Learning to Be An Optimist

You may naturally be pessimistic, but with practice, you can learn to be more optimistic.

Optimism is an attitude based on the belief that an outcome will be good. The word comes from the Latin word, Optimist and pessimist and optimismoptimum, which means best. An optimist expects the best possible outcome from any given situation. Pessimism is the general belief that an outcome will be bad. The pessimist tends to expect the worst outcome in any situation. Its Latin root is pessim, which means bad. We’ve all known optimists and pessimists, and optimists are definitely more pleasant to be around.

There are many advantages to being optimistic. Optimists respond better to stress. Research shows that optimists have lower levels of Cortisol (a stress hormone), and are better able to regulate that hormone when faced with stressful events. Other research has shown that optimists have a lower chance of developing cardiovascular disease, stroke and depression. Optimists even seem to recover more quickly from surgery.

Of course, it just makes sense that optimists will tend to be happier and more contented. They see any situation as more hopeful, thus improving motivation and effort. Other factors being equal, optimists tend to be more successful.

There are three key differences between optimistic and pessimistic thinking. They are:

Permanence: Optimistic people tend to see bad events as temporary, and good events as more permanent. They expect that they will bounce back more quickly after a failure. Optimists attribute negative events to specific, temporary causes, while viewing positive events as due to more permanent causes.

Pervasiveness: Pessimistic people see failure in one area of life as a failure in life as a whole. They overgeneralize the negative aspects of their lives, while perceiving positive events as exceptions to the rule or flukes. On the other hand, optimistic people see the negative events of life as the exception to the rule.

Personalization: Optimists blame outside causes for negative events, while perceiving positive events as the result of their hard work or abilities. Pessimists blame themselves for any negative events they experience, and discount their contributions to positive outcomes.

In his book, “Learned Optimism,” Martin Seligman, Ph.D. argued that we can become more optimistic by changing our thinking. His method involves (a) understanding our pessimistic reactions and interpretations to negative events, (b) generating counter-evidence to our negative beliefs or interpretations, (c) catching and stopping our pessimistic thoughts, and (d) reminding ourselves of the benefits of positive expectations. These steps have to be practiced repeatedly over time to be successful.

A complete change from pessimism to optimism would be pretty difficult. But, with deliberate effort, you might be able to improve your thinking enough to make a difference. Try to expect a positive outcome. You just might get it.

Are You a Fortune Teller?

We often add to our stress by imagining the worst in our future.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

Do you believe in Fortune Tellers? Do you pay money to get your palm read or your future predicted by the cards? You may not believe that others can do it, but you may believe in your own clairvoyant abilities.

Actually, we all do it at times. We imagine some future outcome and then act as if it’s a done deal. We picture the fortune teller errorevent in our mind. We feel the emotions that we would feel if it occurred.

If the imagined future event is negative, which it often is, we experience the rapid heartbeat, quickened breathing, and muscle tension, as if it was already happening. We experience the tragedy that hasn’t happened.

We may imagine future tragedies because we mistakenly feel that it will prepare us for the worst possibilities. It seems that we will fare better if we brace ourselves for the impact. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.

Imagine that you’re waiting for the results of a biopsy. The mass could be cancer or a benign tumor. You find yourself imagining that the mass is cancer. You visualize hearing the bad news, going through chemotherapy, and perhaps even dying. You imagine the worst. Your muscles tense, your heart races and your breathing quickens. You feel fear and grief.

If you later receive news that the tumor was benign, you have experienced fear, grief and pain for nothing. How many times has this happened to you? How many of the negative events of your life never actually happened?

If you get the unfortunate news that the mass is cancer, you will have to deal with it. You will experience fear, grief and pain. It won’t be lessened by the fact that you imagined the worst before you heard. You won’t be any more prepared.

The Fortune Teller Error can hurt you in other ways. Imagining failure in school may keep you from applying. Imagining rejection at a party may keep you from attending. Imagining a negative response to a question may keep you from ever asking it.

