Developing Healthy Optimism in Pessimistic Times

By Allan Weisbard  L.C.S.W.

It’s far easier to be optimistic when those around us are optimistic as well.  However, when the zeitgeist is predominantly pessimistic then it is even more important that we develop strategies to foster our own healthy optimism.

1. Accept More, Resist Less.

When much pain is experienced on either a personal or global level, it’s important to remember the serenity prayer.  Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

2. Knowing That We Don’t Know.

It’s at times like this that it is important to remember that we often don’t know what is best. We don’t have the big picture and can’t foresee the future.  I am reminded of the Zen story of the farmer who was given a horse, his neighbors told him how lucky he was.  His only comment “we will see”.  Shortly afterwards his son was riding the horse and fell off breaking his leg.  Again his neighbors had a comment and this time it was how sad.  Again the farmer’s  only comment “we will see”.  Sure enough, a few days later the Emperor’s army came through looking for young men to conscript into the Army.  Since the young man’s leg was broken, he was not taken away.   As an important teacher of mine, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to say,  “you never know”.

3. Develop ‘Beginner’s Mind’.

Rather than believing you are supposed to know, and even pretending that you know, remember the saying of the Zen Master Suzuki Roshi.   “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

4. Challenge Yourself to be Fully Present.

As we develop more awareness, we realize that most of our attention is focused on the remembered past or imagined future.  This limits our ability to be present in the ‘now’.

By noticing how frequently your attention, is on the past or future you can then begin to make a conscious decision to focus on being present.  Utilize breathing techniques or observe your surroundings in detail to bring you in the present moment.

5. Actively embrace your experience of the here and now.

Resistance brings suffering, pain is inevitable.  Suffering is optional.

6. Utilize mindfulness exercises to reduce your suffering.

Breathe in and notice where you feel the pain whether it is emotional or physical.  Bring warmth, self-love and compassion to that spot.  Do this as part of your daily practice and you will notice not just less suffering but a more optimistic outlook.

7. Notice and acknowledge when things are going well.

As Thich Nhat Hahn says “notice when you don’t have a toothache”.  As Thomas Merton said “when the shoe fits, the foot is forgotten”.

8. Concentrate on developing self compassion, rather than self-esteem.

Learn to forgive yourself with compassion and resolve to learn from your mistakes.  Develop a plan of action to release you from guilt by utilizing that energy to help others.