This post is as much for me as it is for you. You see, I’m desperately in need of some hope and optimism. It just feels like the world is falling apart.
I have heard it said many times: This is the most amazing time to be alive! For the most part, this is true. The world is the most prosperous it’s ever been and we’re enjoying the most advanced technology ever created. But these accomplishments have costs. With such success has come unexpected and difficult downsides forcing most of us to pay a steep price.
When I pick my head up and look around to what’s going on in this world I’m overwhelmed by what I see. At the risk of creating a pessimistic downward spiral, let me share a short list of what I’m talking about.
Toxic politics, rising costs, polluted oceans, religious extremism, declining health, income inequality, tense race relations, drug-resistant superbugs, internet trolls, sex abuse in the church, data breaches, surging suicides, unethical businesses, shrinking middle class, drug overdoses, a retirement crisis, human trafficking, outsourced jobs, autocratic regimes, wage stagnation…
I could go on but I just can’t.
With a constant drumbeat of negativity, it can all feel like too much. The dark topics feel insufferable, in part, because we feel powerless to change them. I think many have resigned themselves to think that what is, will always be. I sometimes feel that way.
But I implore you (and me) to not give in to such defeat. There is a case for optimism despite what seems like a dire outlook.
The reason why we should feel optimism is because it supports the laws of nature. As they say: The only constant is change. Nothing, nothing, ever stays the same indefinitely whether it’s good or bad.
At one time dinosaurs roamed the earth.
At one time all roads led to Rome.
At one time the earth was believed to be flat.
At one time America was just a British colony.
When you pay close attention, you realize that everything is not only changeable but cyclical. From days and months to seasons and ocean tides. And after destruction, there is always new growth. You see it in nature like when green shoots appear following a forest fire. And you see it in our human endeavors. Through the investment of the Marshall Plan, Europe was eventually rebuilt after the devastation of WWII.
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You Have the Power to Control What You Think
So as we’re sitting in a period of uncertainty, frustration, and heartache we can take small comfort in that this epoch won’t last forever and something positive is around the corner. As the serenity prayer encourages, it’s important to change what you can, but accept what you can’t, and to be wise enough to know the difference.
While we wait out this time, one simple thing we can do is to turn towards optimism. The one power you do have is the power over what you think. Make the decision to focus on the light, not the darkness.
Following are 6 ways to practice optimism. Or create conditions to encourage optimism. They are ways to preoccupy your mind and energy or at the very least protect them.
1 - Take a Break From Media and Social Media
How many times do you read/watch the news or scan social media and end up feeling like crap? The world is going to hell and everyone’s mean. Or they’re pretending they live better lives than they really do.
I have taken periodic breaks from news media when it just seems too much to bear. I keep in mind that it’s media’s business to get us to watch or click and the more scary/ugly/shocking the headline, the higher likelihood I (or any reader) will be baited. The old adage If it Bleeds, It Leads still holds true. But, you know, I really don’t like being manipulated. So I abstain.
I also abstain from most social media. For one, it’s a major time suck. It wastes away precious time that I could be using for more productive or positive things. But more importantly, I find when I use it, I feel alienated. Like I am on the outside looking in. I’m looking at these glorified lives (whether that’s real or not) yet my brain registers it in a way that makes me feel excluded from such enjoyable living.
All social media is not evil. It’s a logistical godsend. It’s a brilliant tool to practically connect to others. But how it often makes people feel is an unfortunate drawback that can’t be easily dismissed. As I have written previously, there is certainly a dark side to excessive social media use driven, in part, by the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). Overuse of social media can lead to feelings of loneliness, exposure to cyber-bullying, and insidious feelings of social exclusion.
2 - Acknowledge What You’re Grateful For
You see this suggestion a lot in self-help articles and books. It may sound trite but it’s quite powerful because it supports a new theory of relativity. As bad as something is for you, someone always has it worse. So be grateful for what you have and offer grace and mercy to others that are in a worse situation. If you need inspiration, start watching the news again.