Reminds me of a story. Kevin ran out of sugar, and decided to walk next door and borrow a cup from his neighbor, Joe. He grabbed an empty cup and headed out the door. He realized it was a little late, and wondered if Joe might be in bed. He then imagined that Joe might be upset with him for bothering him. He pictured Joe chastising him for being rude. He then remembered the times he had loaned Joe things, and felt anger that Joe could possibly refuse such a simple request as a cup of sugar. As he arrived at Joe’s house, the door opened. Joe smiled and said “Hi Kevin, how are you?” Kevin shouted back, “Just keep your stupid sugar!” and marched back home.

Watch out for the Fortune Teller Error. It may rob you of more than a simple cup of sugar.

Your Do-It-Yourself Guide to Fighting Depression- Part 2

In the last post, we looked at depression as being similar to a mean, ugly, parasitic troll, which had gotten your body andtroll_2 mind. This destructive troll wants to grow stronger, so it makes you do the very things that feed it. Unfortunately, as it grows stronger, you grow weaker. Such is the course with all parasites.

This troll makes you feel fatigued, weak, heavy, and drained so you decrease your physical activity. When you’re depressed, you just want to sit, or worse, stay in bed. You almost yearn to be still and move as little as possible.

The depression troll makes you decrease your physical activity because this worsens the depression. To fight the depression you must make yourself do as much physical activity as possible. While this can be difficult, and seem impossible, you can do little bits of activity at a time. Then you can gradually increase the amount of activity.

Today, will cover the second do-it-yourself tool to fight depression. While the depression troll works to make you decrease your physical activity, he also works to make you decrease your social activity. He makes you want to withdraw from others. He makes you isolate yourself.

The depression makes you uncomfortable being around other people. You feel that you don’t fit in. You imagine that they are thinking negative things about you. You perceive that they are judging you. You feel more comfortable when you are alone.

Even when you are around others, you don’t talk as much or share as much. You feel a distance, even when others are in the same room as you. You feel disconnected. You may perceive that others are backing away from you, but it’s more likely that they are simply responding to your distance.

Your do-it-yourself tool is to make yourself do the opposite of what the depression troll makes you want to do. You approach others. You identify those in your life that have been the most supportive and positive toward you, and you approach them. You call them on the phone. You write an email. You invite them to lunch or a Saturday shopping trip. You make yourself spend time with others.

Then you try to make yourself connect. You make yourself talk, even when you don’t feel like it. You make yourself talk, even when you don’t think you have anything to say. You force yourself to make and maintain eye contact. You connect.

This will be uncomfortable at first. Every fiber of your being will want to run away, find an excuse to withdraw and go back to bed. That’s normal. Connect anyway.

Even if you don’t enjoy this increase in social contact, it helps significantly in fighting the depression. It starves that parasitic depression troll, until he just decides to leave you. I don’t know why it works, despite the fact that you don’t enjoy it, but it does work.

Do it now. Call that old friend or family member. Send a re-connection email. Just come out of your room and spend time with your family. Look them in the eye. Smile. You’re not alone.

Question: What do you feel contributes most to the depressed person’s tendency to withdraw, even from those who love them?

Your Do-It-Yourself Guide to Fighting Depression (Part 1)

Are you suffering from depression? Is someone you love suffering with depression? Suffering is the operable term here, because depression is trolltruly painful. People with both chronic physical pain and clinical depression have told me that they would rather have the physical pain than the depression. The pain of clinical depression is hard to describe, but you’ll know it if you get it.

The most effective treatment for depression is a combination of medication and cognitive psychotherapy, but sometimes those treatments are unavailable or may not be working well enough for you. Whether or not you are getting professional treatment, there are several do-it-yourself actions you can take to fight your depression.

Sometimes it helps to have a different way of perceiving depression. Think of your depression as a parasitic, mean, ugly troll that has gotten into your body and mind. This troll wants to grow, and it doesn’t care what it does to you. It is truly a parasite. The depression troll grows by making you do the very things that will feed it. It makes you yearn to do the things that make it grow and become stronger. By resisting these tendencies, you can weaken your depression and starve that mean, ugly, parasitic troll and make him go away.

