Has anyone here changed his/her personality from a pessimist to an optimist?
February 21, 2011 11:32 AM   Subscribe

Has anyone here changed his/her personality from a pessimist to an optimist? I am talking about a lasting personality / attitude change. If so, how did you do it?
posted by bbxx to Religion & Philosophy (36 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
An inspirational and supportive partner can do wonders for your own outlook on life.

A negative, petty one? Not so much.
posted by rokusan at 11:34 AM on February 21, 2011 [8 favorites]

I used to be Captain Pessimism, walking around quoting "An optimist is frequently wrong and never pleasantly surprised."

Ironically, I think it took enduring some great personal holy-fuck-things-are-out-of-control failures, and then having a great time telling those stories afterward. I feel like I'm at my best when I'm making someone else laugh about my pain. "This could go completely bugshit FUBAR, but no matter what happens, I'll have a great story to tell."

So, anyone want to hear the story about how I almost accidentally killed myself on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland? It involves a dark night, an empty boat and this statue of Ganesha.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:53 AM on February 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

I found a really positive role model, the first person I ever met who always looked for the good in every bad situation. Thereafter I would always ask myself, "what would x do in this situation?" and try to be that person. It grows on you.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 11:54 AM on February 21, 2011

I did this. I'd interviewed this guy when I worked on a TV series, and then read his book. Changed my life.
I'd developed a negative outlook to go with my edgy, smart-ass in the back of the class persona, which didn't get me anywhere I really wanted to go, but I didn't know how to change my POV/attitude. I also got a lot out of Constructive Living ("the universe rewards action!) by David K Reynolds.
I can't promise that the change happens overnight, and that you'll be happy! shiny! 24-7, but I know I spent a lot of time trying to figure out my moods, outcomes, rather than just doing stuff. My personality might not have changed completely, but I'm far more likely to get going on projects and activities than I used to be. MeMail me if you want more.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:55 AM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I started exercising, eating right, worked on my depression, I drink less, and consciously work on seeing what is great about my life rather than dwelling on each thing that is wrong.
posted by munchingzombie at 11:59 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

It dawned on my smug, pessimistic self one day that all those oblivious-seeming people I was looking down on were actually a lot happier than I was. So I decided to be like them instead.

More specifically on technique, I found it helpful to thoroughly explore the question, "What's the worst that could happen?" any time I found myself being a pessimist. It sounds counterproductive, but if you actually consider what really is the worst possible outcome, it's often less awful (and/or more manageable) than whatever nebulous, half-formed consequence you I had been thinking of.

Other things that helped:
- helping people (friends, family, strangers)
- keeping a smile on my face -- there is research to support that forcing an expression can actually influence your mood
- letting things go sometimes, and finding out that the world doesn't end when something goes wrong
posted by vytae at 12:01 PM on February 21, 2011 [6 favorites]

There are a lot of things we can't control in the world. Accept this and don't stew over them.

Then there are things that you CAN change, but don't want to. Accept your choice.

Then change what you can.

Everything else is joy.
posted by gjc at 12:07 PM on February 21, 2011

It's funny -- I think I sound a lot like a pessimist because of the way in which I speak, but I'm actually way more optimistic than I should be. (Hell, I even think I can change entrenched facets of my office culture! HA HA HA HA HA...)

You need to give yourself permission to be who you want to be and who you think you are, not just relying on other people's definitions of you. I've spent so much time around my mom that it's hard for me to accept that I'm NOT a greedy, selfish, cold-hearted grump. I'm actually kind of the opposite. To that end, stay away from people who compromise the life you want to have and force you into old, unproductive patterns.

Coping with depression and less-than-ideal situations has forced me to take comfort in small things. I always tell people that I got through my first two years of college by thinking, "Oh, joy! There's chili in the dining hall!"

