How can I become much less of a pessimist and negative thinker?
August 18, 2007 4:50 PM   Subscribe

How can I become less of a pessimist and less of a negative thinker?

Ive recently realized that my attitude in life is somewhat pessimistic. Not to the point of hurting my life, but I cant imagine it is helping it. I sometimes do a lot of internal whining, develop anger, think of things being unfair, etc. This passes with time and in retrospect I'm always surprised how easily things turned out compared to how difficult I think they are.

This isnt a problem to the point of seeing a therapist, but I'd rather have a more optimistic inner outlook. I get this way over small things, like picking someone up at the airport and also over big things like a new project at work. It doesnt happen 100% of the time, but it happens often enough.

Unfortunately, the negative thinking is sometimes validated when something goes wrong and I think "Aha! I knew this would exact thing would happen. If only other people were as careful and negative as me."

I don't feel depressed so I dont think this is related to typical mental health issues like depression and anxiety. It seems to be more of an outlook on life thing and the big assumption that things are much harder/PITA than they truly are.

Has anyone ever gotten over this? What are some good strategies to overcome this kind of thinking? Am I just lazy? Thanks.
posted by damn dirty ape to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
I remember hearing you need to think seven positive thoughts to neutralize one negative thought. I can't cough up a citation for it though... too lazy
posted by JaySunSee at 5:09 PM on August 18, 2007

Thanks for asking this. I've had a similar question percolating in my mind for a while. One thing that may be of interest to you is gratitude journaling. In Tal Ben-Shahar's book "Happier" he suggests keeping a simple daily gratitude journal of 5 things you were grateful for during the day (it's ok to repeat things day to day if you really are grateful for them).
posted by DarkForest at 5:23 PM on August 18, 2007

Have you had enough to eat today? Were you able to sleep in your own bed last night? Have you spent time (in person or on the phone) with people for whom you care a great deal or whose company you enjoy? Do you have a passion in your life (work, art, music)?

The world is not perfect and never will be....accepting that and enjoying the things you have may help. Why waste energy on looking for proofs of how "right" you are in your negative thoughts when relaxing and enjoying life is so much more satisfying.
posted by Womanscientist at 5:34 PM on August 18, 2007

You could start by phrasing everything positively: "How can I become more of an optimist and positive thinker?" Realize that interacting with people is a numbers game. A neutral request to four people may get one negative response, two neutral ones, and one positive one. The only one you should take personally is the positive one. Be that kind of person.

"Have you seen my mp3 player?"

1. "Why do you always blame me for these things?"
2. "Nope."
3. "Haven't seen it."
4. "It can't be far; I'll help you look for it."
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:36 PM on August 18, 2007 [7 favorites]

I tend to think that even very little things that you do can have a great effect on your outlook. So try to add a few small bits of positivity into your life wherever you can, even if it seems fake and cheesy. For example, instead of asking, "How can I become less of a pessimist?" make yourself ask, "How can I become more of an optimist?"
posted by donkeymon at 5:40 PM on August 18, 2007

For another example, instead of saying, "Hey WGP! You stole my answer!" just say, "Great minds think alike!"
posted by donkeymon at 5:41 PM on August 18, 2007 [3 favorites]

Along those lines, as corny as it may sound, I try to say at least one thing very nice and unexpected to someone everyday. The rules of my game are that it has to be genuine. Consequently, some days take me longer to find nice things than others. The end result is that I am (or at least perceived to be) a nicer person -- those receiving the niceties also benefit by having their day brightened.
posted by peace_love_hope at 6:20 PM on August 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I went through a period of recreational drug use where I spent a lot of time feeling just like me only without all the anxiety and second-guessing that plagued me a lot of the time back then. It helped me really separate what was actually something bad happening (I'm cold, I'm hungry, I'm in danger) from my perception of it (I'm cranky, I'm scared, I'm annoyed).

