Stress-resistant individuals develop the habit of perceiving and interpreting potential stressors in ways that give their life meaning and a sense of control. That is, they look for reasons to be happy and satisfied with life, imperfect as it is. They have become adept at turning lemons into lemonade and finding the proverbial silver lining in every cloud. There is a parallel between stress resistance and the quest for happiness. What makes people happy? Obviously, there is no easy answer to that question. Does money guarantee happiness? We all know of millionaires who are miserably unhappy. Does fame or success ensure satisfaction? What about all the movie stars who loathe their celebrity and yearn for obscurity? Does beauty make us happy? What about all the beautiful people who worry that they are appreciated only for their looks? Does getting a great job mean you will be content? What about all those stressed-out “success stories”? Clearly, your objective life circumstances do not define or ensure happiness or lack of stress. This is determined by your perceptions.

Happy people are optimists. Optimists tend to have lower stress levels and better coping skills because of how they perceive the world and their positive outlook. Optimists are not necessarily unrealistic or unwilling to accept or face negative circumstances; rather, they choose to focus on what is right rather than bemoaning all that is wrong. It is a matter of focus. They look for evidence that life is good and that they are doing all right. When misfortune strikes, as it does in everyone's life at some point, optimists recover more quickly because they find lessons in adversity that continue to give their life meaning. An optimistic world view naturally incorporates the stress hardiness attitudes of control, commitment, and challenge. In fact, one could define optimism as habitual reliance on the three C's, combined with positive expectations. Just as irrational or negative self-statements can create depression, anxiety, or other negative emotions, positive or optimistic self-statements can create and reinforce happiness and relaxation.

There is a whole school of metaphysical thought that presumes that you create your own reality with your thoughts. If this is indeed true, then by adopting an optimistic world view you are maximizing your chances for success, happiness, and getting what you want. What have you got to lose by trying? Some of you may answer, “If I expect a positive outcome and it does not happen, then I will be disappointed.” You would be a subscriber to the “Don't expect anything and you will never be disappointed” philosophy of life. But if you are really honest with yourself, you will admit that even if you truly expect nothing, if what you hope for fails to materialize, you are still disappointed. The problem with expecting nothing is that you might not do what is necessary to get what you want in life. There is an old saying: “If you want your ship to come in, you must go to the dock.” The problem with being a pessimist is that you might not bother to go to the dock. Optimists go to the dock and find ways to enjoy their time there whether their ship comes in or not.

When to Be Optimistic

If you are in an achievement situation (a sports competition, a promotion at work, and so on), you may increase your chances for success if you are optimistic. If you are concerned about your feelings (for example, trying to avoid depression or anxiety), adopting an optimistic framework will help considerably. If you are concerned about your physical health, by all means use optimism. By the way, optimism is one of the major emotional factors affecting how long cancer patients live and whether they survive. If you want to be in a leadership role, or to influence or inspire others, you will be far more likely to succeed with an optimistic approach. On the other hand, in some situations you would be well advised to avoid optimism. If your goal is to plan for a risky or uncertain future, it is not wise to rely solely on optimism. This is not to say you should mire yourself in pessimism, but rather that you need to make a realistic assessment of the risk of negative contingencies and plan accordingly. If your goal is to give support or advice to others with a grim future, do not use optimism initially. It is wiser to begin by being empathic to the person's situation. However, once you have established rapport it may be helpful to introduce some optimistic reframes after some time. Dr. Seligman teaches that the fundamental guideline for when to choose to be an optimist involves assessing the cost of failure in a particular situation. If the cost of failure is high for you, then optimism is definitely the wrong strategy. But if the cost of failure is low (that is, if all you have to lose is some of your time, or the chance of suffering some mild embarrassment), then go ahead and be an optimist.

Optimism Questionnaire

Instructions: Read the description of each situation and vividly imagine it happening to you. It is likely that you have not experienced some or even most of these situations, but that does not matter. If neither response seems to fit for you, go ahead anyhow and answer either A or B, choosing the one that seems more likely. You may not like some of the responses offered, but don't choose what you think you should say or what would sound right to other people; choose the response that would be most likely for you.

1. You get a flower from a secret admirer.  
 A.I am a popular person. 1
 B.I am attractive to someone. 0
2. You run for a community office position and you win.  
 A.I devote a lot of time and energy to campaigning. 0
 B.I work very hard at everything I do. 1
3. You miss an important engagement.  
 A. Sometimes my memory fails me. 0
 B.I sometimes forget to check my appointment book. 1
4. You fail an important examination.  
 A.I wasn't as smart as the other people taking the exam. 0
 B.I didn't prepare for it well. 1
5. You prepared a special meal for a friend and he or she barely touched the food  
 A.I made the meal in a rush. 1
 B.I wasn't a good cook. 0
6. You lose a sporting event for which you have been training for a long time.  
 A .I'm not good at that sport. 1
 B.I am not very athletic. 0
7. You ask someone out on a date and he or she says no.  
 A.I was a wreck that day. 0
 B.I got tongue-tied when I asked him or her on the date. 1
8. Your boss gives you too little time in which to finish a project, but you get it done anyway.  
 A.I am an efficient person. 1
 B.I am good at my job. 0
9. You save a person from choking to death.  
 A.I know a technique to stop someone from choking. 0
 B.I know what to do in crisis situations. 1
10. Your employer comes to you for advice.  
 A.I am an expert in the area about which I was asked. 0
 B.I am good at giving useful advice. 1
11. A friend thanks you for helping him or her get through a bad time.  
 A.I care about people. 1
 B.I enjoy helping him or her through tough times. 0
12. Your doctor tells you that you are in good physical shape.  
 A.I make sure I exercise frequently. 0
 B.I am very health conscious. 1
13. You win a prestigious award.  
 A.I was the best employee. 1
 B.I solved an important problem. 0
14. A store won't honor your credit card.  
 A.I sometimes overestimate how much money I have. 0
 B.I sometimes forget to pay my credit card bill. 1
15. Your stocks are at an all-time low.  
 A.I didn't know much about the business climate at the time. 0
 B.I made a poor choice of stocks. 1
16. Your romantic partner wants to cool things off for a while.  
 A.I don't spend enough time with him or her. 0
 B. I'm too self-centered. 1


If your score is 14 to 16, you are very optimistic.