Develop compassion for other people, even those who seem to make your life more difficult. That'll help on its own, but it'll also help you be easier on yourself, which is good too.
posted by Madamina at 12:18 PM on February 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


When I became born again, I learned the Bible had a lot to say about thinking on positive things and not being negative. I have to say the resulting personality change in me was QUITE noticeable.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:31 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Somewhat similar to vytae, but taken to the extreme. One day, I said "fuck it all to hell" and basically overdosed on cynicism, defeatism, anger and disgust. I delved as far as I could into this toxic dump - drank it all down to the last drop. I survived. And it held no more power over me. Basically, I accepted that everything is terminally fucked with no hope. We will all die. Earth itself will die. We are less than insignificant specs of dust in the universe. Evil triumphs regularly. There is no justice. But you know what? In the same way that a cornered rat has nothing to lose and launches an all-out attack, you suddenly lose all fear and accept that nothing lasts, and at that moment you are FREE. And when you are free, you set about and do the best you can. Imagine you are in a battle, confronted with overwhelming force. You've accepted death. Now, the challenge is to take as many bastards down with you as possible. It's an intellectual and emotional challenge.

And now you are free to enjoy life and take pleasure in the smallest things, because really, why not? And so I'm perpetually optimistic. And when a fuckup occurs, nod, smile, and keep moving, don't waste a second. I like the words that the Russian chess master Bogoljubov was supposed to have uttered: "If I have white, I win, because I have white. If I have black, I win, because I'm Bogoljubov". Fuck it, it's all fucked, may as well go out smiling! Another quote, this time from Ed Wood: "The worst film you ever saw? Well, my next one will be better!". Let nothing stop you from experiencing joy and looking forward to the best, because in the end, nobody will put on your tombstone "he was a pessimist and he was right, how glorious to be right" - you will be miserable as a pessimist and there is no final reward for "being right". It doesn't matter what they put on your tombstone, because you're not there. You can determine only one thing: will you enjoy your life, or will you be miserable?

So maybe being an optimist is not really the right way to approach it. Ask yourself why you want to be an optimist, and then strive for those goals, even if you get at them not by being a straightforward "optimist", but a kind of radical pessimist that's so extreme, he turns into a special kind of unshakeable optimist.
posted by VikingSword at 12:38 PM on February 21, 2011 [10 favorites]

Two things that will work wonders in a matter of weeks if you have the fortitude to stick with them:

1) Abstain from griping about situations where it will do no good to do so. This takes some discernment at first
2) Abstain from all backbiting, gossiping, dirty laundry airing, etc. If you wouldn't say it to someone's face, or you would be embarrassed if they heard you talking about them that way then eliminate it. (Special exceptions can be made for exegencies, ie. "Avoid that guy, he'll steal your stuff")

Seriously, those two things right their are the main transmitters of negativity in most social interactions, and learning to not express them will do a major structural overhaul of one's outlook if they can manage to struggle with them.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:48 PM on February 21, 2011 [15 favorites]

I used to be a bad child.

There was one christmas when I wanted a couple things - things which seemingly mattered to me a lot at the time - and I didn't get them. Sure did get a couple other awesome things but I didn't care. And I was visibly upset that I hadn't gotten what I wanted - this was maybe in middle school, for the record, and long after you'd expect a kid to act this way - and very sarcastic and just generally kind of shitty about it. And one time shortly thereafter, FAMOUS MOTHER and I were having an argument and I pulled out the big guns, I said, "Yeah, well, thanks for ruining my Christmas."

She broke down. Just started sobbing, defeated, while shitty young me walked upstairs, pleased with my stupid, shitty victory.

You know, I couldn't really tell you when it happened for certain, but it was definitely before the next Christmas, when I realized what an awful, hurtful little shit I'd been, and how much I'd hurt the person who'd tried their best to make one day awesome for me. And she didn't even have to do that. I got a bunch of presents, and I was all complaining that they weren't the right ones! Some people get no presents at all. Some people are dead. Me, I had someone who cared about me and gave me things for Christmas. I had no right to complain. I was bad, and could never change what I'd done. But I could change what I did from there on out.

I apologized to FAMOUS MOTHER, and she fronted like she didn't even remember it.

