, you hopefulness naturally increases.
  • Keeping in motion:  Hope thrives on action.  Keep moving toward your goals.

Cultivating Optimism

Hope and optimism are strongly related.  Optimism actively looks for the good in situations, people, and things.  Optimism greases the wheels of hope and keeps it rolling.

Luckily, Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, researched optimism in depth and describes what separates the optimist from his negative cousin in his book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.

You can check out my article, How to Make Your Optimism Soar, to learn how to incorporate more of this hopeful viewpoint into your life.

Why Bother?

We live in fast-paced, challenging, often distressful times.  When you look around the world and see all the problems, it’s easy to lose your senses of optimism and hope.  The potential for doom can easily eclipse our perception of the powerful potential for triumph that exists as well.

Cultivating your own personal sense of hope and optimism is one way you can help tip the balance in a positive direction.  You can use this strength to help make the most of your own life, to motivate you toward greater creativity, service and productiveness, and that’s one more life well-lived.

And besides, it makes life a lot more fun. We used to call it “living with heart.”

To send you off with a taste of it, here’s a song extolling its virtue, from the 1958 movie, “Damn Yankees.”

If you found this article worthwhile, please share it on the social media of your choice.  Thanks!  And while you’re here, subscribe and get your free copy of our Quick Start Guide to Fabulous Well-Being with eight positive living exercises that will help you live a flourishing life.

Photo by robby m at Stock.Xchng

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Perseverance – The Power Key to Success

Key to SuccessIn our instant-gratification, short-attention-span, multitasking world, we’ve lost sight of one core element of high achievement.   That element is perseverance – the power key to success.

The ability to keep on keeping on, even when our efforts are met with disappointment or failure, is an ability that can make all the difference in the world.  And that’s the definition of perseverance: to keep on keeping on.

It comes from being committed to your goal, and from believing in yourself and in your goal’s possibility.  It borrows strength from resilience and optimism and brushes elbows with courage along the way.

Listen to the story of anyone who has reached a significant goal and you’ll hear a drama about someone who had to rebound from setback after setback along the way.  There’s an old adage that says you can’t defeat a man who refuses to quit, and it’s as true today as when the words were first uttered.

Whether you’re working to master a skill that will qualify you for the next step up in your profession, or fielding interruptions from kids while you try to finish a household task, your success often hinges on your ability to refocus on your goal again and again.  To give it one more try, and then another, and another still, is to walk the path that leads to achievement.

Angela Duckworth and her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania looked at a trait they call grit, a combination of perseverance and passion, the sustained and focused application of a talent over time.  And what their research indicates is that “the quality that distinguished star performers in their respective fields was not necessarily talent, but exceptional commitment to ambitions and goals.”

Perhaps more than any other quality, perseverance is what gets our projects out the door, lets us master our talents, and that turns dreams into living, breathing realities.

The Benefits of Perseverance

But perseverance does more for you than to help you master a skill or complete a project.  As great as those achievements are, the ability to keep on keeping on serves you in other ways as well.

  • It makes you trustworthy in other people’s eyes.  They know you won’t quit when an obstacle comes along.
  • It increases your sense of self-worth to take full ownership of the goal you set out to achieve.  You accept that your destiny is in your own hands.
  • Your commitment to your goal enhances its value for you and heightens your motivation.
  • It leads you  to unexpected discoveries and expands your knowledge, both about yourself and about the field of your endeavor.

 

How to Build Perseverance

Perseverance is a  strength onto itself, and some people naturally possess more of it than others do.  But everybody can build her perseverance muscles.  As with all of our character strengths, attention to it and practice will take you a long way.  The three steps below are tools that will build your perseverance and propel you to success.

The 10-Minute Practice

You can begin to practice with little things.  Pick a project that you would really like to do and decide that you’re going to get it done, starting this week.  (Pick one that you think you can  finish in a couple of weeks at the most.  If what you want to do is bigger than that, break it down into more manageable pieces.)  Then make a commitment not to quit until it’s finished, even if you can work at it only 10 minutes a day.  If you let yourself off the hook for a day, don’t let yourself quit altogether.  Start on it again the next day.

That 10-minute commitment is important, by the way.  You know that you can do almost anything for ten minutes, no matter how unappealing it is or how pressed you are for time.  Ten minutes a day will move you forward; it will keep you in the game.  And often, once you have begun the work, you’ll find yourself caught up in its flow and willing—maybe even eager!—to continue.

Develop Your Dream

Before you begin to work on your project, take time to imagine how you will feel both as you work on it and when it is completed.  Imagine being engaged with it, and feeling the harmony, fulfillment, mastery or pride that will come with it.   You might find yourself visualizing the stages of the work and how it will look when it’s done, and that’s fine, but what we’re really after now is a deep sense of the feelings involved.   Set aside some quiet time and imagine those feelings as deeply and vividly as you can.

This is step one of the Resonance Performance Model developed by Douglas Newburg, Ph.D., based on his study of world class performers in fields ranging from art, to sports, to business, to medicine.

The next steps in the model involve preparing for the work, and planning how you’ll meet the inevitable obstacles and setbacks.  As you do these steps, revisit the positive energy of the feelings you tapped as you dreamed about accomplishing your goal.

