Optimism is one of those things. We figure we magically have it, or we don't. It's something to think about, since optimism happens to increase resilience and longevity. Check out the APA Help Center for some interesting bits on the mind-body connection.
In his books "Authentic Happiness" and "Learned Optimism," Martin Seligman concludes that we can alter personal dispositions like optimism. He talks about a number of methods for changing your pessimistic outlook to an optimistic one.
Seligman's strategies include the following: arguing with yourself against pessimistic thoughts; looking at the evidence; seeing alternative ways of thinking; examining the implications of our beliefs; and questioning the utility of our beliefs.
I encourage my son to apply these strategies to his occasional concern that he's lost his game, i.e., he suddenly can no longer be a soccer star.
- What's the evidence? Usually the evidence is that he's played primo soccer during his last game but for a variety of reasons the team didn't win, didn't win as big as he thought they should or he missed a shot or two.
- What's an alternative? Maybe he was just a little off on that shot or unlucky, but he's still playing a great game. Maybe he's not on his game because he's distracted. Maybe he's tired.
- What are the implications? None of these alternative explanations suggest he's lost it. He's not perfect (who is?) but he's still a great player. Next time he can do something differently, depending on his analysis of the problem.
- What's useful about the belief? Obviously, it's not very useful to think you've completely lost it. It's not helpful to think in such catastrophic terms. Instead he may need to work on something specific: improve his focus and concentration, practice his free kicks, get more sleep the night before a match. In short, he can continue to practice, try to play his best next time and see how it goes before quitting the game.
We all have beliefs and characteristic ways of thinking that are sometimes useful and helpful, and at times downright useless and harmful. Trying to make changes in our thinking can actually create a more optimistic outlook. It's not magic, just a little hard work.
The trick is to consider the way we think about things and try to come up with more positive and useful strategies. Like a new hat, it sometimes takes a while to feel comfortable in it, but if you think it looks good, you try it out for a while. Of course, you can always buy another hat. Similarly, you have a lot of choice in how you think about the world. Old ideas can be traded in for new ones.
Can you identify some of your characteristic ways of thinking? Helpful, or not so helpful? Consider alternative beliefs. And next time you miss that goal, consider how you'd like to approach your game in the future. Think optimistic: maybe next time you'll get that hat trick.