Anyway, here's why the story is relevant. Every year - every single year after that, be it Christmas or a birthday or whatever, when FAMOUS MOTHER would ask if I was happy with what I'd received, I would say -- and I would really, seriously and honestly mean -- "Hell yeah! This was the best Christmas (or birthday, or whatever) ever!" If I ever felt a slight pang of disappointment over anything - maybe someone else got more that year or there was a thing I'd had my heart set on - I realized what a silly thing this was to care about, and how horrible I'd be if I actually let it bother me.

No hyperbole to it, no nothing. I really do mean it. I still say it, and I still mean it.

The secret to optimism versus pessimism is learning to celebrate what you have instead of mourning what you don't.

Okay, that's one secret. The other is to believe that as long as you're alive, there's hope. It might be hard to see from wherever you are at that moment, but as long as you're alive then things can be changed. They may not be the changes you want, and they may not always turn out the way you hope, but it's still better than having no chance at all.

Be happy for what is, instead of being sad for what isn't. Give yourself time, and it'll happen.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 12:52 PM on February 21, 2011 [27 favorites]

I started participating in Grace in Small Things. Each day, no matter how awful, terrible, horrible or rotten, I have to five 5 things that made me happy that day. So far, I've never not found 5.

I also took a good look at why I was being so pessimistic and found that it was mostly to protect myself from what might happen. After 30+ years of this, it wasn't working and it made me feel crappy. So, I decided to start looking on the positive side.
posted by Leezie at 12:55 PM on February 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

By my own account, I am the most cynical and negative person I know of, but this sense only applies in my own head (though sometimes my real opinions do sneak out, primarily when discussing myself). However, one of my best friends (who is born-again) frequently comments that I'm his best cheerleader. Go figure, that which eats me up inside appears to the outside world as ceaseless advocacy for underdogs. For what it's worth, I'm not sure I want to change this.
posted by rhizome at 1:02 PM on February 21, 2011

Part of it was getting treatment for depression, part of it was finding friends who were good people, part of it was realizing I have more power over my life and thoughts than I'd thought.

But the biggest part of it was realizing that the optimists in my life kept proving me wrong. They succeeded when I was sure they'd fail, they kept going when I would have quit, and they just seemed to be more fulfilled, more interesting, and happier. I wanted some of that action, and my self-defeating attitude wasn't working for me.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:14 PM on February 21, 2011

I was a terrible pessimist all my life, right up until the time I nearly died.

Nothing brings home the realization that LIFE IS AWESOME (even the bad parts) better than coming [this] close to losing it all.

(Kids, don't try this at home.)
posted by ErikaB at 1:26 PM on February 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Repeating some prior commenters --

Effective treatment for depression (which for me includes medication, talk therapy, other types of therapy, lifestyle choices, community support);
Living my life according to my values (which requires some luck at times);
Some success, skills gained, and enough money to pay the rent and make daily choices;
Consciously avoiding spirals/cycles of shame, self-loathing, reliving painful moments, etc.*;
Consciously monitoring intake of the news and/or writings about painful and horrific aspects of the world (e.g. war crimes) versus my mood or tolerance in the moment+; and
Enjoying small pleasures like coffee, crosswords, flowers, animals, small talk, neighborhoods, walking.

*Practice has worked for me.

+This makes me feel like a bad person sometimes -- unwilling or unable to bear witness. I try to know generally what is happening in the world and to do what I can to help who I can help. This one is hard for me, it seems as though there are competing interests.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 1:47 PM on February 21, 2011

Speaking as someone who frequently adhered to the "What is good health but the slowest possible rate at which one can die?" and "I hate Friday because it's the closest possible weekday to next Monday" school of thought...

Basically, I did what you're doing right now on a consistent basis, so good for you!
Asking for suggestion from people shows willingness and open mindedness, two factors which when kept up with will not fail you.

