Keeping Your Sunny Side Up

Pessimists, don't despair. Optimism--the key to bouncing back from adversity--is a set of thinking skills anyone can learn.

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  • Step Four: Put it in perspective. This essential skill counters anxiety. This is for when you wake up at 3 A.M. and experience a cascade of dire events-let's say you failed to meet a deadline in your office. You've gone from "I forgot to mail the brochures" to "I'm going to get fired, I'll never find another job, I'll lose my home and live in poverty for the rest of my life."

    Get a sheet of paper, make three columns, and write down "Worst-Case Scenario" and "Best-Case Scenario," leaving one column in the middle for "Most Likely Outcome." Write down your biggest fears and then make a list of equally unrealistic best hopes (e.g. "There was a terrible mistake in the brochure, so it was a blessing I didn't send it out. I'll get a raise.") The extreme scenarios are so ridiculous they can jolt you out of your catastrophic thinking. Then you're ready to fill in the space for "Most Likely Outcome" ("My boss will be a little annoyed. I'll have to work this weekend.")

    Now go back to sleep.

  • Step Five: Have faith. Nancy Reagan was right. There's a definite relationship between optimism and faith. A certain kind of faith provides an enormous sense of hope, an assurance that even if things aren't going well, there is a pathway through the darkness. Things will get better.
  • Step Six: Reach out to others. When you find yourself brooding on things that happened to you, it helps if you have someone to turn to who can challenge your pessimism. It's easier for an outsider to question your beliefs because he's not caught up in them in the moment. A spouse, partner, friend, or therapist can help.
  • Step Seven: Find small things that make you feel hopeful. Many of us are experiencing a crisis of pessimism these days-feeling that the world is spinning out of control. The best antidote is to turn off CNN for a while and notice small instances of beauty, goodness, and blessings around you. If a flower bloomed in your garden today, or your children came back from school thrilled about summer vacation, or someone did you a kindness-focus on these things. If you think that sounds too simple, just try it. Give life's modest, daily pleasures a chance to wake you from despair and bring out the optimist in you.
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    Wendy Schuman
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