by Katie Clare, Associate Director for Resilience Programs, University Life
The final component of Southwick and Charney’s resilience strategy is optimism. As a colleague reminded me, optimism is the engine of resilience. If we don’t believe the future can be better, then we can’t be resilient. Optimism is at the core of resilience. If resilience is about persisting through trauma, adversity, uncertainty, or even more basic day-to-day challenges, now is certainly the time to call upon – and deepen – individual and community resilience. Our ability to remain optimistic may be getting a real workout at the moment, but it’s exactly what needs to step up to the plate, so let’s get a slightly better sense of what optimism is, how it relates to resilience, and some simple, actionable steps to bolster it.
If it feels like some people are naturally more optimistic, you’re not wrong. There is a genetic component to optimism, but optimism is not limited to genetics. If it feels like being optimistic means you have to be Pollyanna, it does not! After all, blind optimism really doesn’t move us toward meaningful resilience. Realistic optimism, however, acknowledges the obstacles and the challenges but trusts things will work out for the best. Realistic optimism works alongside hope that is committed to exploring multiple pathways to success. Realistic optimism allows us to activate our growth mindset and strengthen our resilience.
And while optimism is sometimes more situationally-based, we’re focusing on trait-based optimism because it extends beyond a single situation. Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology as we know it today, identifies three cognitive strategies used by optimistic individuals. Optimistic thinkers do not see challenging situations as permanent, pervasive, or uncontrollable. Instead, optimists see stressful circumstances as temporary, localized, and controllable. All three of these are critical, but perhaps the most important one to explore here is our ability to see stressful circumstances as controllable. This connects us to how our self-esteem can increase when we overcome a fear. Our resilience can be positively affected when we have a sense of ownership and control in our lives.
As you look to better understand your own relationship to optimism, try one or more of these strategies that works to put you in control:
Outlooks and Expectations
As you preview the day ahead, write down one positive expectation that you have. Some days this might be easier than others. Maybe you have a Zoom lunch date scheduled with a friend or you’re really looking forward to your dinner plans. Days like that might be easy, but we don’t always have those days. There are days that might require you to engage your ability to reframe stressful situations. For example, maybe you have an intense meeting on your calendar. Challenge yourself to think of the positive aspects of that meeting. How will the meeting benefit you? What could you learn? Reframing could help you think about the stressful meeting as an opportunity to get some movement on a challenging project as opposed to solely being an appointment to dread. Another example might be when you have a project due, and there’s still a lot of work to do. Try to reframe that anxiety of that work by focusing on your ability to accomplish the task and what it will feel like to get that sense of satisfaction at the end of the day.
It never hurts to be grateful. This is not a new practice, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded. After all, just because we know it’s a good practice doesn’t mean we remember to engage it. Sometimes it helps to view a well-known practice from a different perspective, so perhaps this piece about “Hunting the Good Stuff” will prove to be inspiring. As you work to engage in a gratitude practice of identifying positive experiences in your life, remember these don’t have to be big things. Maybe this morning it is as simple as being grateful for the bird singing outside your window. Or perhaps you notice that you are grateful that you finished your laundry over the weekend and even put it away. Just like it’s important to have a variety of perspectives and the ability to consider those perspectives, it’s also important to have variety to our positive experiences.
Our optimism can be fueled by the wisdom and perspective of others. We may not always have time to sit down and watch an inspiring movie or a compelling Ted Talk. Sometimes we need quick inspiration that can boost our spirits. Take some time to pull together a collection of quotes pertaining to optimism that really speak to you. In addition to finding those quotes, take the extra time to journal about why each quote inspires you. Note how you came across the quote. For example, maybe a friend or family member shared it with you, and in recalling the source you get to acknowledge the power of your social network in developing your resilience. You can keep these quotes in a space like a journal that you might go to when you need that boost, but you can also think of other strategies for working with them. You can write them down on index cards and put them in random places such as taped to the inside of the cupboard where you store your dishes or tucked into the visor of your vehicle. This might provide you with more unexpected moments of encouragement. Maybe you create some super visuals to go with your inspiring quotes and you periodically add them to your social media feed to help build optimism in your community.