The relative "pain and suffering" of pessimism simply got too much for me to put up with in myself, and I started seeking answers from people who used to think like I thought and no longer did. Most of the suggestions already given in this thread are an awesome beginning.. For me, expanding my spirituality in conjunction with many of the things above really rocketed me to places I didn't think possible. If you're religious, get more into your religion. If you're atheist/agnostic, try some more relaxed practices or non-denominational groups, or even nature groups. Find something you believe in that's bigger than you. I can only speak for me, but a lot of my negativity stemmed from the fact that I only thought of myself, and that there was nothing else in this universe that was greater than my ego. Once I discarded this vein of thought, I was much happier, and far more at peace. With all of you and myself.
posted by Debaser626 at 2:04 PM on February 21, 2011

For me, the trick was, like a couple others have said, to first really accept the negative. I had to embrace 1) the ultimate meaninglessness and futility of everything and 2) my complete inability to control a large number of things which will affect my life. Being a "pessimist" was, for me, a way of protecting myself from failure. If I assumed that everything was going to go wrong for any number of ambiguous reasons, I didn't have to try and fail for some specific, real reason.

Accepting my futility and insignificance meant accepting that I will, in fact, fail, regardless of, well, anything--sometimes because of myself and sometimes because of things beyond my control. If I can't avoid it, then the "protection" pessimism gave me was pointless. If I can't control other people, then their ultimate responses to me are not my responsibility. What I can control is myself, my choices, and my responses to the things that happen around me.

I can't force my (difficult) boss to think I am the best employee ever or my students to be brilliant or motivated or the guy I'm head over heels for to love me, so there's definitely the possibility that I won't get that wonderful letter of recommendation, that my students will get nothing out of my class, that I'll get my heart broken, or whatever else I'm afraid of--if not one of those things, then it will be something else. Knowing that the ultimate results are out of my hand, I can either choose to get as much enjoyment and personal progress out of whatever situation I'm in, or I can accept that I've chosen to fail. I can't force my boss to like me, but I can choose to be the best employee I, personally, am capable of being and do my best to learn something from the experience. I can't force my students to do well, but I can choose to go into each class actively looking for the potential in each of them. I can't make the guy want me, but I can be sexy and lovable and show/tell him I'm interested in him.

tl:dr--stop focusing on the future and what might happen and start focusing on yourself and your own choices in and enjoyment of the present.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 2:05 PM on February 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

St. John's Wort works to stabilize my mood. Therapy increased my self-esteem. Optimism is directly related to confidence.

Example:I recently left a hurtful relationship because I made the decision that I deserved better, moved to a great town, and started meeting awesome people.

Believe you deserve the best in life and that you'll often (not always, but often) be able to deliver on that for yourself. Know what makes you happy and strive to get it, and don't expect others to give it to you.

To me, that's actually realism, because it works.
posted by xenophile at 2:23 PM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Meditation and therapy.

Also, surrounding myself with friends who are enthusiastic and happy, rather than the brooding, intense, dark friends I chose more often in the past.

For me, pessimism was about feeling that there was something wrong with me, specifically, so things in my life would work out badly, regardless of what the rest of the world was like. Healing those feelings of shame and realizing that there's not anything wrong with me pretty much made my pessimism lift entirely. But it took meditation, therapy, and wonderful friends to heal the feelings of shame.
posted by zahava at 2:27 PM on February 21, 2011

Has anyone here changed his/her personality from a pessimist to an optimist? I am talking about a lasting personality / attitude change. If so, how did you do it?

Yes. Gradually I've come to realize that the pessimist is less happy, less fulfilled, suffers more from disease and dies sooner than the optimist. There's quite a bit of empirical research out there to support this. In my opinion the often-cited gain of having more accurate perceptions about the world isn't worth the cost (but see below re: pilots and planes).

Research also shows that the religious/spiritual tend to be more optimistic, are more resilient to adversity, and have better outcomes vs. diseases like cancer.

I'm slowly coming around to being optimistic, at least where it's appropriate. A heuristic: in a situation where the downside is small, or you have little control over the outcome, you should be an optimist.

By that I mean: if you are a passenger on a plane about to land, be an optimist - if you're the pilot, be a pessimist.

