I used to have a hard time with optimism. That is a hard thing for someone who talks about resilience for a living to admit, but it is true. I would roll my eyes at the Pollyannas of the world. I have worked with survivors of trauma—and I am a survivor of trauma—so I know bad and unfair things happen. In those times, it felt hard to be optimistic. I eventually realized, however, that I was making a critical mistake: I was confusing optimism with cheerfulness. I believed that optimism meant that we had to deny the pain, worry, anger, or confusion that comes with crisis, challenge, and change. In other words, optimism was about putting on a happy face while the Lego Movie theme song, “Everything is Awesome,” played in a continuous loop until the pain was numbed.
Nope. That’s not how optimism works and thank goodness for that!
Here is the definition of optimism inspired by Dr. Martin Seligman which works regardless of our current emotional state: optimism is the belief that the current crisis or challenge is not permanent, pervasive, or (most of the time) even personal. As much as it feels like something will last forever, we can acknowledge that the present situation or emotion surrounding the situation is temporary. When it feels like the crisis is seeping into every part of life, we can identify its limitations. Even if it is just the smallest sliver of life that exists outside of our challenge, we can seek it out and stand in the warmth of it for a while. When it becomes all too easy to make the situation personal and we hear ourselves say, “Of course this is happening. Nothing ever goes my way,” we can look for evidence that the challenge or change is impersonal and independent of who we are. And, when it is personal, caused by our shortcoming or mistake, we can recognize that and empower ourselves to make amends and grow from the lesson. That, too, is a form of optimism.
What does this look like in practice? For me, it sometimes means that I can come home after a particularly trying day, when the weight of the world feels especially heavy, put on my yoga pants (which I have never worn to actually do yoga), sit on my couch and dive into a box of Chez-Its while I cry…and it still counts as optimism! Why? Because nothing in that definition of optimism requires me to feel any particular way. It allows me the space to show up however I am in the moment. Crying, fearful, worn-out, or angry. Optimism only requires me to understand that whatever I am going through and however I am feeling about it is temporary, limited, and impersonal.
One question still remains. Is there anything wrong with being a cheerful, sunny-side-of-the-street person? Well, it all depends on our level of authenticity (in fact, authenticity is the litmus test for most things as we navigate our emotional lives.) If our cheerfulness is a rose-colored denial of the realities around us, it is merely a mask we are wearing. When we have a skewed positivity bias (I call it the Pollyanna Syndrome), it can break down trust. Our family, friends, or colleagues question our ability to accurately assess a situation. Or worse yet, question our ability to be transparent and honest about the situation. Those masks take us right back to that place of inauthenticity that makes it hard for us to connect with others. And human connection is what we need most when things get hard.
Fortunately, there is a type of authentic cheerfulness in the face of adversity that is empowering. Author Elizabeth Gilbert describes it as “stubborn gladness.” It is inspired by the poem A Brief for the Defense by Jack Gilbert (no relation) that proclaims,
We must risk delight….We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.
It is an understanding that our human experience will include darkness and light, good and bad. It is not a denial of our situation or feelings, it is a hopefulness and a willingness to allow ourselves to risk delight. It is not necessarily bubbling happiness nor sparkling glee, but it is, as Elizabeth Gilbert said, fighting “my way back toward the light.”