Has anyone here ever actually learned to be more optimistic?
June 20, 2008 9:30 AM   Subscribe

Has anyone here ever actually learned to be more optimistic?

I'm having a few distressing events happening to me right now - basically going through a painful breakup and financial issues related to the breakup. I'm having a hard time not sinking into a horrible depression - which I'm prone to do. I try to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, but I'm finding it difficult because:

a) I'm thinking about my problems ALL the time so I'm constantly having to recorrect my thinking.

b) I'm actually not sure what to think about instead and the things I try to think about seem to turn into some sort of argument in my head between the optimisitc voice and the pessimistic voice:
(i.e. "Things are rough now, but will be better soon...", "...Yeah, but I feel bad now!",
"You can handle this...", "...Maybe, but I'm worried and scared."

I've read every tip for relieving anxiety and self-talk, etc. but now I'm starting to wonder - do these things work for anybody? Are there people out there who have actually trained themselves to think more optimistically and to stop worrying about every single thing? If you're one of those people, I'd like to know that you exist and hear a little bit about how you did it. My 2 voices thank you.
posted by katyjack to Human Relations (39 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
Think of it this way. Millions of years of evolution has given you coping mechanisms. I've learned to trust that they are there and that when it comes time to make a tough decision, that they will kick in and help me.

The dialog in your head is an attempt at anxiety reduction, as assuming the best and the worst allows you to stop thinking about the issue. Stop trying to reduce the anxiety and feel it immediately when it happens. That way it passes quicker.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:46 AM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Age helps. People tend to get happier as they age--at least until they get decrepit. Good friends are important. You just need a few.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:46 AM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have done so. For me, what has helped: practice; therapy; medication; a few things going well in my life; getting older and more comfortable with myself; experience.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:47 AM on June 20, 2008

I'm so sorry you are going through a hard time right now.

I have trained myself to be optimistic. It is really hard when you are going through tough times, but it can be done. Here is how I did it:

First, I, too have read quite a bit regarding "how to be positive," etc. I cognitively knew these things, but didn't feel it. However, all that reading you have done actually accumulates. Keep at it.

This led to an epiphany where I realized that I WAS IN CHARGE OF MY OWN BRAIN. I could choose to be happy if I wanted to. Huh, imagine that.

So I decided I was going to be deliriously happy each and every day. I operationalized this by:

1. Making a rule/challenge for myself that I could only say positive things and never say anything negative. This challenge required me to only think positive things. You are what you think. Slowly, with great effort, it became part of the fabric of who I was, and I hope it will become my essential self one day.

2. Being the most positive person in the universe with everyone I encountered. Trying to lift other people up, smile at everyone, and chat with strangers goes a long way to "making your day." Make them wonder what you are smiling about!

3. Deciding each day to be happy.
Does this work every day? Of course not. But I have definitely increased my overall level of delight with life. Some days are hard, but most days are great.

I think we underestimate our power of decision with happiness and attitude. It is in your hands, no one else's. I realized I didn't want to give external events or people the power to determine my mood. This took a lot of work. It is an every day process: make the decision each morning and do your best. It won't always work perfectly, but it is better than the alternative. This is hard with what you are going through, but you have nothing to lose by trying (as you obviously are doing).

The thing people forget is that what you think and say has enormous power over how you feel. And you get to control what you think and say.

I also read tons of self-improvement, success, and positive thinking blogs. Looking up favorite quotes, such as those by Benjamin Franklin, etc., also inspires me.

This is what worked for me. I often wake up laughing from dreams because I'm so happy. I hope this helps a bit. I'll be watching to see how others have done it.
posted by Punctual at 9:52 AM on June 20, 2008 [20 favorites]

I found the whole self-talk thing to be immediately transparent and therefore useless to me since I knew I was putting myself on. I think the biggest change for me was accepting the fact that whether one is an optimist or a pessimist both positions are posited on projecting your present thought on a matter into the future which is an inherently flawed practice since while we can have reasonable certainties or guesses about what's to come we can never know.

So, while I am not directly more optimistic I am far more likely to just reserve judgment until I have concrete evidence one way or another. What has come out of this for me is not an expectation of good or bad things- just no expectation at all. I would say I'm far happier for it because instead of focusing on what could potentially go wrong in life I focus more on what I can control and know about right now and save the rest for when it comes.

So, while its not directly focused on making yourself more optimistic learning to be present in the now and treating the future as a comfortable unknown can have the unintended benefit of making one happier and less prone to doom saying.

I'm sorry to hear you are having rough times and I hope things get better and that this helps in some way...
posted by zennoshinjou at 9:53 AM on June 20, 2008 [4 favorites]

Being optimistic can be a choice, you know.