Cultivate Your Optimism

Positive psychology leader Martin Seligman found in his research that the difference between people who give up when faced with difficulties and the ones who keep on keeping on is how they think of good and bad events.  

Optimists see negative events as temporary and narrowly focused.  An optimist who gives a stumbling presentation, for example, sees that she had a really hard time with it, but that she also learned a lot and will do better next time.   Pessimists, on the other hand, see negative events as set in stone and affecting everything.   If a pessimistic youngster flounders at basketball, he concludes he’s no good at sports at all.

On the other hand, optimists see good events as long-lasting and affecting a wide range of their lives.  Pessimists see good events as a one time shot, a fluke.

The key, then, is to listen to your self-talk and to work at intentionally moving toward an optimistic view of events, both the good and the bad ones.  “By adopting the optimist’s explanatory style,” says positive psychology master Douglas B. Turner,  the pessimist begins to challenge the sweeping statements they make about the bad things that are happening in their lives.  Over time and with practice the pessimist learns to describe good things as permanent and pervasive.  As this skill grows and becomes more and more natural the loud pessimistic voice softens.”  And the ability to persevere in the face of difficulties expands.

Put it to the test for yourself.  Brush off some abandoned dreams or projects, or choose a new one, and see what persevering will do for you.  Bolstered by optimism and fortified with a strong sense of the positive feelings that achieving your goal will bring you, you’ll be turning the key to your success.

To learn eight more powerful ways to flourish in your life, grab your free copy of our Quick Start Guide to Positive Well-Being.  It’s right up there at the top of the page.

You might also enjoy:

The Enchantment of Engagement: Rising Above the Ho-Hum

How to Make Your Optimism Soar

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Happy Regardless: What My Broken Arm Revealed About Positivity

HermesNot that there’s a good time for such a thing to happen, but it was a really inconvenient time for me to break my arm.

It happened a month ago today on a gorgeous mid-April Friday, the first day of sunshine after a long spell of rain.  On the spur of the moment, my friend Kim and I decided to meet at the dog park when I finished work to let her exuberant young puppy, Bella, do some doggie socializing and go for a run.

Just as we neared the park’s entrance, Bella and I somehow collided and I went flying.  I grabbed the fence to try to break my fall.  But I landed hard, hearing a sharp crack and a stabbing pain in my right shoulder as I tumbled to the ground.

Before I knew it, I was in the hospital’s emergency room getting x-rays and intravenous pain blockers.  Two days later, a specialist was showing me the pictures of the mess I’d made of my upper arm and scheduling me for surgery.

Bad Timing

As I mentioned, it was not a good time for me to be taken out of action.  Kim, whose dog I tripped over, was scheduled for surgery herself in ten days and I had planned to be with her and to help her through her recovery.

In less than two weeks, the director of the clinic where I worked was retiring and I was helping plan the send-off party for her.  I had worked at her side for over eleven years and now I would miss her last days.

Meanwhile, a  therapist and two interns were leaving the clinic and a new doctor was coming aboard.  Plus the Easter holiday would complicate the payroll processing, and all of those things were part of my job.

And lastly, I would miss an out-of-state family memorial service and reunion I had so wanted to attend.

Positivity Means It’s OK to Feel Sorry

If you or anyone close to you has ever had shoulder surgery, you know the recovery is a long and very painful one.  The therapy sessions and daily exercise regime are torture.

All in all, I had every reason to be upset.  And yet, I’ve found myself flowing through it all with a preponderance of acceptance, interest, patience, and curiosity.  To tell you the truth, I surprised myself a little with the naturalness of my own positivity.  It’s one thing, after all, to accept a theory.  It’s something else to experience its truths in the actual day-to-day living out of your life.

I’m not saying that I didn’t feel any regret or disappointment over my circumstances.  Of course I did.  And there have been moments, too, when the relentless discomfort and the weariness of enduring it had me feeling my share of self-pity and anger over my enforced limitations.

Positivity doesn’t mean you don’t ever feel the negative stuff.  On the contrary.  It means you feel fully whatever emotion is there, accepting the reality of its presence, honoring it as a valid part of your experience.

What I am saying is that, on the whole, I felt positive a whole lot more than I felt negative.  I noticed my optimism and my inclination to problem solve and my willingness to congratulate myself when I managed a challenging task with my non-dominant hand.  I noticed my genuine gratitude and appreciation for the helpfulness of friends and for their caring, and for the skill of the medical personnel who patched me back together and worked with me to make me whole again.

Opening to the Gifts

I noticed how I opened myself to the gifts my solitude brought me and to the exquisite beauty of springtime unfolding outside my windows.

One of the gifts it brought was a realization that I had actually internalized the truth that  genuine happiness isn’t dependent on external circumstances.  It’s more like an endlessly streaming fount of well-being, a breathing of the very essence of the life-force, rising from our center, and present within us all.

All that keeps us from recognizing it is the layers of beliefs that cloak it.  Peel them away, and it runs fresh and clear, like a stream hidden by tall, wild grasses.  It’s the state that positive psychologists call “authentic happiness,” a state of being where we’re grounded in and constantly fed by our true, central selves.