The funny thing was, that once I stopped doing drugs, it became a lot easier to look at some of the negative thoughts that were following me around and just see them as quirky chemical things in my head and not actual rational things I needed to act on in order for my life to move forward or avoid trouble. So, it helped me set the anxiety and the bad feeling aside and focus on solving the problems without all the recriminations of myself and others.

This line specifically "I think 'Aha! I knew this would exact thing would happen. If only other people were as careful and negative as me.'" is, in a nutshell, the way I think when I'm sort of letting all the crappy energy wash over me, so I sympathize. However, you know what, there's a second part to that sentence and now in my mind I read it more like this most of the time

"I knew this would exact thing would happen. If only other people were as careful and negative as me. On the other hand, they're happy and I'm being a petty tyrant about this and maybe I'd prefer to be happier and let things be broken occasionally than right and lonely alone in my Tower of Cranky Solitude. Get over yourself Captain Righteous."

So, I don't know if you're someone who handles a tough love approach to yourself, but it helped for me. The other thing that really helped was a lot of aggressive exercising and just generally being out and about doing things. The less time I spend brooding and overthinking and the more time I spent happily engaged and/or tiring myself out, the less time I have to worry about what might happen because I'm too busy experiencing what IS happening.

No you are not just lazy, but it's possible you have too much free time, or possibly not enough.
posted by jessamyn at 6:40 PM on August 18, 2007 [12 favorites]

Possible physiological causes aside, the answer is: less thinking, more doing. Every time you catch yourself thinking "Man, X really sucked" or "I'm so burnt up about Y!" or "If Z happens tomorrow it'll be a disaster," ask yourself the follow-up question: "Is there anything I can do about it?" If there is, do it. If there isn't, do something else, and concentrate on that.

Note that by "concentrate" I'm not implying that you should be able to shut the negative thought off like a light switch. Just try to look at it objectively as something else going on in the background: "That's a negative thought about A, but meanwhile, I'm doing B, which means I need to go get C and..." If you focus on trying to do a good job on B, thoughts about A will eventually fade away from lack of reinforcement.

Becoming a positive person doesn't mean changing from "constantly thinking about negative things" to "constantly thinking about positive things" -- it means changing to "constantly DOING positive things", and here the bar for "positive" is set very low: something you will be glad you did once it is over. (Peace_love_hope and Jessamyn's answers are both good examples of this approach.)

Finally, let me note that by "less thinking, more doing," I'm not trying to be anti-intellectual or suggest that you become a brainless Polyanna. Obviously sometimes we need to think hard about important choices, or engage our brains to enjoy some work of art, or plan carefully to prevent some past unpleasantness from repeating. The secret is that this kind of thinking is doing.
posted by No-sword at 7:43 PM on August 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

i'm a big fan of fake-it-till-you-make-it. smile at people. make small talk with the coffee guy. flirt with sweet old lady who answeres phones at sixth-floor reception. bring box of theme-decorated sugar cookies in to leave in the office lunch room for some random reason (it's national talk-like-a-pirate-day! arr! have a cookie, mateys!)

people will begin to see you as a funny, upbeat dude, and you'll rise to their expectations. then you'll find you're thinking that way naturally. and voila, a more positive version of you.

i also find that regular sex and dark chocolate work wonders, but let's start with trying to hold the elevator at the office every morning.
posted by thinkingwoman at 8:22 PM on August 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Perhaps I didnt phrase my question well. I really dont have a problem with smalltalk or socializing. I'm not a misanthrope or anything, I just make things out to be harder than they are. Nor do I feel "down" about things or ungrateful. I think I'm set in those departments. I just tend to have a pessimistic look on getting things done, especially if certain things are even possible, how hard they are, and if I should even bother attempting them.

jess wrote: and maybe I'd prefer to be happier and let things be broken occasionally than right and lonely alone in my Tower of Cranky Solitude. Get over yourself Captain Righteous."