I've had a shitty past two weeks, (person info snipped) blah blah and finally my car robbed, where they stole my nice digital camera. I loved that camera. Without that camera, all I have is the lousy camera on my cell phone. Life sucks, blah blah.

But I don't want to feel this way, right? So what to do? Hmmm, let's turn this into a challenge and try to make good photos using the shitty cell phone camera. It's a challenge, takes my mind off the troubles and suddenly, BOOM, life doesn't seem so bad. In fact, maybe it was good thing the camera was stolen as it's forcing me to rethink some things.

You could say this is making lemonade outta lemons or seeing the sunny side of life or whatever. But it boils down to not wanting to feel shitty and beat down, realizing you don't have to feel that way and then taking steps to stop feeling that way.

Life is long and there are going to be enough things that depress and sadden you. Don't give that shit too much of your time.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:54 AM on June 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

I was diagnosed with mild depression in my first year of college, that too after a heart-wrenching break-up. After two months of brooding melancholy and psychotherapy (which I didn't find useful), I happened to take a class on positive psychology (wiki) which, to fall back on a cliche, changed my life completely... or at least changed the way I thought about life.
It wasn't easy, but after 15 weeks of trying to quell my negative voice, creating goals and achieving them, and applying a lot of things I learnt in class; I was able to stop being depressed.
So read about the "movement", find your passions, negate harmful self-talk, create accomplishments (for example, get your finances in shape) etc. I have done it, you can do it too.
And as the wise man said, this too shall pass...
posted by defenestratedego at 9:59 AM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


1)Talk openly and honestly about what you're going through with other people. Listen to input. Share your pain and frustration.

2)Don't deny legitmate feelings. If you're feeling sad about something that SHOULD be bothering you. Don't try to stuff it or think your way out of it. This will only make matters worse. You'll end up still feeling upset about the problem, plus you'll be mad at yourself for feeling this way.

3)Faith: in a Higher Power, God, The Universe, Blue Unicorns, Your Mom, whatever... can help out. Knowing that there is a caring entity that is not YOU who loves you, and wants you to be happy can help out supremely.

4)Your head is a dangerous neighborhood. Try to stay out of it.

5)Keep relatively busy. Volunteer work or helping those less fortunate can be a godsend at times such as these, as it really can help to have a tactile reminder of how "it's not really that bad" without chanting this internally so it becomes some stupid reptative cliche.

6)Try not too isolate too much. This leads to 4, and although you probably earnestly don't want a shit to do with anyone at times, it sometimes can be a real spirit lifter to just hang out with people... I've had to force myself to do this on several occasions, and more times than not have felt much better for doing it.

7)Meditation: Clearing your head of negative (or any, for that matter) thoughts for 10-15 minutes a day can give your soul a much needed recharge.

8)Don't catastrophize or maximize. This isn't the end of the world. It will be hardly a blip on your life's radar in 10 years, nothing's black or white... sometimes it's hard to see that.
posted by Debaser626 at 9:59 AM on June 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Some things I do that have helped me a lot are:

1. Yoga class - or if you can't find a yoga class, learn some simple poses and practice them everyday, along with deep breathing. This helps me relax not only my body, but my mind.

2. Meditation. If you find you have a hard time meditating on your own, find some guided meditation podcasts online. Try a few different ones out.

3. Walking most days of the week. Exercise really does help improve your mood. Even better if you can walk somewhere with lots of trees or in nature.

4. Every night before I go to bed, I say as many things as I can that I am thankful for (my husband, my house, my cats, my health insurance, etc.). It helps me think about those nice things instead of the bad things, and I tend to fall asleep better.
posted by All.star at 10:19 AM on June 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

The break-up is legitimate pain and not the sort of thing that lends itself to being dispelled with a few beams of positive thinking. It may make you feel better sooner if you acknowledge what you've recently lost and let yourself grieve over it like you would losing any important person in your life.

Sorry, it that doesn't help with the is-it-to-cultivate-optimism question, since I don't know about that, but part of a positive approach to life is letting yourself be sad when sad things happen.

Just saying.
posted by bluenausea at 10:35 AM on June 20, 2008

1. I found trying to smile or laugh helps. Paul Eckman established that there is a direct link between our mood and our expression. A happy expression can positively influence your mood. I can't be sad when I jump up and down waving like a sport fan.

2. Find time and resources to take care of yourself helps. Re-establish your goal and priorities and focus on achieving those goal. Block out time to care for your heart and mind. For me, I enjoy social interaction a lot, but tend to neglect to set aside time and effort to invest in these activities. I become happier when these relationships blossom again.