To find that state, to part all the grasses of misplaced beliefs that hide it from us is, really, the goal of all self-development and self-actualization work.  To seek it is one of our inalienable rights as human beings.

In the end, I believe that it’s a spiritual quest, a drive to discover and live within the embrace of the divine at the core of our being.

On a more mundane level, the positivity of authentic happiness is supportive and nurturing of all that makes life worthwhile.  It provides us with strength, with optimism and hope, with the richness of appreciation and gratitude, with the glow of pleasure and the sparkle of joy.  It fills us with the drive to discover and express our unique sets of talents, strengths, values and skills.  It opens our perception to possibilities and infuses us with the curiosity, vitality and confidence to pursue them.

This little break in my normal, busy routine let me see how much positivity means to me, and how much it means to me to share with you the tools I find for making it the driving force in our lives.  Watch for some changes here.  I expect to be turning up the fire under this blog.  I have joy to share, after all, and we need all of that we can get.

 

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Your Best Possible Self

Bright FutureWhen you gaze along your time line toward your future, how bright does it look?

How vivid is the picture?  How much promise does it hold?

When your vision of the future holds the possibility of excitement and fulfillment for you, it not only casts a glow on your present, but it shapes your current decisions in a way that makes the fulfillment of its promise more likely.

Chances are you expect your future to work out reasonably well.  You have a loose sense of how you would like to be living, what you would like to have achieved, what areas of your life will have blossomed two, three, five years down the road.

But, since it’s in the future, and you have no way of knowing what will happen between now and then, you probably haven’t invested much of yourself in fleshing out the details of the picture.

What would happen if you did?  What if you invested some time in creating a full-blown image of the way your life would look five years down the road if everything went spectacularly well for you between now and then?

That’s what Professor Laura King at the University of Missouri-Columbia set out to discover back in 2001.  She pioneered the first experimental study of optimism by having a group of participants do what’s come to be known as the Best Possible Self exercise—and that’s the Positivity Practice we’re going to explore today.

I’ll describe the exercise first, and then share with you the fabulous benefits you can expect to gain by doing it yourself.  Here’s how it works:

The Practice

If you haven’t yet started a Positivity Journal, now’s the perfect time.  In any case, dedicate some paper or electronic space to doing this practice.  Here’s how:

1. Carve out 20 minutes where you can write undisturbed.  Have a way to time yourself and stick with it for the full 20 minutes.   Even if at first it feels like a daunting challenge, once you begin, you will find yourself relaxing and getting into the flow.

2. Select a future time frame: two years from now, three, five, ten—whatever feels good to you.  Sit quietly for a moment with your eyes closed, relaxing and watching your breath.  When you feel centered in yourself, begin writing whatever comes to mind about the Best Possible Self you can imagine in the future point that you chose.

Now here’s the good part:  Imagine that everything has gone wonderfully well for you, that you put worked toward you goals with diligence, patience, persistence and playfulness.  And now you have manifested your own best potentials and created your life dreams. What would your life be like then?  Write for 20 minutes about this Best Possible Self.

3. Stop at the end of 20 minutes, sit quietly again, allowing what you have written to settle inside you, and then put your work aside.

4. Over the course of the next four weeks, add to your vision whenever you feel like it, taking as much or as little time as you like.

You may want to use our Dream Creation Diagram to broaden your picture so it includes everything you might want it to hold.

What You’ll Gain

  • To sustain positivity at a high level in your life, says the godfather of happiness research, Martin Seligman, you need to cultivate it in all three segments of your time line: past, present and future.  By doing The Best Possible Self practice, you create the most positive future for yourself that you can imagine .
  • In addition, you will probably find that, like the participants in the studies who utilized this practice, you’ll feel an immediate boost in your mood right now, in the present, be happier several weeks afterward, and even have fewer physical symptoms three months down the road.
  • The practice is far more than an indulgence of your imagination.  By helping you clarify your ideals, it motivates you to be your best possible self today, to see the path ahead more clearly and to make decisions in alignment with your goals.
  • The very act of writing forces you to slow down and really think about your ideals.  Because it is a structured activity, it leads you to organize your thoughts, to clarify and crystallize them.  It helps you see where some of your goals might conflict with each other, leading you to think them through and prioritize or adapt them.
  • The practice also gives you a new window into yourself, a fresh way of seeing your feelings, your motives, and what’s really important to you.  It also provides you with an enhanced  sense of control about your future course, strengthening your optimism, and adds meaning to your life experiences as you gain insight about what you can be doing in the present to move you toward your ideals.

Those are some pretty powerful benefits to gain for the mere investment of your time.  If you play with this practice diligently, at the end of the four weeks you will have gained far more than you would from a self-development program costing you hundreds of  dollars or more.  And the insights you’ll gain will be all the more powerful because you generated them yourself.

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Thanks to Sonja Lyubomsirsky and her book  The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want for her description of this practice and its proven results.   A veritable treasure trove of positivity practices, Sonja’s book is a great resource for anyone who’s interested in  creating a more exhilarating, meaningful life.

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