Optimism is a skill

The missed irony is that it is only because of the things offered to us by of modern life that we have the luxuries of safety and time to find fault in everything. Becoming optimistic about the things we have learned to take for granted or even rail against is both possible and simple. We need to take the action of being optimistic and repeat it over and over again until we get so good at it that we no long need to will it to happen. It’s a skill after all…

I have been called cynical and I can accept that. I consider myself to be skeptical given that I believe most people have the ability to do things and just choose not to. Cynicism is a little dark in that the world and everything in it is going to crap, which is not the view that I hold. Mine is closer to knowing that things could be better if people choose to make them better. As a collective, I don’t really believe in people. When talking about individuals though, I believe in them.

That seems like a violation of statistics given that the median or mean usually make the best guess when it comes to the predicting the performance of an individual in a specific group. Some people will be better, some people will be worse and some will fall right in the middle. There is no reason for me to believe that an individual person can when, within the group, the average person doesn’t. I think that reflects two interesting things about by experience of reality.

The first is about the direction I look and the second is about the impact personal choice has on reality. Stats are all about the what happened before. When making a prediction about the future based on stats, you are actually looking backwards in time to predict the future. This is great for generating a list of probabilities, which is valuable information, but it is always looking back since it is based on things that have actually happened. We can look forward as well, to consider things that have not yet happened. This is turning away from statistics towards the realm of imagination. We have agency and when we use it to choose what we pay attention to and what actions we take, we dramatically influence how reality unfolds.

The point here is that the future has not yet happened, so we can choose to do the things that will influence the outcome. Just because we have become very efficient at causing our life to be how it has up until now doesn’t mean that it MUST happen that way. But, all things being equal, it will probably be the same as before, more or less average with a slight improvement over time.

My belief that an individual can do better is a forward looking view. It basically says that things can be different and that everyone has the potential to make them different. We are powerless to change the past, the future can be anything. All that is needed is for us to choose to do the things that will contribute to a brand new future and to then put in the extra effort to make them happen. While statistically this isn’t something that the average person will do, anecdotally, people can and will choose to do the impossible from time to time.

So a future that is different from the past is possible, but unlikely.

The cynical label does not surprise me given where it comes from. People who do not know me have not yet experienced the optimism I am capable of. They hear my thoughts about the group and assume all they need to about me. People who know me well have identified that I am more than willing to be optimistic in the face of another challenge that was just like that last one. Those who did not rise to the opportunity and for which the optimism was misplaced cannot call me cynical or won’t call me skeptical. They know I’m a realist for being skeptical of their potential actions given their previous performance.

Optimism is a skill. People learn to be optimistic or pessimistic and the lessons are lifted from their experiences. Importantly, these experiences do not need to have ever happened. A pessimistic person can have a negative thought about something that has not and may not happen and this can reinforce their world view. This is no different from other things, thoughts carry almost the same weight as real life experiences and are subjected to the same cognitive biases, just in the opposite direction. For example, when someone experiences something that goes against their world view, they will tend to dismiss it by coming up with reasons why the experience does not represent reality. When this same person has a thought, it will be coming from their brain and is subject to all of their values and beliefs. It will be filtered and will usually reflect their understanding of the world meaning that a pessimistic person will have pessimistic thoughts – about their actual lived experience AND about things that have not yet happened – which further contribute to their pessimistic world view.

Cultivating optimism is fairly straight forward and you grow it in same way your create more of anything, focused attention and repeated practice over time. It has the unique property of being on one side of a continuum, which makes different from learning how to play guitar. Most skills are binary and independent meaning they do not really have an opposite, you either have skill or you don’t – the opposite of being able to play guitar is not being able to play a guitar, so you either either play it or not (or play with a level of prophecy or not play with that level). The opposite of playing guitar is NOT playing drums. This is an important distinction because acquiring a skill that is binary is not a zero sum endeavour. Learning how to drum does not eliminate your ability to play guitar so after you learn something about drumming, whatever guitar skill you have will remain more or less intact.