3. Exercise. This is like getting an endorphin shot; it lifts mood right away.

4. Long term strategy: recognize these time for what they are: just part of life. You will get over it. Take your time, go with the flow. Perhaps you can even write a poem or a sad song. Look into your past and find happy example of better time. Project into your future and hope for a brighter future.
posted by curiousZ at 10:35 AM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

All good advice above. What I've found is that it can be helpful to take an existential attitude towards life in order to smooth the rough edges. We all end up as dirt in the end, so life becomes what we make of it. It sounds trite to say "everything will work out fine," but there are billions of people going through all kinds of misery and the world does not change, so what we have left is our attitude and motivation to make our lives what we want them to be in the time that we have here. This is to say that you can construct your life to become as good as you can imagine once you take a step (or two) back from "the moment." I don't think it's haphazard to acknowledge that you aren't getting raped in Darfur right now, so given that you have *something* to fall back on you might be able to relax a little and figure out good things to do with your time rather than stew. And I say this as someone who is given to the same behaviors you talk about.
posted by rhizome at 10:46 AM on June 20, 2008

I like all.star's answer the best so far... learning about/ how to meditate has done a great deal for me to stop trains of negative thought (overly optimistic ones as well actually), stop projecting/mulling and introduce a new way/ more grounded way of looking at the world. (and it has "stuck" too for me).
I suggest "Mindfulness In Plain English". People seem to like Tolle's "The Power of Now" which is somewhat similar.
posted by mrmarley at 10:58 AM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I dont think its possible to be a dyed-in-the-whool optimistic like you seem to be suggesting. What has helped me as Ive gotten older is to 100% accept that life is suffering. The idea that you will magically escape from negatibity in your life with positive self-talk is ridiculous. Accept that life will be unpleasant x amount of time and pleasant y amount of time. Once you've accepted that then postivity comes naturally and when bad things happen to you its not "Oh no, woe is me," its "Okay, these things happen. I will cope. Things will get better. I am not entitled to some beautiful hollywood life. This is reality."

Also learning calming techniques helps a great deal.
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:04 AM on June 20, 2008

I found that once I decided that things weren't going to piss me off or depress me or otherwise put off my day I was much happier. Also at least saying hello, thanks and goodbye(where appropriate) to everyone made me more optimistic about everything for some odd reason. I think it forced me to have interactions that were mostly positive.
posted by captaincrouton at 11:20 AM on June 20, 2008

Here's a distinction that I find useful — and I think it explains why meditation has worked for those who suggest it above.

Positive self-talk is an absolutely great thing. Usually, when it crops up in self-help books and the like, it's a simplified form of cognitive therapy, which holds that your thoughts determine your emotions. Change your thoughts, change how you feel. But it works much better if you complement it with techniques that encourage you to see that your thoughts — positive or negative — are not "you"; you can step back from them, get some distance from them; observe them as they arise without judging — which is the essence of meditation, though meditation's not the only technique.

If you pursue the "replacing negative thoughts with positive ones" route without also changing your relationship to your thoughts in their entirety, I think it'll constantly feel like a struggle. There's a kind of desperation in the effort to keep pushing the bad thoughts out by imposing good ones instead. A better outlook is to first see that thoughts, negative or positive, aren't such a big deal, and don't define you, and then, sure, seek to have more positive ones than negative ones, because being happy is a good thing. But first be OK with the idea of the negative ones. It's good old Carl Rogers again: "The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change."
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 11:21 AM on June 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Punctual and rhizome cover most of what I have done, and still do. I won't say I'm an optimist yet, but I've gone from being a black hole of negativity and generally no fun to be around, to above average in my positive outlook.

The one thing that helped me most is meditative chanting. Yeah, it sounds goofy, but quiet meditation never worked for me. It was just a chance for my negative thoughts to go monkey bananas. Instead I picked a short, very positive sentence that really spoke to me, and started chanting it over and over. I'd take a mirror and go somewhere private, look myself in the eyes and say that same positive sentence a few million times. At least 10-20 minutes a day. It only took a few days before those words started attaching themselves to negative thoughts. And then it started interrupting them, and after that replacing them altogether. (And yes I felt like a complete moron doing this for the first week or so. I got over it.) If you can't think of your own phrase that speaks to you, try the Book of Positive Quotations.

The down side is that it sort of feels like getting the same song stuck in your head for a while. It was well worth it for me.