Right. Ive been thinking about this too. I think I need to tell myself that attempts at perfection (or whatever my brain is trying to do) are overrated and difficult. I should just be more carefree and accept that that comes with some added risk as opposed of expecting to get everything right the first time. The benefit of a little more happiness and ease when it comes to getting things done is worth doing it in a slightly more careless manner. Perhaps I need to learn to unclench and go with the flow more often.

FWIW, I've been focusing on positive thinking and gratefulness for some time. This issue seems different from those things. For instance I'm grateful for the things i have but I'm pessimistic they'll get stolen when Im at work.

Thanks for all the comments!
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:41 PM on August 18, 2007

A friend of mine used to worry like crazy (ie, have pessimistic thoughts about what was likely to happen). She told me that for her, the turning point was when she realized that the worrying was not preventing those problems. In fact, it was actually draining her, sapping her ability to take constructive action on those issues. She was staying up at night worrying about her health or her ability to finish all her work the next day -- the irony is obvious. Now whenever she catches herself worrying, she realizes she needs to be taking care of herself rather than sapping her own energy. More meta, I guess the change is from trying to ward off bad things, playing defense, toward focusing on trying to create something better in the future, playing offense. Maybe?

As for how to actually make the change. I say, just decide to. Once I got on this kick of wanting to be more clean. I said to myself, only maybe three times over two days, but with real conviction, "I'm the kind of person who has a clean room. I care about myself and want to give myself a nice place to be," while picturing having a clean room and being happy about it. I know this sounds cheesy but the amazing thing was that three weeks later, as I noticed myself cleaning again, I thought "man, this is weird, when did I become such a clean freak!?" And then I remembered. Basically, don't underestimate your power to just redirect the way you think when you really want to.
posted by salvia at 12:11 AM on August 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

I like salvia's "I'm the kind of person who..." thing. In all the things that I believe I'm the sort of person who is good at/lucky with X - I really am (thank goodness I believe I'm lucky in love :o), and in all the things in which I "forgive my shortcomings" and feel like, "oh, well, too bad - but I'm just that kind of person" my comings tend to remain unhappily short.

I used to have a job that included an extremely complex, extremely stressful aspect that involved a regular schedule of pulling together various (often disparate or "competing") elements into a successful whole, coordinating four different departments that had input (and demands!), and directly overseeing the work of two of those departments, on a do-or-die deadline, and an unforgiving budget... and it was really, really crazy. Failure would have meant enormous (at times completely unsustainable) financial loss to the company. But I absolutely believed that no one could do it as well as I, and that I would always make it work, no matter what inevitable disaster befell the process. And I did; I never once failed, and was regarded as being pretty fucking amazing. And I know beyond all doubt that I couldn't have done it with a pessimistic outlook...

But! ... What you think of as pessimism can (and should) be turned around into an attribute in aid of optimism. I was constantly aware of the things that could go wrong, so I almost always had at least half of a plan already formed in the back of my head about how to proceed in each case. It was exceedingly rare for me to be totally flummoxed by anything, because of that tiny nag, pessimism. The trick is to keep it a useful cog instead of the engine in your mental machinery.

Pessimism is too valuable to lose, so your goal should be to subordinate its position. As a manager, it completely sucks, but as a factotum, it helps to save your ass.
posted by taz at 2:14 AM on August 19, 2007 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I definitely third salvia's response. I like to use the phrase "I'm getting more [desirable quality]" (so, rather than "Why am I so pessimistic?" I'd think, "I'm getting to be more optimistic"); I like the state of progression it implies, and it helps me remember to forgive myself when I slip up or can't do as much as I'd like, because it reminds me that it's work. One of my professors suggested teaching people to think, "Until now, I've been [undesired response], but now I'm choosing to do [desired response]."

