There are many ways to practice optimism, but the one that has been empirically shown to enhance wellbeing is the original Best Possible Selves diary method. To try it out, sit in a quiet place, and take 20 to 30 minutes to think about what you expect your life to be one, five or 10 years from now. Visualize a future for yourself in which everything has turned out the way you’ve wanted. You have tried your best, worked hard and achieved all your goals. Now write down what you imagine.
This writing exercise in a sense puts your optimistic “muscles” into practice. Even if thinking about the brightest future for yourself doesn’t come naturally at first, it may get there with time and training. Amazing things can come about as a result of writing. William Faulkner reportedly once said, “I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it.” You may discover new insights into yourself as you write about your future and your goals. Keeping a journal may even be a way of cultivating patience and persistence.
Goals and subgoals diary
A twist on the Best Possible Selves diary is that as part of developing hopeful thinking, you identify your long-range goals and break them up into subgoals. For example, during the first session of your journal writing you could describe how five years from now you’ll be the owner of your own business. In future sessions you could write about the steps you’ll take to reach that point. (Remember that there may be many such steps or paths, not just one.)
If a discouraging or pessimistic thought comes to mind (“How could I ever get the money?”), pinpoint it and try to generate alternative scenarios or possible resolutions. One technique is to recall times in the past when you’ve been successful at something, to recognize the strengths and resources that you already have (and will continue to develop), allowing that to motivate and invigorate you.
Identify barrier thoughts
Another strategy to increase optimistic thinking involves identifying automatic pessimistic thoughts. For example, you might put a penny in a jar every time you have a pessimistic thoughts. Then try to replace that thought with a more charitable or favorable point of view.
For example, such spontaneous thoughts as “I feel so stupid for giving the wrong advice to my officemate; he’ll never ask me again to collaborate on a project” and “Ever since my relationship ended, I feel unlovable and unappealing,” are called barrier thoughts, and then consider ways to reinterpret the situation. In the process, ask yourself questions like...
● What else could this situation or experience mean?
● Can anything good come from it?
● Does it present any opportunities for me?
● What lesson can I learn and apply to the future?
● Did I develop any strengths as a result?
Be sure to practice this exercise when you’re in a neutral or positive mood, and consider writing down your answers. This approach should prevent your reflections from developing into circular, negative ruminations
A successful twelve-week optimism training program for fifth and sixth graders has already used a very similar technique. The children were taught to be more optimistic by learning to identify pessimistic explanations (e.g., “My friend didn’t call me today; he must hate me”), to dispute them (“What evidence do I have that this is really true?”) and to generate more optimistic alternatives (e.g., “Maybe he’s too busy”). Notably, the children who participated in this program were less depressed than a control group for an entire two years after the program ended, and their reduction in depression turned out in some measure to be due to their learned optimism.
From The How of Happiness by Sonya Lyubomirsky. Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) 2007 by Sonya Lyubomirsky.
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