Sometimes I am asked what THE key to resilience is. I don't believe that it’s that simple, but today I'm going to highlight one thing that I see as being integral to the bigger picture of being able to cope well with whatever life offers up to us. It’s a thing called optimism. It’s having hope for the future; hope that things will get better or you’ll eventually find some equilibrium or peace; the belief that you will always find a way forward, or be able to accept what can't be changed.
So many things in our modern existence have potential to wear down one's sense of optimism. Just watching or reading the news triggers our unconscious survival mechanisms - you can't come away from engaging with news reports without feeling numb, depressed, horrified, unsafe, angry, anxious, fearful or stressed. If you do take in the latest news without overtly feeling any of these things, you are likely so desensitised you are no longer noticing your natural reaction to its content.
Social media can be a wonderful tool for bringing people together, for creating revolutionary movements, for communicating across continents and cultures. And yet as we all know it also carries a painfully sharp double-edged sword and regularly brings out the lowest forms of human behaviour, creates comparison that can eat away at one’s self-worth, and it can smack of everything superficial and narcissistic.
And then there's the fast-paced nature of our modern, demanding, at times overwhelming world. It is easy to feel time escaping you and as though there are never enough minutes and seconds for doing everything or fulfilling all of your needs and wants and everybody else's needs and wants. The rat race, it can suck the life out of you… Intrinsic to the rat race is that so many of us appear to feel locked into jobs that aren't nourishing and fall somewhere on a spectrum of varying levels of ‘soul destroying’. Am I depressing you yet? Please don't stop reading as I am about to offer some possible antidotes to the many sources of darkness, suffering, distress and pain we can be confronted with at times.
I believe in living in the real world, in developing realistic optimism rather than rose-coloured lenses that require a lot of denial, suppression of emotions and living in fantasy. Along with simultaneously feeling the sometimes harsh and painful realities of life, we have much choice in where we choose to give our energy and focus. We can give our precious time and energy to complaining (without also seeking solutions), nitpicking, bitterness, resentment, punishment, defensiveness, possessiveness, shaming, self-rejection or pettiness. These are all basic human attributes that we all have some capacity to partake in, but we can also choose to recognise them (within ourselves or others) and decide to not give further energy to them.
There are some potent alternatives to the fun-packed list above, and as research findings show again and again, consciously choosing to give our energy to certain behaviours, practices, and thinking styles can boost optimism, calm those unconscious survival responses, and even boost your immune system. They are simple (though not always easy) and may sound clichéd, but they can be powerful in balancing out the sources that feed unhappiness and low spirits. Here they are (drum roll);
kindness, passion, lovingness, compassion towards others, living with an undercurrent of purpose, seeking out the meaningful, patience, gratitude, self-compassion, vulnerability, openness, generosity, playfulness, trust (that is not misplaced), and faith (in your God, in oneself, in the innate goodness of humanity, in the promise of a new day, in human spirit, in endless possibilities, in the Spring that follows a difficult Winter). These things are pure gold really, and the more that you can give your energy to them, the more your optimism (and sense of peace) will grow.
If you are in pain, distressed, grieving, angry, depressed, etc, it may seem impossible to give any energy to these things. I know this only too well. And so we also need to consciously seek out the root causes for our anger or distress, to help move through them, overcome them, accept, or resolve them. We can also make the conscious choice to not allow ourselves to fall down a social media rabbit hole that wastes time and leads to a feeling of unease and toxicity. We always get to choose how we respond to the complexities of life in each moment, and practicing this mindset in itself, can create much optimism.
We can (if we choose) take in less news reports, only engage in social media that makes us feel good, focus the majority of our energy on being around people who are nourishing to be around, take the necessary baby step (after baby step) to extricate ourselves from a job or relationship or living situation that is simply not serving us, seek out support, and look for the countless ways that we personally can contribute positively to the wellbeing of our friends, loved ones, community members, fellow humans and our environment.
Finally, you may have old wounds that need healing or old belief systems that need shifting before you can honestly embrace optimism. Both are generally not achieved with quick ease, but they are very possible. They will involve processing some emotions that never got a chance to be expressed or felt, and eventually ‘letting go’ and seeing certain events or situations from a different, higher perspective. I promise you, we humans have great inherent capacities for achieving this.
I offer you the above options to build your personal sense of optimism. What will you choose to focus on, in the pursuit of your own (realistic) optimism?