We tend to think of optimism or pessimism as character traits. They are, of course, but they are also emotions that can be learned and even manipulated to our advantage. When I posted, Taking the Heat out of Rumination, I said that the simple act of writing down the way we feel can have a calming effect and act as a way of getting negativity away from us. It’s a way of reducing gloomy thinking and pessimism, but I should also mention that it’s a way of increasing optimism. For example, if you perceived your real future as dull and uninteresting you could set yourself the task of writing down your ideal future. There’s no point fantasizing about having super-powers, but it is a way of shifting your mindset towards a future that has goals that could embrace better physical and mental health.
Optimism and pessimism as flexible friends
Blind optimism is as disabling as total pessimism, so an ideal scenario would seem to be a situation where we can exercise some choice. At this point the natural pessimists will be raising an eyebrow, and I don’t blame them. Our automatic thought processes are well established. For example, when there’s a knock on the door is your initial reaction ‘oh no’, or are you happy someone has come to visit? Our immediate emotional reactions are called ‘automatic’ because of this reason, but just because your heart sinks doesn’t mean you can’t check yourself and turn the situation around.
Choosing optimism is important in recovering from depression. It’s hugely reassuring, if perhaps hard to believe, that depression does pass. Writers on this site who have personal experience of depression use their posts variously to explain, reassure, challenge assumptions and to inspire. They frequently choose optimism both as a tool and a goal.
Pessimism is usually thought of as glumness, suspicion or negativity, but maybe that’s the extreme end of the spectrum. It may be both pessimistic but sensible to take an umbrella every time you go out. If the implication of failing to achieve personal goals is too high, then a less optimistic (i.e. more pessimistic) path might be better. I’ve written more about this in Positive Pessimism.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.