When my alarm goes off at 4:50 in the morning each weekday, feeling excited and happy about getting up and getting my day underway is not exactly easy--especially in the winter, when the hardwood floor is cold on my feet and the sun will not even crest the horizon for almost three more hours.
When I arrive at home after eight or nine hours at work, and still have something like two hours' worth of papers to grade before I can even consider crawling into bed, feeling relaxed and like it's time to unwind for the evening is not exactly easy.
And yet, I am generally a pretty optimistic person. In many ways, though, optimism is an outlook I've trained myself to have. It's no secret that some of us are born with more pessimistic tendencies, while others of us seem to be effortlessly sunshine and rainbows all the time. Here are some ways that even the pessimists among us can cultivate a little optimism.
1. Morning List
Every day before you get out of bed, list all of the good things you can reasonably expect to happen that day, or that you can reasonably expect to experience that day. These do not have to be outstanding events. They can be little things, simple things. My list usually looks something like this:
- I'm going to wear my favorite sweater today.
- I get to go running after work.
- Dinner is leftovers, so no cooking necessary tonight!
- I packed myself chocolate coconut macaroons in my lunch today.
- It's supposed to be sunny today.
- I don't have to stay after school for anything today.
Personally, I try to reach six (six has been my favorite number since I was a little girl; I don't know why) items on my today's-good-things list before I get out of bed. Doing so helps motivate me to get out of bed, and helps me feel a little more excited about the day ahead.
2. Happiness Jar
One way to make yourself more aware of the goodness in your life is to actively acknowledge and record it, and then review it and reflect on it. A happiness jar helps with this goal. I began my happiness jar in January, and will open it on New Year's Eve, but you can start one any time. The idea behind a happiness jar is that each time something good, exciting, joyful, or otherwise positive happens in your life, you write it down on a small slip of paper and put it in your jar. At some predetermined juncture (when the jar gets too full, New Year's Eve, your birthday, your wedding anniversary, etc.), you open the jar and read back through all the joys you recorded. The happiness jar achieves several positive outcomes. It helps you take particular note of the good things in your life when they happen; it helps you remember the good things in your life when you open it and review them; and it helps you reflect on the goodness in your life. It focuses your thoughts on the positive.
Reframing is a term many life coaches use, and it essentially refers to the ability to think of something differently. When you experience a negative emotion, thought, or situation, reframing suggests you ask yourself: What is another way to look at this (preferably a more positive one)? It involves a shift in perspective.
For example, earlier this summer, my husband and I went to Florida to visit my sister and her family. My sweet, little niece was dreading our departure; she was going to miss us "so much." I was able to help her reframe her thinking by suggesting we make a countdown chain together. A countdown chain is a chain made of links of construction paper. There is one link for each day we will be apart from each other--a countdown until our next visit. On each link, my husband and I wrote a different message to her--a happy memory, an activity planned for next time we see each other, a puzzle, a joke. Each morning when she gets up, she rips a link off her chain, and reads the message from us. She will do this until there is only one link left, at which point, she will see us the next day.
When we finished the chain and hung it in her room, instead of saying how sad she was that we would have to leave in the morning, she kept saying, "I can't wait to tear off my link and read my message tomorrow!" Her thinking and feeling about the circumstance had been transformed, completely reframed.
4. Find the Beauty
We've all heard the saying before: Every cloud has a silver lining. One trick of optimism is to find it. You can look for beauty in everything: the people around you, your physical surroundings, your thoughts, yourself, your memories. If some particular thing is dogging you, try to specifically find the beauty in it, hard as doing so may be. Finding the beauty in everything--or at least in everything you can--helps foster a positive outlook, and helps focus your attention on the rosy instead of the stormy.
5. Bedtime Gratitude List
Just as I suggest beginning your day with a list of happy and realistic expectations, I suggest ending your day with a list of all the good you did indeed experience throughout it. I like to start my list, a sort of prayer, with "Thank you." In my case, I am thanking God, but you could be thanking any source appropriate for you--or no source at all; you could simply list the good things you experienced that day. My list on any given evening, for example, likely looks something like this, and usually lasts until I fall asleep:
Thank you for all the delicious meals I ate today. Thank you for the long walk I got to take with the dogs. Thank you for my invigorating run. Thank you for the fact that I got to talk to my sister on the phone today. Thank you for my students' good behavior today. Thank you for letting me find time to write today.