When I think about what I am grateful for, I could honestly cry. I’m grateful for the big things like a healthy and loving family, my education, my friends, my health, etc. But I’m also incredibly grateful for these little things that are monumental but so easily overlooked. Like the clean water that conveniently comes out of the tap, the safe warm bed I sleep in every night, and the confidence that I probably won’t be a victim of crime in my neighborhood.
When you look around and really examine what you have in your life — the big things and the tiny almost inconsequential things — your heart will swell with gratitude and assurances that your life is probably pretty okay.
3 - Spend Time in Nature
I live in Portland, Oregon. One of my favorite things about living here is Forest Park, one of the country's largest urban forest reserves. So from where I live, I can be in the middle of pristine, quiet solitude in less than 20 minutes.
When I hike on these trails, immediately my energy shifts. I calm down. I feel relaxed. And I begin to recognize that the woes of the world are manufactured drama that need not exist. I observe the animals in the forest and recognize the beauty and simplicity of their living. The squirrels aren’t planning forest domination or trying to manipulate other squirrels. There isn’t turf warfare or political showdowns between the birds and squirrels. They simply co-exist with no agenda.
Stepping into nature and away from most of mankind reorients your thinking. You recognize that the angst of your life need not be if you periodically wall it off from the excessive unproductive noise. The aggravation of the cable news pundits has no place here. Very quickly the anger and stress dissipate. You’re reminded what calm living looks like.
4 - Escape Through Meditation
When serene nature isn’t conveniently accessible, meditation may be the next best thing. Take only 10 minutes to block out the crazy world. This gives your mind a breather to deliberately not process information and likely the stress that comes with it.
Meditation is not about not thinking. That’s quite hard to do. Instead, it’s about detaching from the racing thoughts in your head. You still observe them, you’re just not swept up in them. This is called mindfulness. I once heard an analogy that mindfulness meditation is like watching a cascading waterfall from the river bank. The water is agitated, aggressive, fast-moving. But you’re not in the torrent, you’re just simply watching it. Not even getting wet.
The impact of meditation may or may not be felt in any given session but you will notice its effects over time. Your thinking will become more clear, less reactive, more objective.
After doing it long enough, my perspective on problems has shifted. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by problems that feel all-consuming, I now see them as annoying obstacles that need some creativity to solve.
5 - Listen to Something Inspirational
Sometimes a way to escape the stress of this world is to get into another world. That can be through music, a book, or a movie. It’s best to make the content nurturing, energizing or inspirational.
When following along with a character’s story you’re able to observe problems and solutions from a much more objective point of view. Plus as most movies have a happy ending, you can latch on to those feelings of positivity, accomplishment, and optimism.
Have you ever finished watching a movie and kind of had this detached feeling about your own life for a little while? Like you’re still enmeshed in the lives of the characters and your problems are still slightly out of reach? It’s a feeling of calm preoccupation. I like to hold on to this feeling as long as I can.
Likewise, listening to music can be a mind game changer. It can shift your mood and energy considerably while allowing you to focus. Go to any concert and look around. People have surrendered to the music and the energy that it creates. They’ve escaped to another world.
6 - Be Around Positive Optimistic People
Because it’s the people who make up our day-to-day lives, the company you keep will have a direct and lasting impact on your point of view. Debbie Downers suck in Donny Downers. And the inverse is true. By the company you keep your perspective and mood will be amplified, for better or worse.
Make the decision to have positive and uplifting people in your life. Ruthlessly cut out negativity. Don’t you want to feel more happy, positive, and hopeful instead of the opposite? Who you surround yourself with will determine this.
Like attracts like. When you surround yourself with likable people, you will feel good being around them. You will embrace a rational point of view that the world is fundamentally good and people have good hearts. You will see problems as solvable and the future as bright.
At the end of the day (and at the end of this article), this is the kind of optimism I’m searching for. I’m taking it.
Decide on two suggestions in this article to implement to invite more optimism into your life. Create a plan for how you will execute on this and make a commitment to see it through. Reflect on how you feel after adopting these ideas. Do you feel better?
What other things do you do to help you feel more calm and optimistic? Looking for some good suggestions in the comments section!