Coexistent / dependent skills that exist on a scale or continuum do not have this property. They are non-binary, and they exist on different type of scale that has absolute skill on both ends and no skill in the middle. But at either end are the skill and its opposite or its counter skill.

Optimism coexists on a scale with pessimism on the other end. In the middle is no skill and this is where everyone starts off. To learn how to be optimistic or pessimistic one approaches it the same way they would anything, they pay deep attention when trying to be optimistic or pessimistic and they practice frequently and consistently, overtime. So far this is exactly the same. The divergence occurs when one engages in the opposite behaviour – the optimist acts pessimistically or the pessimist acts optimistically. These are opposite behaviours and the practice of one impedes the formation of the other. The more one practices, the worse they get at the opposite. When compared to binary skills were skills decay is the result of not practising, coexistent / dependent scaled skills decay when not practised and when its opposite skill IS practised.

This is the big challenge that is presented to people who wish to become more positive. Let’s assume that they want to become more positive because they have noticed that there is a cost associated with their level of negativity. This is an easy assumption given that there IS a cost to being negative, one that isn’t paid by neutral people. Since they are negative, they have obviously spent a lot of time practising this negativity. They are highly skilled in finding and pointing out what is wrong with any given situation. Most likely they have automated this process so that what immediately comes to mind when anything happens is the worst possible interpretation or prediction. This changes their psychological state which creates an internal physiological state that is unhappy and stressful. These further impact the mental state and the thoughts that arise and even the parts of the brain that are functioning or active, causing the negativity to re-up, increase or cycle. It’s a toxic mental disaster and tough to break free from.

For the sake of illustration, lets say that on the Negativity – Positivity scale, that runs from -10 to + 10 they are a -8. That’s a very dark place to be and this value reflects a skill level that is remarkable. A lot of work has gone into becoming this proficient at being negative. The up side is that they do have the capability to take action and to work hard at cultivating a skill, the down side is that this is evidenced by the existence of a skill at a level that does not lend itself to improving anything. Regardless, if we want to move a -8 to a -6 we need to add 2 to it or we need to let 2 negativity skill units decay. In this case, if a -8 negativity person want to become a neutral or a positive person they have these two options.

What does this look like from a practical point of view? Well, to an outsider the immediate elimination of toxic negativity as the vocalized negative thoughts will land as a shift towards neutral. But this does not necessarily indicate a shift away from internal negativity and the person may still be automatically uncovering and giving internal voice to negative thoughts. They probably are doing this because they are very good at it, when they do it they are maintaining their skill level. Eliminate the toxic component will improve their life but it will do nothing to move them towards neutrality.

What matters here is the internal voice or thoughts. negative thoughts create negative emotions that lead to negative actions. The opposite is equally true, positive thoughts create positive emotions which lead to positive actions. To shift someone from a -8 to 0 the negative thoughts need to be eliminated to allow for the skill to decay thought lack of practice or positive thoughts need to occur to add skill units to the opposite skill (a process more akin to mathematical averaging). This is much faster given that skill decay is actually organic decay or cell death that prunes back unused connections during cell turn over. This takes a while and given that it is a passive process, things can occur that prevent it from happening – it’s easy to imagine a negative spontaneous reaction to something that serves as sufficient stimulation to justify the maintenance of a neural network.

Clearly then, if you want to gain control over the movement towards a neutral level of negativity you need to take action and create positive thoughts and when when negative thoughts show-up transform them into positive thoughts. This is very simple to do and while it may seem fake or corny to a negative person, it is neither of these things.

Creating positive thoughts is just a matter of taking time to look around and identify the good things that you see. Gratitude journals accomplish this task for all who take the time to complete them. The key element is to cultivate a genuine sense or feeling of gratitude about the things you are grateful for and to sit with this feeling for a period of time. You need to trigger the emotions that are associated with gratitude and allow their associated chemicals and neurotransmitters to flow throughout your body.