The other trick I use, when I sit down and start imagining all the ways things could go wrong, is just to think, "What would the actual effect of that be?" Your ipod gets stolen from work, that means you're out $200 or $400, so maybe that's a big enough deal to you that you don't leave it at your desk all day. Your friend's lackadaisically organized plans fall through, so.... what? You have a free evening? That's not really a big deal. Your co-worker makes a mistake on the plans, so.... is it something you can fix without much fuss before the presentation? If so, then it's not a big deal.

Those may be crappy examples, but the idea for me has been to realize that the worry and stress I'm causing myself in inventing a problem are far disproportionate to the actual work it would take to fix the problem I'm inventing. And I think it helps to have a solution in mind, or at least to get into the mindset of realizing that you could come up with a solution if a problem did arise. That can sometimes quiet your mind and keep it from inventing problems in the first place.

Which actually just made me think of another way you could phrase your change -- rather than "I'm so pessimistic," turn it around, as taz says, to "I'm very good at solving problems." That puts the focus on the doing rather than the worrying, which means your attention will shift to that aspect of the process.
posted by occhiblu at 9:44 AM on August 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

I also meant to add: Make sure you're getting enough sleep, eating regular healthy meals, and exercising on a regular basis. I think everyone's crabby and pessimistic if they're tired, hungry, or lethargic, and I think it's a good idea to learn to take care of yourself before you get to that stage.
posted by occhiblu at 9:47 AM on August 19, 2007

I like taz and occhiblu's modification of what I said -- I'll have to adopt those versions.

And not to beat a dead horse, but just to make clearer what I think made my approach work so well for me that one time -- there in the second sentence, I'm telling myself I'm making this change so I'll be happier (ie, out of love) and at the same time, picturing how much happier I'll feel. This is compared to the approach I use the other 92% of the time (more like "you suck! it sucks that you're such a slob!" which leaves me feeling doomed to fail, chastised, demoralized, needing to recover, and certainly not interested in doing whatever it was that jerk originally wanted me to do), it works much better to say "you can do better, I believe in you"/ "I think changing will make you happier" / "I'm going to change because I care about taking care of myself" / etc. Basic principles you'd use with say, anyone you were teaching to do something, but I often forget those principles when dealing with myself.
posted by salvia at 3:45 PM on August 19, 2007

Get more unconditional love in your life, e.g., by getting a dog. They love you, worship you, enjoy your presence, and have no negative thoughts. They're natural optimists, warm and cuddly and will get you outdoors for regular walks. See if that helps your outlook on life. (And if you don't like dogs, consider a cat.)
posted by exphysicist345 at 6:56 PM on August 19, 2007

i've said something like this somewhere around here before, but I can't find the comment now... but I have become something of an existentialist optimist in recent years, which is to say, I'm still a pessimist by plenty of descriptions, but on a deeper level, so to speak, i recognize the beauty and potential of things, and the value of just basically going for it. A number of years ago I went through a major medical scare, after which I felt somewhat like I was living on bonus time, for a bit. It reminded me that we argue over whether the glass is half empty or half full but don't stop to appreciate the miracle that there's a glass there at all to start with.

Being an optimist doesn't have to mean stupidly getting your hopes up for something unlikely, or not seeing the truth because you're believing in a fantasy; it can just be a decision that it's worth the experience to try something out, and an acceptance that even if things go wrong, they don't have to suck. Even bad experiences can be experiences worth having - either interesting in their own way, or "character building" in the long run.
posted by mdn at 9:53 PM on August 19, 2007

Every single time you have a negative thought ask yourself "So what?"

Because really, most of this stuff doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things.
posted by lisaici at 9:25 PM on August 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

Per thinkingwoman, "i also find that regular sex and dark chocolate work wonders"

Don't limit yourself...kinky sex and white chocolate are good too!

Seriously, the key is surrounding yourself with people who's attitude you want to emulate. I'm a very, very positive person, but I fell in love with someone who had a negative world view. After awhile, he pulled me down far more than I pulled him up.
posted by 26.2 at 5:01 PM on August 22, 2007

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