A recent homeownership situation has led me to explore the topic of optimism, how to see the bright side of life. Though I often describe myself as a realist, I like to think of myself as an optimist. It might take me a little time and distance, but I eventually come around to the optimist point of view.
Optimism isn't just a half-full glass or pitcher of lemonade squeezed from life's lemons. The Mayo Clinic credits positive thinking with enhancing a person's general well-being through improved cardio health, better coping skills, "effective stress management," and even a longer life. In his book Focus on the Good Stuff, Mike Robbins asserts that a positive outlook can help you enrich relationships and realize "greater success and fulfillment." Psychologist David Niven points to numerous scientific studies that link happiness with optimism in his book 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People.
Behind all the science you'll find real people. Take the portrait of Allen, whom author and photographer Karen Walrond introduced in her book The Beauty of Different. Allen dealt with alcohol and drug abuse, came to terms with homosexuality and dealt with his partner Mark hiding the fact that he was HIV positive. Despite Mark's betrayal, Allen stuck with Mark until the end. Allen now lives with full-blown AIDS … and yet he embraces the idea that all his suffering ultimately led him to purpose and meaning in his life.
Or look at Daniel Gottlieb, a psychologist and family therapist who, in his book Learning from the Heart, tells that his quadriplegia has molded him into the man he is. When his neck broke, he describes, his soul started breathing. "I might not have become the man I am today were it not for this trauma," writes Gottlieb.
Compared with the experiences of Daniel Gottlieb or Allen, my own experiences seem trivial but show optimism nonetheless. Several years ago, after I bombed an interview for what I thought was my "dream job," I became depressed. A good friend asked me a simple question: "Whatever happened to the idea of staying home?" Within months I quit the job in which I had felt trapped. With time, I started to feel grateful that I hadn't been hired for that "dream job." In abandoning my career, I have received the invaluable blessing of time: time with my young daughters and time with my ailing grandparents.
Optimism opportunities present themselves daily. Last summer vehicle problems steered us away from our planned vacation and led us instead to a week of tent camping at a quaint state park. There, our then 7-year-old felt compelled to stop and take in the view each time we passed a specific scenic overlook. Earlier this year after our 11-year-old car needed significant repairs, I could only feel gratitude that the newly repaired car took me safely back-and-forth from my home to my grandparents' during my grandpa's last days of life. More recently, water damage has necessitated demolishing the large storage closet in our basement (granted, my husband is doing the hard work), but I excitedly visualize a more efficient and awesomely redesigned studio. (Yay!)
Is optimism something ingrained in one's personality? Or can we learn how to see things from the positive side? Robbins outlines "Five Principles of Appreciation" toward dumping negativity and investing in relationships and happiness. "Be grateful" is step number one. Walrond, too, talks about gratitude, as does Sarah Ban Breathnach in her bestselling daybook Simple Abundance. Robbins, the Mayo Clinic and others recommend choosing positive people as your company and choosing positive thoughts, words and emotions as you go through your day. Sarah Susanka, Don Miguel Ruiz and Brené Brown all discuss the impact of negative self-talk and the fact that we often create our own obstacles to happiness and self-fulfillment. Experts certainly support the idea that people can change their habits of negativity and practice looking at personal events more positively.
As for me, I will continue modeling optimism to my kids and teaching them flexibility. Together, we remember that last summer's vacation didn't go as planned, but our detour allowed us to enjoy seeing a working mill and watching barges going through the Lock and Dam on the Mississippi River. With the kids, we talk about not being able to travel far during this summer vacation; together we make long lists of the local attractions we want to visit instead. If I can teach my kids to make lemonade from lemons, we're looking at a sunny future together.