EFFECTIVE COPING REQUIRES REALISTIC OPTIMISM

Our previous blog (8/4/16) noted that a search for happiness does not give you an effective path toward effective coping with life. The fact is, you will be happier only when you are realistically and optimistically focused on attainable goals that are consistent with your values. If the search for happiness is futile, can an optimistic approach to life enhance your coping? The answer is yes. Psychological research shows that a positive outlook can strengthen both your body and your mind. Optimists tend to develop a “can-do” attitude about life’s obstacles; stress is not all it’s cracked up to be! An optimistic outlook and having positive emotional states at your side are great psychological support systems. Therefore, you should work to cultivate optimistic attitudes and actions to guide your living.

Optimism must, however, be realistic. Do you ever hear yourself saying (or thinking), “Don’t worry, everything will be OK and work out. Things will get better.” Says who? We once heard a world-renowned psychologist say that when he was growing up his parents told him, “You can be anything you want to be if you are willing to work hard enough.” The psychologist said, “I bought into that for a long time until one day in high school the reality hit me that I could never be what I really wanted to be….a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs! It wasn’t going to happen! My dream was just that….fantasy.”

Optimists are more likely to see problems and difficulties in life as challenges that can be met and overcome; they are more likely to be liked by others; they are more likely to look for realistic, external explanations for negative events, and not automatically blame themselves. Pessimists habitually blame themselves or “bad luck.” When unrealistic and inappropriate, this self-blame translates into personal stress that compromises coping.

            You must also focus on optimistic actions, not words. Thoughts without actions tend to remain fantasy. Negative thoughts can also lead to depression. For instance, do you tell yourself, “I’m too much of a pessimist; I need to be more of an optimist”? Such comments can cause you to underestimate yourself. For instance, at the end of a summer course we asked students to reflect on what they had learned and what, if anything, the material had taught them about themselves. One student really put himself down for not being more optimistic. We took issue with his self-disparaging comments:

“You say you’re a pessimist, but consider the fact that you took this course during the summer. That behavior, that action, is a very optimistic choice. You chose to take on extra responsibility during summer vacation; you took a risk, faced a challenge, and took it on squarely. If that’s not optimistic behavior, we don’t know what is!”

Before you decide your level of pessimism about life and yourself, take a good long realistic look at your behavior, not at your casual spoken comments. Talk is cheap. Actions reveal your essence. Words reveal character when accompanied by concordant actions.

You must evaluate how you respond to reality. If you’re a downer, you’ll find yourself in conflict with others, and eventually alone. Your emotional approach to life will influence your social network and the number of supportive friends you have. Ask yourself: “How do I explain my life circumstances?”

We all experience failure and have setbacks; we are all rejected at times by others. How do you interpret these events in general? Are you to blame? Sometimes of course you are! But if self-blame is your habitual pattern of approaching setbacks, you’re setting yourself up for future problems.

For instance, how would you react to a job interview? If you have prepared for the interview and see it as a chance to demonstrate the skills and qualities that will make you a desirable employee, you are viewing the interview as a challenge you can meet successfully. Your preparation and optimistic frame of mind will put you in a relaxed and confident state that will make you appear to be a desirable candidate. But if you view the interview as threatening, as something that will expose your weaknesses and shortcomings, your pessimistic outlook will almost guarantee that what you fear will indeed happen. Your pessimistic demeanor will make you more defensive, less likeable, and a less desirable candidate to the interviewer. The interview will be just what you thought – a disaster.

When our famous psychologist realized he couldn’t become a Cubs shortstop did he quit life? Absolutely not. He focused realistically and positively on his strengths, things he was good at, and worked hard to develop those skills. So must you focus on doing a realistic appraisal of your strengths and weaknesses and base your actions on them.

–Do a behavior inventory of daily activities. Are they actions that make you feel more adequate and bring you satisfaction?

–Cultivate those actions that make you feel productive and bring you personal satisfaction.

–Remember that praise from others is nice to hear, but actions that bring you personal fulfillment are much more important in enhancing psychological growth.

–Make efforts to interact with people who complement your personally satisfying actions.

Do things for yourself. Independent action increases personal satisfaction.

–Don’t get obsessed with material things and happiness. If material rewards come from actions that make you feel productive, consider them icing on the cake, not the reason you’re baking the cake.

–Exercise caution about using mood-altering prescription medication until you have done a thorough behavior inventory.

–Appreciate and enjoy the little things….a smile from a child, a quiet walk in the park, contacting a friend, a good movie or book, helping others in need….those things that bring you satisfaction.

–If you are spiritual, use faith to give you confidence and remind you everything is not for you to control, but you can receive the courage to change the things under your control.

Coping with your life from a realistic optimistic perspective will spur you to empower yourself and initiate autonomous actions that will give you feelings of personal control. Coping with your life from a pessimistic perspective will encourage you to turn sheepishly to others to manage, direct, and control your actions. This fundamental principle applies not only to individual psychology but also to group psychology. Some politicians understand the principle only too well, as witnessed by recent words painting a terribly bleak picture of a doomed United States, followed by reassurance:

 “I am your voice”; “I alone can fix [a rigged system]”; “Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored.”

 These are pessimistic messages designed to remind you how helpless you are. The words focus on the speaker, not the listener, and are analogous to a psychologist saying, “You must do what I tell you if you are to improve your life.”

Contrast this approach with words spoken by Ronald Reagan:

 “We must realize that no arsenal….no weapon, is as formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women”; “Let us be sure that those who come after us will say of us in our time, we did everything that could be done; we finished the race; we kept them free.”

 These are optimistic words, with the focus on the listener, not the speaker. From a psychological perspective they are analogous to a therapist saying, “I can help you improve your life but you must be willing to work hard to modify your thoughts and actions in ways that satisfy you, not me.”

So it must always be with your personal struggles to cope with everyday life. The focus must be realistic, optimistic, and directed at you and your capabilities, not pessimistic and directed at others to save you.

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