But that's me. Find something that works for you, there are a lot of good ideas here, and not all of them are for everyone. The most important thing is determination. You have to really stick to it for a while to see if it really does help. It's not a switch that you can switch and suddenly songbirds follow you around and rainbows shoot out your eyes. You have a lifetime of negative momentum to overcome, so it will take a lot of energy to make a change. Keep a journal so when you get the "geez, this isn't helping" feelings you can go back and see that it is working.
posted by Ookseer at 11:26 AM on June 20, 2008

This is the best thread I have read on metafilter. Thanks to all, I have found it very inspiring!
posted by Ponderance at 11:28 AM on June 20, 2008

Yes indeed, although not without a good bit of practice and self-reflection. I, like you, felt it was ridiculous to simply "ignore" the negative thoughts I was having or to try and replace them wiith "happy thoughts." Such actions, I thought (and still do) are only syrupy sweet sitcom like attempts at self-deception that serve no purpose other than avoiding the issue. So, it became important for me to realize that whenever I feel badly, that the problem lies with me. External events are external events. We decide whether they're positive or negative. Some things that helped me tip the scale:

- Realize that what I'm going through is a luxury problem. A problem yes, but I can lessen it's stranglehold a bit when I realize how much I have to be incredibly grateful for (I have a place to live, I am in good health, etc...)

- Have knowledge that "this too shall pass" and that events like this in life are largely cyclical.

- Make an attempt to "get beyond myself" for a bit. I find that (positively) focusing on other people helps TREMENDOUSLY. There are people in need everywhere (and I'm not just talking about the obvious places like homeless shelters and hospitals. Some of the people closest to you are going through funks right now too, I'm sure) and if I can be of any assistance to them whatsoever, be it a a kind act or simply a listening ear, I find it improves my state of mind like you wouldn't believe. Hell, I can't even believe it. I'm not even sure how it works either, but it does.

- Make a conscious decision each day to try and stay positive and stay out of my own way.

We all - every single one of us - has been through a shitstorm at some point in our lives and has a sad story to tell. Personally, I hit a low point negativity wise in 2002 when I felt my life had spiraled out of control. Things are CONSIDERABLY better for me now, but would be the person I am had those events not occurred? Not a chance. As bad as I felt they were at the time, they turned out to be such tremendous learning experiences, that I can look upon them today with a sense of gratitude. Hopefully, you'll be able to do the same in time. Good Luck!
posted by Rewind at 11:38 AM on June 20, 2008

There is so much good advice above that I have only a few things to add: learn to be grateful and lose your resentments. It can be very difficult to do this when you feel like life has dealt you a bad hand. Tragedies old and new can keep you in an endless loop of anger, envy and frustration. I hit a new bottom of depression, guilt and anger a few years ago, and it took a lot of time and work to learn to focus out of myself and my own experience to see the bigger picture.

Resentment serves no one and it will absolutely kill you in the long run. It doesn't right any wrongs or teach you about your experience. It's just anger gone rancid.

Gratitude gives dividends. Some days it will be so difficult to generate that you might think that you have nothing to be grateful for - that isn't true, and if you look around you and think about what you have going for you (make it an exercise - it's really illuminating), it will definitely boost your optimism.

Above all, don't beat yourself up for feeling badly. Sometimes truly sucky things happen - the trick is to realize that just because you feel badly now doesn't mean that you're always going to feel this way. Take tiny steps, lose the anger and see the good thing around you and go from there.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:47 AM on June 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

It helps me to acknowledge my fear/anxiety/sadness and just "sit calmly beside them" -
"I feel bad now. I'm worried and scared. And that's okay. I'm worried and scared because I'm in a worrying situation (or because my hormones are acting up, or because I got the kind of criticism that I tend to take personally, or whatever.) It's okay that I'm feeling worried and scared. But, it's just a feeling, and it's completely separate from whether what I'm worried about will come to pass or not."

Meditation does help with the tendency to come back to the worry again and again and again like picking at a wound.
posted by Jeanne at 11:53 AM on June 20, 2008

Seligman, Learned Optimism. He's former President of the APA so he approaches the topic with discipline and research credentials. Yes, there is research evidence that you can become more optimistic. See also his book on Authentic Happiness.
posted by idb at 11:56 AM on June 20, 2008

No, I have not learned to be an optimist, though people have told me I am more optimistic and positive. I call it realistic. What I've learned to cope with being a depressoid or having these shitty thoughts:

Rational thinking is that if I am looking for the opportunities, including imagining what they might be, I am more likely to find them than if I am looking at the past shit, of which there is much. So, rationally, I choose where to focus. Look at the plan, the goal, the longterm, and that can be somewhat satisfying and a relief. Sometimes even exciting.

I've learned to become more aware of feelings and also the sensation of my body holding tension. I am aware when certain thoughts bring on that tension, and I don't want it. Stress is very unhealthy, and I don't need worse health, so I choose to do what's more relaxing, think of the most relaxing and comfortable yet realistic interpretation of the shit I have to deal with at the moment. And do things that are relaxing, to take me out of the tense and bitter mode.