There are four areas where the depression troll influences your behavior. To fight the depression and starve the troll, you have to do the opposite of what he makes you want to do. In order to give each area proper attention, we’re going to consider the four depression fighters in four consecutive blog posts. This is the depression fighter for today:



Your depression troll makes you decrease your physical activity. You feel tired all the time. You don’t feel like doing anything. You don’t want to move. You feel heavy and drained of energy. The troll makes you feel this way because it feeds the depression, making it grow. The less you move, the more depressed you become. In contrast, the more you move, the less depressed you become.

Any activity or movement helps. Even getting up from the couch and walking around the house helps some. Any activity that makes your muscles move and speeds up your heart and breathing fights depression. Walking is a very effective depression fighter. A 20-30 minute walk every day would be great, but any amount helps. It seems to help the nervous system’s balance the neurotransmitters (the chemical foundation of depression).

I do realize that getting up off the couch or out of bed can feel like a monumental endeavor. It can feel totally impossible if your depression is severe. You may have to begin with very small increases in physical activity. Take a shower and get dressed. Walk from one room to the next. Step outside for a little while. Try to push yourself, but don’t chastise yourself if you can’t. Just try again later. Keep trying. Persistence is often the key to defeating depression.

You might also recruit a family member or friend to help you increase your physical activity. Tell them to push you, without fussing at you. This can be a fine line, so they will have to be careful, but the benefits of a supportive friend can be enormous.

Next week, we’ll look at the second step in your do-it-yourself guide to fighting depression, but for now try to increase your physical activity as much as you can each day.

Question: Share some actions that have helped you or a loved one fight depression.

Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?

MP900305720A pessimist is someone who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is someone who makes opportunities of his difficulties.

Harry Truman


Are you an optimist or a pessimist? An optimist tends to see the positive possibilities in every situation. A pessimist tends to see the negative possibilities. Optimists expect good things to happen, while pessimists expect negative outcomes. One sees the glass half full, while the other sees the glass half empty. While lengthy, I have included one of my favorite jokes, that illustrates the concept.

Once there was a woman who had two sons. One was an extreme pessimist, while the other was an extreme optimist. They were both so extreme that they drove her up a wall. She went to her pastor for some suggestions on how she could temper their optimism and pessimism. He said he thought he could help. Christmas was approaching. He suggested that she make her pessimistic son’s Santa presents the best ever. He said she should go over the top to get him everything she could think of that he might want. He suggested that such a fabulous Christmas morning might break him of his extreme pessimism. The mother said it would be expensive, but that it would be worth it. 

She then asked him what she should do about her overly optimistic son. The pastor noted that the family owned a farm, to which she agreed. He said she should take a cardboard box out to the barn. She should fill it with manure. She was instructed to tape it shut, wrap it in wrapping paper and put a bow on top. He suggested that if her optimistic son received only a box of manure on Christmas morning, it might break him of his extreme optimism. The mother agreed.

Christmas morning came. The mother watched as the boys came down stairs to see their presents. The pessimistic son went to his side of the tree. He found many wonderful presents, including a bicycle, a skateboard and roller skates. He just stood and stared at it all. Then he started to cry.

He sobbed, “Mama, why does Santa hate me so much?”

His mother asked him what he meant.

He said, “Santa must hate me, because he wants me to die. He gave me a bicycle so I would break my neck. If that doesn’t kill me, he gave me a skateboard. And if that doesn’t do the job, he gave me roller skates, just to make sure. Mama, this is the worst Christmas ever!”

The mother sighed, “Well, that didn’t work”.

She went over to the optimistic son’s side of the tree. He had opened the wrapped box, and was digging in the manure. She asked him what he thought about his Christmas.

He replied excitedly, “Mama, I’m not sure, but I think there’s a pony in here somewhere!”


Research suggests that traits of optimism or pessimism may sometimes be inherited, but the results aren’t clear on this point. We do know that such thinking patterns can be learned, and that they are habitual.

This week, notice whether you tend to be an optimist or a pessimist. Unlike the joke, there’s nothing wrong with being an optimist, as long as you recognize reality, but being a pessimist can surely hurt you. If you notice yourself having pessimistic tendencies, consciously look for the positive things in your day and in your life (i.e. count your blessings). Make a gratitude list. Deliberately paying attention to the positive parts of our lives can gradually diminish those pessimistic tendencies.

Question: What techniques have you found helpful in becoming a more positive person?