The "how" is pretty hard, but for me, reflecting on these things has brought me around.
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 2:37 PM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I made a note on a sticky label that said: "Do you want to be happy or do you want to be right?" and stuck it on the inside of my wallet so I saw several times each day. I also had one in there, for awhile, that said: "Would you rather regret something you did or something you didn't do?" I think it helped to be reminded several times a day that I was trying to change. I also like the quote, often attributed to Lincoln: "People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be".
posted by BoscosMom at 2:47 PM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm not really comfortable with the idea that your personality can just suddenly shift from pessimist to optimist, it seems more reasonable to say that it is possible that your personality can gradually become more open to optimistic influences.

One useful bit of advice: if your life seems confining or limited, try to make yourself more open to the possibility of a future change of scene, without rushing too much.
posted by ovvl at 2:49 PM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm still working on it, but over the past year (does that qualify as long term?) I've been trying to be extra conscious about how I word things when I realized how freaking negative I sounded all the time. I also reflected that 1) I hated hanging out with downers and OOPS, that might be ME and 2) my favorite people were the ones who maintained a positive attitude without being all polyannish. Whenever I feel myself reacting negatively, I ask myself how warranted that reaction is. Often times, it's way out of whack with reality (thanks, CBT!) and that helps, too. I find when I'm able to expect the best instead of the worst, I'm happier and so are my friends and coworkers.

Will I ever be Mary Sunshine? I sure as hell hope not, but neither do I want to be Debbie Downer. It takes work, but I think it's worth it. I'm sure it's possible (how's that for optimism?)!
posted by smirkette at 2:58 PM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Part of it was adhering to the concept of only trying to control what I can actually control. Once I accepted that there were a billion different things that could happen that are neither my fault nor my responsibility, I pretty much stopped obsessing over which one would happen to mess up my day.

The other thing that helped was doing an honest hit-to-miss analysis. How many times had I predicted the worst, only to have it not happen? Answer: a whole lot. How many times had something awful blindsided me? Not too many. Analysis: my ability to predict how good or bad the outcomes of things might be is pretty bad. Therefore, insisting that everything will end badly is faulty reasoning.

This helped me take a much more even-keeled, "take things as they are" approach. It takes a lot of the self-inflicted drama out of life, but that's okay: 99% of that drama is drama I could do without.
posted by MShades at 3:15 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Finding joy in little things. Feeling the warmth of sunshine on your face as soon as you step out of the door. Catching your train just in time. It seems a little greeting card, but I really try to savor those kind of moments.

Also, I realized that perspective is everything. There aren't many moments in my life that are inherently bad or good. I can make a conscious decision to interpret something as negative or positive.

Oh, and laughing. At everything.
posted by joeyjoejoejr at 4:55 PM on February 21, 2011

My dad was a real pessimist. Always found the opposite side of every issue, and got some satisfaction out of popping other people's positivity, because he felt it kept things in perspective. There are so many ways he discouraged me from doing things, simply by being the "yeah, but" guy in the room.

So, I decided about 15 years ago that I just am not going to be the one that does that to others, because I hated that he did it to me. Not the right reasons at the time, but it's worked out okay, because over time, this has evolved into trying to find positive things to say, even if I don't believe them at the moment. Often as I'm saying these things, I begin to believe them myself.

Realizing that I can't change anything of any real significance for anyone but myself and maybe some people close around me has also helped.
posted by disclaimer at 5:16 PM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I cut a bunch of negative, pessimistic people out of my life, and quickly ditched the habit of complaint.

Once those two things were done, becoming an optimist was just the next step.
posted by Leta at 5:29 PM on February 21, 2011

Things getting worse helped me develop a sunnier outlook on life.

I had been a self-preservation / know-it-all sort of pessimist up until a particularly rough period of ill health, deaths in the family, personal setbacks, and bad discoveries. It was a terrible epiphany when I learned that I could still be disappointed even as a pessimist, that there's always a way for things to be worse than expected.

I also came to realize that being so pessimistic was actively precluding me from being able to handle bad scenarios - I wasn't realistically identifying and planning for potential bad outcomes, I was spending all my energy being stressed and defeatist and giving up before I even got started.

