Cultivating Optimism

How do you cultivate optimism in an unsettling time – personally, nationally, globally? How do you keep perspective, maintain balance, stay centered? With worry getting lots of ink, agitators trying to get our goat, what is the antidote? Not ignoring reality, not pretending all is well, but trust and stamina, sometimes changing the lens on our camera.

What we see is a function of what we look at. What we feel is a function of what we let ourselves feel. How we react to events close or far is within our control. Even on the darkest day, we control our attitude and actions, what we will make of what confronts us.

In this truth, like a treasure chest, you can dig around and find things you did think you had, did not imagine were within you – untapped strengths and satisfaction, unlikely confidence and contentment. If we can harness that power, it reinforces the positive, and things begin to change.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who went through hell and wrote about it, like Elie Wiesel – their hells different but the same, evil by any name – wrote this: “What is the optimist? The man who says, ‘It is worse elsewhere…We…have been lucky.’ He is happy with things as they are and does not torment himself.”

Interestingly, there is “Zen” in this, a resolve to gain enough awareness of our life situation – what affects it, what cannot be controlled – that we discover how to use energy to lift and not torment, wasting less time judging ourselves and others, feeling and bequeathing more peace.

Of course, Christianity centers on the idea, Christ’s message humility and self-awareness, redemption and salvation, less preoccupation, judgment and fear, more love of what is dear.

Recall “the Serenity Prayer?” “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference, living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, taking this world as it is and not as I would have it.” 

In self-knowledge – elusive but worth chasing – lies optimism. Even science affirms the link between self-knowledge, optimism, and mental health.

But what can you actually do to cultivate optimism in boat-rocking times? Some pray, meditate, exercise, dissociate – all good. Putting time where you get a return is wise. But what else?

Several ideas may help in wearying times. Behind prayer, meditation, and acceptance lies gratitude for what we have – no regret for what we have not. Gratitude is another antidote for worry, resentment, anger, and pessimism.

Likewise, falling asleep knowing you are needed – because you are – is a reminder we are not done, we cannot afford to be, as there is power in one.

Laughter – often called childish – is not. It is “the best medicine,” childlike yes, childish no. Science affirms it. Light hearts know it. And what sort is best? Laughter at ourselves.

Another remedy for the weary spirit is the “far horizon.” As sure as real horizons steady and invite conquest, the long view helps place problems in perspective. We know it, just forget.

Another source of optimism? History, that chain of events, mistakes made and corrected, backsteps aplenty then forward, that landed us here. To those living in any time, life seems uncertain, hard and edgy – ancient Greece and Rome, Founders’ time, up to now. But history moves forward, and some qualities and aspirations are timeless, like the longing for freedom.

Those born a thousand years from now will long for freedom – to speak, gather, travel, worship, defend their families, avoid unfair accusation, captivity, and punishment. Freedom is a bubble, aways seeking the surface. There is innate optimism in that.

Optimism is also cultivated by sharing time with good people, those who appreciate, celebrate, and love life, singing, working, creating, and honoring what we honor, the crests despite troths.

Finally, to cultivate optimism, favor wonder over worry, prepare with realism but do not dwell. Worry is wasted energy. Offer what you have to others, then sleep well. Optimism is less about what confronts us – as things always will – than what we do with it.

If the picture you see is dark, news upsetting, frustration rising, just take a breath. It will pass. You are the world to someone – that matters more. Optimism is restored by helping friends, changing the lens. That carries the day.

Wrote Solzhenitsyn, believer and survivor: “It is only on a black day that you begin to have friends” – and need them. We all have those days. In simple ways, it is finding the antidote that matters, cultivating optimism. We all can, can for friends, just need to change the lens.

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.

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