Regarding thinking about futile stuff from the past, I ask myself, "Is there any point to thinking about this? Can I do anything about it? Can I solve a problem here?" After searching through that, if I know I have done what I can or have a plan to do it, then I can more easily let go obsessing about the shit.

And it's not necessarily a dilemma, re your point (b). Your negative thoughts are valid. As are the positive ones. Opposite things can be true at the same time. So, there's no contest.

On (a) you need some fun. Indulge yourself daily, more when things go bad. I know it can be hard to find an escape sometimes, but it's really necessary.
posted by Listener at 11:58 AM on June 20, 2008

I have never gotten the whole "happiness is a choice/decide to be happy!' thing.

I'm sure it works for some, but to me I just picture a test like the SAT:

Today do you want to be:
a) happy
b) unhappy

Who in their right mind (haha) would choose "b" if it was that simple?

For myself, I know that i can't just choose "b." I suffer from depression and anxiety, albeit in a fairly minor way. I'm certainly not asking for anyone to feel sorry for me, others have it much worse, but I can't "choose" to be happy any more than i can choose not to have a cold or the flu.

so here is what I try to do:
1) go to therapy
2) do stuff. My default state seems to be doing nothing i am not obligated to do. I come home from work, I sit on the couch half-conscious, I go to sleep. Half the time even when i decide to go out somewhere I find myself staring at my shoes but not putting them on for 30 minutes or so.

So I recently resolved to force myself. Every night after work i'm walking to the gelato shop. Do I need coffee or gelato? Not really. But I get out in the air, i see people, I do SOMETHING besides sit on the couch and think.

3) Have something to look forward to. A lot of times i find myself sitting there thinking, "I have nothing to look forward to in the future." I know this isn't realistically true, I'm sure good things will happen to me in the future. But without something concrete to look forward to, I sometimes can't make the leap. So I booked a trip to New Zealand in january. Just getting passport photos and asking for time off work was the GREATEST feeling, even though the trip isn't for six months. As soon as i come back from NZ, I want to immediately start planning something else. And on like that for the rest of my life, I hope. I realize not everyone can afford big international trips every year, I can't either really. But there's always something pleasant you can plan for.

4) Accept that it really doesn't get easier. I'm 32 now and I'm pretty confident I will never get a "freebie." There will never be a blinding flash of light and then suddenly everything will be easy. it will always be a struggle to get off the couch, every day until I die. Accepting that is helpful, because I don't build up false "what's wrong with me?" expectations. Once I accept it'll never be easy, I can concentrate on doing what's hard. As the Zen Buddhists say, "to achieve enlightenment, we chop wood and carry water."
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:38 PM on June 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Eckhart Tolle's idea of "letting go of the ego" really, really helped me to stop being a Gloomy Gus. In every single interaction with another being, I would always be judging what people thought of me, nitpicking the tiniest little criticism they made of me, and then becoming defensive about their actions, either in my own thoughts or in my replies. We all want to protect ourselves, protect our ego, and we will go as far as we need to--so far as hurting someone else--to get it done. But when you understand just how destructive your ego can be, you learn how to let things go. This doesn't mean that nothing affects you, but you do come to notice that other people's badgering has nothing to do with you, really--it has to do with them. This is when I started taking responsibility for my own happiness. I realized that I have no control over what other people do, but I do have control over how much power their actions hold over me. It's just a waste of energy, and I'm not going to let my well-being and happiness be controlled by other people, no matter how close they are to me. Why should I? What's the point? There is no joy in misery, no matter how tempting and easy it is to wallow in it. Things that helped me get there: stopping the voices in my head that undermined everything I did. Every time I started to ruminate or beat myself over the head, I would try to stop. It's NOT an easy process, but it's possible. You're still going to get stressed out--exercise helps me burn it off. Meditation can REALLY help you to stop ruminating and relax, but it's a hard habit to pick up. So I would recommend yoga classes first. Yoga stretches are really easy to do, so your brain will be going a mile-a-minute for the first few to several sessions, but the emphasis on breathing will help you learn how to shut off your brain and let it relax. It's incredibly stress-relieving.

ps. i only came to these realizations with the help of a therapist... i'd recommend going to one.
posted by Menomena at 1:49 PM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yes, I am more optimistic than I used to be. Logic and science helped here. I'm not going looking for the studies, but it turns out that optimistic people live longer, happier lives.

But what if they're (the studies) wrong, and the fact they (the subjects) didn't pack the kitchen sink works against them, I immediately asked myself. Well, then they cope. They assume that something will turn up, that they'll be able to make something work. And you know what, that has to be true. Humanity would have died out if people weren't able to make something work.

What's say I plan a trip, and think, oh no, I shouldn't go, I'll get lost, it'll rain, I won't know anyone. (That's the pessimist point of view). The optimist (or even logical) point of view is, nothing of these will probably happen, but if they do, I can work around them, I always have in the past. (I can see that in your comments to yourself).

