I can’t seem to be a pessimist long enough to overlook the possibility of things being overwhelmingly good.
~John Corey Whaley
If you had to characterize yourself one way or the other, would you say that you’re an optimist or a pessimist?
There is a lot of territory in between, and there are other qualities that can affect our overall outlook: being realistic, for example.
Although I would generally consider myself an optimist, I aspire to be a “positive realist” (copyright pending). Having a positive attitude should not involve the denial of undesirable truths.
It’s easy to be optimistic when things are going well. On days when the sun is shining and things are going according to plan, it seems like everyone’s an optimist. It’s when things start to go off track that you discover what people’s real outlooks are.
When something is always available, it can be easy for it to become expected, rather than something to be concerned about and attentive to.
For example, most of us don’t think about air that much. But if we didn’t have air, even for a very short time, we’d notice it pretty quickly. Everything else on our minds would quickly lose its prominence.
I’ve never had to think about finding shelter when it’s cold, or ensuring I have enough food, and because of that, I tend to take those things for granted. I’m so used to having all of life’s necessities, without interruption, that I’ve stopped seeing them. They have become like air. This attitude can easily expand to a sense of entitlement: the expectation that we deserve everything we have and should always expect to have it.
In fact, nothing is guaranteed. The world is full of people who can’t take these things for granted—people who have had it bad from the beginning. Poverty, war, starvation, disease: they’ve seen it all. On the other hand, there are other people (we all know some) who freak out because of the smallest hiccup, people who mistake an inconvenience for a problem. They have somehow lost their sense of perspective.
It can be helpful to make the distinction between wants and needs, between the things that would be irritating to lose and the things that could have a real emotional or physical impact on us.
When my grandmother was still alive, I remember she was always very careful not to waste any food. She had lived through the Great Depression and had seen a lot of people in want of life’s basic needs during that time.
Putting the elements of our lives into perspective can help us through times of stress or hard times. Perspective can help us through our inconveniences.
It’s easy to spend our energy wallowing in our bad luck. Feeling sorry for ourselves, being angry, being irritable; all of these feelings take energy that might be better spent making things right, actually addressing the issues.
I’m not suggesting that we should never be angry or irritable, but it can help to take a step back and look at the big picture. Sometimes anger is the appropriate response—we can’t make ourselves be happy when we’re not—but sometimes it’s better to take a deep breath and start again.
It can also be helpful to regularly acknowledge what we do have—to be aware of the food we eat, the fact that we are dry in a rainstorm, the fact that we have friends and family that love us.
Keeping the plus side of the ledger in mind will help us when we have to add to the minus side.
Cherishing the good things in life will make us more likely to have them and will make the bad things seem less bad.