My regular running route goes down a fairly unremarkable small-town road. The houses and yards are average looking, most of them kept up reasonably well, nothing striking or memorable, except for one house that stands out and always intrigues and inspires me. Not because it is elaborate or grand in its architecture or grounds. To the contrary, this nondescript gray shingled house is one of the humblest abodes in the neighborhood. What sets it apart and draws me in, quite simply, is its warm, unassuming, and soothing air of positivity.
In objective terms, this house isn’t very attractive. Frankly, it’s quite tiny, too close to the busy road, and not very private without a fence. Most people wouldn’t want to live there because they’d feel constricted by its small size, unimpressed with its bland appearance, and annoyed with the near constant sound of traffic whizzing by. Were this house to go up for sale, it might appeal to a young couple as a makeshift “starter home” for a year or two, a place to wait while savings accrue for a loftier dream home.
I have never met the woman who lives in this house, but I am sure that she cares for her home deeply and sees it as a place to be cherished, not as quarters that “will do” until money comes along for a more impressive dwelling. I know I am right because I have seen this woman working in her yard in the summer, lovingly tending to her robust garden of colorful wildflowers and ripening vegetables. And throughout the seasons, I have noticed her affectionately placed touches – couple of vibrant potted mums on her small front porch in autumn, a creatively carved pumpkin at the end of her driveway for Halloween, a carefully stacked pile of fireplace wood at the side of the house as the weather turns colder, and soft twinkling white lights around her small picture window and a fresh pine wreath on the front door at Christmas time.
Though it appears from the modest compact car in her driveway that this woman, somewhere in her forties or fifties, lives alone, another thing I’m sure of is that she is not lonely. I can tell by the out-of-state license plates on various cars in her little yard that she has a nice stream of weekend visitors. Sometimes, when I run on summer mornings, I catch glimpses of her and her weekend guests mingling in her small screen porch on the side of the house, laughing and talking and reaching for breakfast that she has laid out buffet style on a table. Every so often I see her wave from her front doorway to a visiting couple, wishing them a fun day of sightseeing as they emerge from her house and walk to their car, maps in hand. When I’m running by her house again on my way back home those mornings, I often see her strolling leisurely around her yard wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat and carrying a watering can, as if she is drinking in the beauty of her surroundings, unaware of the noisy cars (and nosy runner/neighbor) passing by, noticing what’s new and wonderful in her yard, and contemplating what she will do with her delicious day ahead.
What is so compelling about this woman is that she seems to have very little materially, but nonetheless appears more than content with her life. From what I can tell, she is a genuine “half glass full” person who is practiced in the art of honing in on what she has and not getting mired in what’s wrong or missing. I envision her greeting every morning as a brand new opportunity to start fresh, no matter what has transpired the day before or what lies ahead. I imagine her beginning each day by asking, “What internal and external resources are available to me, and how can I make the most of these gifts to make this day as good as it can be?”
The capacity to look at life squarely, acknowledge what you’re dealing with, and make it your mission to work with, rather than resist or regret, whatever situation is before you, is optimism in its finest form. Optimism is not about denying reality, telling yourself everything is fine when it’s not, pushing down uncomfortable emotions, or plastering a perpetual smile on your face.
Optimism is optimizing your options, which amounts to taking in the whole truth and choosing to focus on what’s good about it. The experienced optimist knows that putting a positive spin on life, no matter what the circumstances, in no way brings immunity from curveballs. There’s no getting through life as a human being without disappointments, failures, losses, and all sorts of other obstacles and unexpected disasters, but a positive attitude certainly makes the trials and tribulations of life easier to bear.
As a seasoned psychologist, I can say without reservation that optimism is a key quality necessary for moving successfully through life and work. Optimists are able to recover from setbacks, ignore naysayers, extract themselves from irreversible toxic situations, keep their eyes on the goal, and accomplish what’s most meaningful to them. They’re above the rest, every time.
And yet, in our society of quick fixes, optimism is losing respect because it has been diluted to a superficial, speedy antidote for whatever ails you. Self-help books tell us that we can avoid the inevitable pain of being human by drowning out the negative with positive affirmations: I can do whatever I want. I deserve the best. I am unstoppable (even if I have glaring issues and don’t like myself very much). Celebrities with chronic diseases tell us that we can avoid suffering by just “deciding” to be happy. Motivational speakers assure us that we can accomplish whatever we want by simply going over and over our desired positive outcomes in our heads. What we take away from all this “positive thinking” hype is that force-feeding ourselves happy thoughts will bulldoze us over insecurity, doubt, fear, sadness, grief, and every other inconvenient psychological experience and toward eternal bliss – faster than a bullet train.
If only optimism were so easy.
The thing about optimism is that it usually doesn’t work instantly. You acquire a genuinely optimistic viewpoint little by little, as you would any other enviable skill. Optimism is a mature perspective that you strive for day after day, picking yourself up time and time again as you are tested by unanticipated events and get swept into negativity despite your best efforts. Eventually you develop a generally positive outlook that makes life easier than it would be otherwise. But optimism never makes your life pain-free.
The hardest – and most crucial — part of being an optimist is trusting that if you let your emotions in – all of them, not just the appealing ones – you will bounce back to feeling good about yourself and the world. Authentic optimism demands your ability to stop and address grief, anger, uncertainty, dread, confusion, and other unsettling human feelings as they arise so that you can work through them, release the heaviness, and get back to the bright side. Optimists know that if unpleasant feelings are shoved down or ignored, they will find more dramatic ways – such as nightmares, irritability, or physical symptoms, for example – to get your attention. Like the tortoise that eventually beat the hare, optimists know that taking time out emotionally to recover from setbacks ultimately leads to greater resilience, peace of mind, and other rewards.
Optimists work hard at being optimists because they have learned that a realistic, appreciative, solution-focused mindset is magnetic to resonant experiences and opportunities. Have you noticed that people who complain incessantly, blame everyone but themselves for their troubles, and seem to be forever in crisis just bring on more of the same? That’s because negativity only attracts negativity. The bottom line is that good fortune comes much more readily to determined optimists who remain open to it.
Take my inspiring neighbor, for instance. I don’t know her personal circumstances, but let’s imagine that she has a low-paying job and can’t afford a bigger home on a quieter street. If that’s her scenario, her options are pretty clear-cut. She can resent that she lives in a small house near noisy traffic and spend her time griping and getting down on herself, longing for the day when her life will turn around. Or she can do what she’s doing: make the very best of her circumstances, see the opportunities in her current situation, and live as fully as she can with what she has at hand. Either way, time will go by. But by choosing the latter, more positive approach, she will be able to look back at this period in her life proudly, recalling that her positive attitude made her time in that house better. And, more than likely, she’ll also be able to look back and recount several ways that her optimism led to unanticipated opportunities.
The primary benefit of making the most of things is that whatever your goals – acing a job interview, making new friends, resolving the dilemmas you’re dealt – you will be more likely to accomplish them with a perspective that by and large invites constructive circumstances. By choosing optimism over draining negativity, you create situations for yourself – such as a safe and nurturing home environment – out of wherever you’ve landed. Those situations encourage your intuition to rise up and deliver insights that will lead to increasingly greater contentment. And of course, one final benefit of making the most of what you have is that you end up with a clear, disciplined focus amid the clatter of our distracted, improvement-obsessed culture.