But I don't know that you're actually talking about optimism and pessimism. If some horrible things happened to you, and you're sad and angry about it, well, that's a reasonable response. It takes time to get over things.

"Things are rough now, but will be better soon...", "...Yeah, but I feel bad now!",
"You can handle this...", "...Maybe, but I'm worried and scared."

Yes, you do feel bad right now, and need to take care of yourself. Yes, you are scared and need to take care of yourself. You will get through it, what's the alternative? How do you not get through it? It feels like crap, and then one day, a month or a year or some unspecified time away, you feel a bit less like crap. You don't explode. For the most part, despite the very interesting movies on TV in the 80s, we don't go mad, or postal. We just keep at it until it gets better.

So, the strategy that you're perhaps not hooking into is this.
"Things are rough now, but will be better soon...", "...Yeah, but I feel bad now!",
"It's okay to feel bad. I'm going to give myself a break, have a bit of cry and then make a list."
"You can handle this...", "...Maybe, but I'm worried and scared."
"Maybe I need to feel upset right now, to get over this. I don't have to be a perfect and immensely capable human being all the time. "
posted by b33j at 4:16 PM on June 20, 2008

Regarding the choice to be happy, I think it more reasonably comes down to:
I choose how to react to events, and that affects my happiness.

eg. 1 Susie Neighbour yells across the fence that I'm such a skank. I can either believe her and go and weep in my bedroom that I'll never be loved and everyone hates me, OR, I can think what's up her butt, she's a bit mental today, probably needs a good cuddle - her statement clearly has much more to do with who she is, than who I am.

I chose my reaction. Either of those reactions will influence how happy I am.

eg 2.
Sitting waiting for a friend to turn up. Oh boy, I'm bored. Friend doesn't respect me turning up late. I'll never have good and decent friends. OR Hey cool, I have an unspecified period of time here where I don't have to do ANYTHING but think and peoplewatch. This happens so rarely, I'm going to immerse myself in the moment and really enjoy it. This might be boring for some, but it doesn't have to be. I'm going to count the number of people who have a smile on their face, or I'm going to check out the fashion they're wearing or whatever.

If you could hear me making the choice in example 2, you might go, what a dimwitted twit. But, how about this, in choosing to enjoy the moment I actually end up happier than if I spend the time resenting my friend, who might be unavoidably late.
posted by b33j at 4:23 PM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I highly recommend the Feeling Good Handbook. It gives your tools to steer yourself back to a more constructive view of life. It's a classic of cognitive behavioral therapy-- self help without treacle and dreck.

I feel really good about shaking off much of the negativity that held me back and alienated me as a younger person. Dealing with your crappy present in a constructive way can be the basis of being a much happier person. That's hard. Be patient. Give this book a try. Personally, I'm never going to be a cheery person (Nor do i want to be), but I've learned to enjoy life and put difficult times behind me. Just to be safe. I'd avoid scientologists and other people who offer paneceas.

Good luck!
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 4:30 PM on June 20, 2008

There are so many good points in this thread: reiterations of the idea that people have control over their own emotions, suggestions of how to be proactive in dissuading negative thoughts, reminders that bad times aren’t permanent. However, my belief in these ideas is the result of years of talk therapy with an insightful and compassionate therapist. I have not learned to be more “optimistic” (which implies that I see a rosier world for no apparent reason), but I have learned to be stronger, more confident, more empathetic, more goal-oriented, more successful, and more emotionally stable. (Mind you, I haven’t mastered any of these qualities, but I’ve made gains.) I think that these are the traits that people admire when they see someone whom they consider to be “optimistic.”

I can remember people making suggestions like the ones in this thread to me before I went to therapy, and I can remember dismissing the suggestions because they seemed trite. When I did try to put the suggestions to use, I wasn’t quite sure how to do it. I felt as though I was lying to myself when I tried to focus on the positive in the face of really awful things. I’ve noticed this response with other people, too. When I first started having breakthroughs in therapy, I was seized with an evangelical need to share the core ideas that were changing my thoughts. I can remember telling someone I love who was in emotional pain, “You can decide to be happy!” Understandably, this comment was not helpful to the person, and the person was even a little insulted—as drjimmy said above, who in their right mind would choose to be unhappy?