I had to triage the crises and realized I couldn't afford the inefficiency of pessimism. I focused on fixing/salvaging what I could and things got better. The mindset change stuck and today I consider myself a pragmatic optimist.
posted by Signed Sealed Delivered at 6:21 PM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

You might try looking in to stoic philosophy. Sort of using pessimism to be optimistic. There was a series of articles about it on boing boing awhile back. Here is the first one.
posted by d4nj450n at 8:07 PM on February 21, 2011


- Using CBT techniques I try to question negative thoughts about people and events. I read a lot about cognitive biases so that I can spot them in myself and others. Curiously, one of the things that has helped me to become more optimistic is to guard against optimism bias - this helps me to avoid crushing defeats that tend to make me less optimistic overall.

- I engage in a lot of downward comparison to remind myself of how seriously goddamned lucky I am. I make a point of being thankful for small things - initially, I scheduled two minutes in my calendar in the middle of the afternoon to think about what I was grateful for, and over time it's become automatic (well, more automatic - it's far from perfect)

- Over time, I've been able to switch to a view that says 'most people, most of the time, are doing their best to get by and to be good people', and this does wonders for what assumptions I make about what people say and do. This is far from automatic - I have to consciously remind myself when I meet somebody that they're almost certainly a good person, with desires and interests and dislikes and fears just like me. When I remember, things are much, much better, particularly if the relationship becomes rocky.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:36 PM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have a friend who claims they have to at least some degree. He told me that he always thought optimists were constantly disappointed. Always getting their hopes up by expecting the best, but then he realized this wasn't actually true. Optimists aren't overly upset or disappointed when things don't go their way. They just figure that next time they will because everything eventually works out and even if it doesn't feel like it right now, it probably has happened for a reason.

I'm waiver hugely between being an optimist and a pessimist, but I am convinced that being an optimist is positive in more ways than just your state of mind. If I look back at bad things that happened to me in my life, I find that 9 times out of 10, it was my reaction to what happened that was far more detrimental to my life than the actual event. If I had just taken the attitude that hey this sucks, but next time or the time after that it'll work out because everything usually ends up being ok in the end, I actually might have created the chances for those things to happen much sooner rather than dwelling on what had happened. This realization, in addition to dealing with stress and depression, has helped me gradually change my attitude.
posted by whoaali at 11:12 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thank you everyone for the great answers! :-)
posted by bbxx at 6:17 AM on February 22, 2011

I accepted responsibility for myself and my actions.

I had a lot of anxiety for which I took medications and I thought a lot about how bad the world was to me. I blamed my parents for my personal brand of crazy. I leaned heavily on diagnoses as "the root of the problem". I accepted a life that was boring and mediocre because I just allowed life to happen.

This all turned around about seven months ago (though everything was a gradual process up to that) when I moved to a new city where I knew no one and half-reinvented, half reinvigorated myself. I discovered (and rediscovered) hobbies, made a whole bunch of friends and started living the life I had imagined when I was a teenager. I accepted that no one has dominion over me quite like I do, and finally explored that power that comes with personal responsibility.

A large part of it, personally, was a stupid little blurb I read in some women's magazine ages ago that said something to the effect that people who constantly criticize others think worse of themselves as a consequence. So I stopped thinking things like "Oh, she looks terrible in that skirt" or "what is wrong with that guy's haircut?" Instead, I stop my negative thoughts midway (difficult, but manageable) and try to come up with something positive, even if it's stupid and superficial. It makes an *incredible* difference, even though it's just a tiny part of my day.
posted by nursegracer at 9:28 AM on February 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

I just picked up Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman, which purports to offer techniques to do exactly what you have asked about.

It seems to have helped a lot of people, although there are some things about it I don't care for -- in what's probably a very pessimistic way, although the self-test pegs me as an optimist. Some of the exercises look like they may have some use to me though.

I think I may be an optimistic pessimist. I tend to think of all sorts of things that may go wrong, and then prepare or plan for them. Sometimes it would be nice to be able to have that attitude that everything is going to work in the most fabulous way possible, but when they don't I generally jump into figuring out what to do about it when the optimists are flipping out that something went wrong and trying to cope with fitting that into their worldview. That may be what the book is getting at with the idea of "Flexible Optimism" though...
posted by yohko at 10:12 PM on February 28, 2011

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