If your score is 12 to 13, you are moderately optimistic.

If your score is 8 to 11, you vacillate between optimism and pessimism.

If you score is 6 to 7, you are moderately pessimistic.

If your score is below 6, you are very pessimistic.

How to Become an Optimist

Dr. Seligman offers a variety of suggestions for channeling your thinking in an optimistic direction. Many of the cognitive techniques for doing this are similar or identical to the cognitive restructuring methods for defusing irrational thinking. This is not surprising, because in many instances pessimism is just one form of irrational thinking. Optimism is not about being unjustifiably positive about the world, but rather about learning to challenge negative thinking. Learning to think optimistically involves learning to dispute pessimistic thoughts. Dr. Seligman recommends the following four strategies for defusing negativity.

Look for Evidence

The most convincing way of combating a negative belief is to show that it does not fit the facts, that it is clearly incorrect. Since pessimism is usually either an over- reaction or dead wrong, the facts will typically be on the side of a more optimistic viewpoint. This does not mean that we are recommending that you blindly repeat positive affirmations to yourself in the hope that it will somehow change your life. Most educated people are too scientific-minded or skeptical to blindly believe a positive affirmation without some confirmation that it could be true. Just repeating positive thoughts to yourself is not a guarantee of success or happiness. Rather it is how you deal with your negative thoughts that determines whether optimism or pessimism will rule. In general, negative beliefs that accompany or follow adversity are almost always untrue. For example, let's say you fail an important exam. Common negative thoughts include assuming you are stupid, or that you can't cut it in college, or that you are destined to flunk out so why try at all. This is another example of catastrophizing, of picking the worst possible alternative from all the possibilities. One of the most effective techniques is to look for evidence pointing to the distortions in your catastrophic explanation of events or catastrophic expectations of what will occur. Evidence to the contrary might include the fact that you got a B on a test last week, or that failing one test does not necessarily mean that you will fail every test or flunk out in general. Our professors in graduate school continually reminded us to never generalize from one piece of data. You could also remind yourself that even smart people can have a bad day and do poorly at times.

Generate Other Alternatives

Most things that happen in life have multiple causes rather than just one cause; they are a product of interactions among many factors. It is useful to keep this truism in mind. Pessimists make a habit of latching onto one cause and one cause only, and typically it is the worst of all the possible causes. They usually pick the cause that it is the most permanent, pervasive, and personal. Challenging this habit typically has reality on its side. To effectively challenge your negative thoughts, look for all the possible alternatives. What else could have caused the situation? What else could happen as a result? Focus on what is changeable, what is specific, and what is nonpersonal. Returning to our failed-exam example, you could focus on the fact that you didn't study hard enough (a condition that is changeable), that the exam was unusually hard (a specific instance that may not repeat in the future), and that many other students also fared poorly on the exam (a nonpersonal explanation for your poor grade). You may have to work hard to generate alternatives, and you may not be thoroughly convinced they are accurate. But the process of searching for alternatives trains you to think differently, and often you will come up with an alternative that makes a lot more sense than your worst-case scenario. But you have to look for the alternatives to get to that place. Latching onto the worst possible alternative and stopping there is a sure-fire recipe for increasing your stress level. Learning to generate alternatives will help you reduce it.

Realistically Assess the Implications

What do you do if the facts are not on your side, if your negative belief turns out to be true? In that case you need to use a technique called decatastrophizing. Ask yourself what the implications are if your belief is true. Generate a variety of alternatives. Challenge the most negative alternatives by asking yourself just how likely those implications really are. For example, let's say that you haven't just failed an exam, but that you are actually in danger of flunking out of college altogether. What does this mean? Is it a catastrophe that guarantees that you will never get a good job, that you will be a failure in life? Of course not; having a college degree certainly helps, but with the right attitude and willingness to do what is necessary, anyone can succeed, even without a college degree. This is not to say that flunking out is a good thing, but it is also not the end of the world. Other people have gone on to success without making it through college. And you need to remind yourself that flunking out is not a foregone conclusion. You have some choice in the matter, depending on how seriously you take your studies from this point forward.

Evaluate the Usefulness of the Belief

Occasionally there are situations where the consequences of holding a belief are potentially more problematic than the belief itself, true or not. You need to evaluate whether the belief is potentially dangerous. For example, if you truly believe you are stupid, even if you are not a rocket scientist, the damage to your self-esteem could be heavy. There are other instances when the best strategy is to distract yourself from a belief, rather than taking time to challenge it. This is the case when negative thoughts interfere with your performance, when you are on the spot to perform now. Engaging in negative thinking or the evaluation of such is not useful in a situation where you need to perform now. Distracting yourself and focusing on the task at hand is the most useful response.

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