I recommend going to therapy rather than trying to get through this difficult time with only the scattered (although very good) advice presented in this thread. To me, it’s like the difference between trying to navigate a ship with the help of a detailed map of the ocean and trying to navigate using only a view of the water’s surface. Therapy helped me to understand how my own head works in most situations, and it showed me where the dangerous spots are so that I can avoid them or work on them. My therapist helped me to get through the current troubles that drove me to seek help. When trouble hit again later in life, I was better prepared to deal with it. By contrast, trying to hold myself together with a band-aid approach without the benefit of therapy put additional pressure on me: I felt I was not only responsible for getting through the issues I was facing but also for doing it cheerfully. Each time I was (understandably) unable to immediately pull myself out of sadness, something like your “pessimistic voice” reprimanded me for not being a better sport.

Going to therapy doesn’t mean that you’re wrong, sick, or broken. It just means that you want to know how your own head works so that you’ll be able to use it well in your life.
posted by TEA at 5:44 PM on June 20, 2008

I strongly second gesamtkunstwerk's suggestion for the Feeling Good Handbook. It cognitive behavioral therapy in a book.

I would also recommend another book by the same author, When Panic Attacks, which is very similar but much more recent and, as obvious from the title, more focused on anxiety.

Both those books have changed my life and decreased my shitty feeling level by a large degree. I still can feel off very often, but its not half as big a deal. I really recommend these books.
posted by Defenestrator at 5:54 PM on June 20, 2008

It's hard for me to leave this thread because I so firmly believe that it is possible. Hard, but possible.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:02 PM on June 20, 2008

You might like The Happiness Project. It's a blog that collects bits and pieces of advice from every source the author can get her hands on. It's supposed to eventually span everything from the Greek classics to Oprah; chances are good that you'll find something that resonates with you. I also like The Resilience Factor, which I found through a MeFite's recommendation on another thread.
posted by far flung at 8:52 PM on June 20, 2008

I think I qualify as someone who has learned to be more optimistic. I definitely qualify as someone who has beaten depression, and I did it entirely on my own, after trying meds and seeing various shrinks without success.

MoodGym was a big help for me. Even more important was toolstolife, which took me even farther along the road to a more positive and optimistic outlook.

Shortly after I started toolstolife, though, some really horrible things happened that took me to one of the lowest points in my life. I temporarily gave up on toolstolife and just wallowed in misery for a while. But some of the lessons I had learned from it resurfaced. I decided to inundate myself with positivity. I looked everywhere for new ways to think and behave; staying the way I had been just was not an option. I listened to Tony Robbins and Paul McKenna, both of whom helped me a lot as well.

But the thing that made the biggest difference in my case was self-hypnosis. In my searches I stumbled on the "double induction" mp3 available at hypnotica.org. Before that, I'd tried meditating, but somehow I was never very good at it. But this double induction thing did the trick for me - it opened up a whole new world of possibilities for controlling my own brain.

Since then, I've signed up for a hypnotherapy class, and I've been studying hypnosis and NLP in every spare moment. I've beaten depression forever - it truly feels like those old thought patterns are alien, like they belonged to someone else. And optimism feels like my natural state, where just a few months ago it was exactly the opposite.

So, yes, it is possible.
posted by semblance at 9:16 PM on June 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I skimmed this book on the plane a few weeks back. It's about the science of gratitude, and it's written by Robert Emmons, a professor at UC Davis.

Key things from the book:

Individual happiness often revolves around a "fixed point." A happy person loses a leg in an accident, and is bummed about life for a short while, but within a few months, has returned back to the baseline happiness. On the other hand, an unhappy person wins the lottery and manages to be unhappy a few months after the big gain. This is very common, and some social scientists argue that it's human nature. As I read, I often felt that the author was using optimism and happiness interchangeably. Same with unhappiness and pessimism: Optimistic people would return to their natural state, no matter what bad befell them while pessimists tended to find reasons to be pessimistic.

BUT: Keeping a gratitude journal is one of the few observed behaviors that can actually move this fixed point, move it UP the happiness/optimism scale. A gratitude journal is exactly what it sounds like. Just keep writing down sentences that begin with "I'm grateful...."

The author's research seemed to show a lasting increase in overall satisfaction with life, if the participant wrote down what he/she was grateful for in a given week. This effect was significant. But people who were asked to write down things that made them happy (happiness journal), or things that made them mad (taking out frustration journal) didn't show any significant effect.

Further, writing it down produced the effect, but being prompted to talk or think about items of gratitude didn't show the significant effect.

The thing is, keeping a gratitude journal is hard for EVERYONE, pessimist, optimist, whomever. One key is that you can't keep repeating the same items. Actively having to find new reasons to be grateful is pretty hard, and I consider myself an optimist through and through. You get through the obvious stuff within a few weeks of keeping the journal. The effect really kicked in for me when I started going to crazy scopes and finding crazy facets to life that I simply hadn't noticed (let alone appreciated). Another key is that you HAVE to do it, regardless of how crappy things are going.