Some personal examples here might be helpful. Being grateful for family, friends and other loved ones, for health, for your home, your job, your possessions, your capabilities, values and beliefs, you can be grateful for modern healthcare, the Internet, technology, science, math, the education system, your ability to read, to think, to rationalize, that you are alive, for your ancestors, for the planet, for the seasons, of the fact that all the bad stuff will eventually fade away, for clothing, for the invention of air conditioning, central heating, the discovery of electricity, for the space program, for gravity, the wind, etc…. There is no limit and there are many things to be grateful for.

Initially it might take a while to trigger the emotion and to then to sit with it but with practice firing the emotion will get easier and you will get to linger in it for as long as you want; you’ll choose to stay with it because gratitude feels good. In the early days of practising gratitude you will need to sit in the emotion for 30 to 60 seconds and you will pick 2 or 3 things day to be grateful for. It is a five minute exercise at most that is done everyday. Within a day it will begin to shift your negativity level.

Given that we are working on creating a skill, the relationship between practice and fluency can be used to our advantage. It makes sense to practice being grateful, being positive, and seeing the up-side to daily occurrences. Throughout the day, take a few moments to think about something you are grateful for and to really bath in the emotions these thoughts trigger. When something good happens, think about it, trigger the positive emotional response and soak in these good feelings. Take a few moments during the day when you are feeling absolutely nothing at all to try and see the positive aspects of the things that have happened. Here we are dealing with the things that didn’t trigger a negative thought and that you lived through without paying any attention to.

Changing negative thoughts in to positive thoughts is a two step process. The first step is identifying when a negative thought arise. The second step is changing it into a positive thought. For best results, each one needs to be identified and transformed. For a very negative person, this can be time consuming and mentally draining. Do this keeping three things in mind. The first is that it gets a lot easier with practice. You are in essence creating a new process and skill of mindfulness which takes time and practice but is well within everyone’s capabilities. The second thing is that this gets a lot easier when you done in conjunction with the gratitude journaling because the journaling practice shifts thoughts towards the positive size of the scale. The third thing to keep in mind is that you are remarkably negative. This can be a little overwhelming when you begin to pay attention to your thoughts and notice the sheer number of negative ones. The number doesn’t matter, negativity is a skill and a habit it isn’t who you are. You’ve made the decision to be a positive person so the transformation has already begun. Missing some isn’t a big deal simply do your best to identify and convert as many as you can.

What do you change these negative thoughts into? That is up to you. When someone at work does something that demonstrates their incompetence, be grateful that you have the abilities. When their error increases your work volume, be grateful that you have a job. When you have to clean-up after someone else, be happy that you can and that you don’t leave a mess for other to deal with. When someone cuts you off in traffic be grateful you are not in the same hurry they are or that you don’t have spend any of your life with them. You have creative licence here to change the negative thought into whatever you like. There are no rights or wrongs, you are basically trying to interrupt the conditioned pattern of negative thought, negative feeling, negative action. Over time identifying that a negative thought has popped up will be enough to shut it down but until then every one that you notice pop up gets converted into something positive.

Final thoughts:

I am grateful for the abundance of low cost high quality food. While I don’t eat most of it the fact that it is there makes me feel good, but only when I think about it. I’ve normalized this part of life and don’t as a general rule think about it unless I put deliberately effort into doing so. Most of the good things in life are like this; we are so accustomed to them being there that we just filter them out and ignore them. This is even more true for a person who is on the negative side of the scale, they have definitely habituated everything to the point of eradicating the potential positive feelings associated with modern life. The missed irony is that it is only because of the things offered to us by of modern life that we have the luxuries of safety and time to find fault in everything. Becoming optimistic about the things we have learned to take for granted or even rail against is both possible and simple. We need to take the action of being optimistic and repeat it over and over again until we get so good at it that we no long need to will it to happen. It’s a skill after all and we know how to develop those.