Choosing optimism over cynicism
I’ve always considered myself a happy person-not the kind of woman who claps with giddy delight over her breakfast waffles, but the kind of woman who makes regular use of her grin.
Sure, there have been hard seasons deaths of loved ones, illness, postpartum depression. But even when the glass looked half-empty, I was always thankful that I had a glass-and that there was something in it.
Lately, though, it’s been tempting to give up on optimism. It’s felt easier to be pulled under a riptide of cynicism.
There’s good reason: terrorism, a refugee crisis, hurricanes, and a rancorous presidential race leaving us weary. (I covered the Bush/Gore race in 2000 for the Des Moines Register. That’s when our biggest problem was the notorious “hanging chad.” Ah, the simpler days.)
Fast-forward to 2016. I can’t fly in an airplane without a foreboding sense that the worst is about to happen. When I tuck in my daughters, I wonder how to equip them to function in this broken world.
In times like these, even an optimist can feel like happiness is irretrievable. In times like these, happiness can feel-quite frankly-Pollyanna-ish.
But then, I remember what I learned over the last two years, while researching, writing, and speaking nationally about the durable virtues of happiness and optimism.
This is what I have learned to the core: Optimism is more than a feeling. Sometimes, it’s a choice.
During my research, I discovered a key reason why our minds are skewed toward pessimism: All people have a “negativity bias.”
Science says our brains are wired in a way to assume the worst – a killer in the bushes, a monster under the bed, and so on. There’s a historical basis for this: We humans used to be prey. Our negativity bias kept us alive. Let’s say we dismissed the sounds in the grass as “the wind.” In those moments, we could end up as the tiger’s midafternoon snack.
Most of us reading this article today don’t have to worry about tigers. But we still have our negativity bias – and it can be problematic.
It’s why it can feel like the sky is falling when you turn on the news. It’s why it can feel easier to give in to cynicism, rather than fight for optimism.
But there’s hope.
You can overcome your negativity bias. Science says so. If you’ve ever taken an exercise class, you know that you have to train your muscles to handle more sit-ups. In the same way, you can train your brain to steer away from negativity.
During my research, I worked to control my negativity bias rather than letting it control me. I took active steps toward positivity by applying Solomon’s words: “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.”
But where do you start? One answer: Devote yourself to positivity. Give your brain fuel to establish new neural pathways. Believe the best about others, and the best about yourself.
I could give you dozens of challenges – all proven – to boost your optimism. Let’s start with one:
Keep a gratitude list. Write down three things every day you’re thankful for. It’s OK if the first thing on your list is something as simple as: “I got out of bed.” (That’s no small thing some days.)
I challenge you to stubbornly refuse to be held hostage by despair. Find the beauty in this busted-up world. Why? Because great good flows from your happiness, generosity, kindness, and gratitude.
Anyone can be a cynic. Anyone can come up with a thousand reasons to be unhappy. It takes a strong person to choose optimism. Be a warrior today. Choose to live life as if the glass is half full.
Jennifer Dukes Lee is the author of “The Happiness Dare,” which was named the No. 1 new release on Amazon for Christian Personal Growth. She’s a former Des Moines Register reporter who now lives on the Lee family farm in northwest Iowa with her husband and two daughters. Learn more at TheHappinessDare.com