So I'd just start writing down what you're grateful for. Taking the time to do it, that alone can be helpful. For me, self-talk is only as good as self-control, and when one's bad, so is the other. I couldn't just rely on inner monologue to keep me going during bad times, because I'd find my way into the pit. Writing it down meant having to build a sentence, framing life, and having to stick to the theme. It also means having good stuff to look back upon. You'd think that one might look back and find the old stuff hokey or melodramatic, but I don't at all.

It's a pain in the ass to have to write something down all the time, so I'm grateful for Tumblr. It's a website that allows you to keep a quick little diary. And the nice thing is you can IM it. So every so often, while I'm chatting up a few friends, I'll IM the TumblrBot for a few minutes, recording the week's gratefulness.

Good luck. I empathize with where you are,
posted by k7lim at 9:53 PM on June 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Cognitive behavior therpay has helped me greatly in this regard. I'm still not as optimistic as I should be, but I'm also out of my depression.
posted by reenum at 7:31 AM on June 21, 2008

Could be relevant:

The Science of Lasting Happiness
Through controlled experiments, Sonja Lyubomirsky explores ways to beat the genetic set point for happiness. Staying in high spirits, she finds, is hard work.
posted by dragonsi55 at 7:39 AM on June 21, 2008

I was kind of given the idea, as a child and teen, that worrying was the magic key to planning things so that they would go your way, and the alternative was unthinkable.

When my teens ended, I got involved in some intense, long-term volunteer work. Looking back on it, I recognize many of the tips given on this page: Do something, get beyond yourself, encounter suckiness and watch it pass, and, oh yes, get exercise by walking. So much walking. All of these were incredibly good for me.

Most crucial, though, was the way it exposed me, over and over, to some realities that broke my worry-centric worldview: Sometimes you can't plan for something, and it turns out OK anyway. Or sometimes it doesn't even turn out OK, but even then mostly the world keeps turning. Or sometimes you do plan for a thing, and it goes oily-side-up anyway, and even then the world still turns. Indeed, there is a reasonable amount of planning and foresight for most undertakings, after which you actually know all you can know in advance, and at that point you can ignore the predictions of your head as the waste of attention that they are.

I emerged from the experience much more optimistic and sanguine, much more able to happily co-exist with uncertainty, etc. It was quite transformative. Honestly, I think it's because doing more and experiencing more forced me to live in reality, where failure happens and it's OK—weirdly, the insulation from consequences in ordinary life allowed me to live in my head, where consequences are much worse than in reality. So yes, it can be learned, and the key is to meet a bunch of reality in the face.

The flip side of that is, it is possible to learn pessimism too. If you find yourself in a situation (employment, housing, whatever) that teaches you that nothing you do does any good, that high stress is required, that there is always more to go wrong than right, and that that's all there is—fight that mofo and get outta there. At the very least, make sure to get plenty of experiences outside of it to dilute its false message. Your baseline happiness level can be shifted either direction.
posted by eritain at 7:47 AM on June 21, 2008

Here's a suggestion that will probably sound perfectly ludicrous... at least until you actually spend ninety seconds trying it.

Since you're aware of two voices, one discouraging and one optimistic, take a moment to notice the differences between those two voices.

They'll probably *seem* to come from different places-- for example, one may originate on the left side of your head, the other from above you. These differences may seem arbitrary, and that's perfectly fine. Or the voices may have a different pitch, or a different tempo.

The point is that they have distinct, characteristic qualities.

Once you isolate the pessimistic voice's quality, alter it. Imagine that that voice is coming from your left little toe, or from a point ten feet away from you. Play with it, and see how you can reduce that voice's impact.

Similarly, discover how you can *increase* the impact of the *optimistic* voice, just by moving its locus in space, adjusting its pitch, etc.

Then practice hearing the pessimistic voice... hearing it *scratch* and then run backwards... and then turn into the positive voice.

Yes, this sounds like a lot of work... but it'll streamline and become easy and simple... after you've practiced this ten times in a row, really fast.

And when you've done that, ten times, fast, so that it's become simple and automatic... it'll feel natural... just something you let happen so that your life is now more the way you've been waiting for it to be.

This, incidentally, is taken from the absurd, ridiculous, unscientific, oddly effective hodgepodge of principles and techniques known as NLP.
posted by darth_tedious at 5:20 PM on June 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

The only thing that works for me is to take on someone else's crap - take on is probably too strong a term. What I mean is, if I have to deal with something that is outside of me, I can refocus and my innards beging to behave. Even something as teeny tiny as making an extra effort to be nice to the starbucks guy, even if he is a jerk and even though I hate starbucks, will kind of lighten things up for me.

This worked during a period when.. well, seriously, it has worked.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:06 PM on June 21, 2008

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