If you’ve ever described yourself as a pessimist or have friends you consider as such, you know it’s not an easy mental state. Everything is worst-case scenario, no matter how far-fetched, and things that are supposed to be good and fun never go as planned.
I have certainly been guilty of pessimistic thinking at various points in my life. The negativism is really a defense mechanism designed to prepare you for the worst so you won’t be blindsided should it happen. However, while that may sound like a smart plan, it’s no way to live your life, especially when optimists are scientifically proven to be happier and healthier overall. They get depressed less often, tend to make more money and do better at work and in relationships.
If you find you’re bumming your friends out by always throwing a wrench (that you might call “logic” or “reality”) into a positive statement, you’re probably a pessimist. But don’t worry. Pessimism doesn’t have to be your permanent state of being. There are a few small changes you can make in your everyday interactions that will move you closer to the optimistic end of the spectrum.
1. Don’t try to make yourself be happy
That’s like trying to make yourself fall in love — it’s not possible. Dr. Suzanne Segerstrom, an optimism researcher at the University of Kentucky and author of Breaking Murphy’s Law, says, “To truly be happy, you have to stop trying.” She says the best thing you can do is find a way to be constantly engaged in something. If you’re engaged, you can’t “ruminate,” which is psychologists’ term for obsessing over little problems and concerns, making them appear worse than they are. You’re essentially trying to break your worst-case-scenario pattern by giving your brain something else on which to focus. The trick is it has to be something that takes your full attention so bad thoughts don’t creep back in.
2. Make worst-case scenarios seem ridiculous
The next step up from ruminating in a pessimist’s brain is jumping to the worst-case scenario. Example: You have a pain in your head that’s slightly different than a headache, and you automatically assume it’s a brain tumor. The medical term for this is “catastrophizing,” which essentially means escalating troubling things until they are category-5-hurricane-level bad. The worst part of the ruminating-catastrophizing combo is that it somehow convinces you that your worst-case scenario is not only logical, it’s inevitable.
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Karen Reivich, Ph.D., co-director of the Penn Resiliency Project at the University of Pennsylvania, says that to break this vicious cycle, try exaggerating those scenarios until they’re totally absurd. She told Prevention, “At some point you think, ‘Oh, come on, now. Am I really going to be living beneath an underpass in a refrigerator box because I’m a day late on a project?'”
Essentially it’s all about taking control of the situation, saying it doesn’t govern you, but that you govern it.
3. There’s an explanation for everything
Pessimists tend to blame themselves or say “obviously” when things go wrong. Optimists, on the other hand, see bad outcomes as having little or nothing to do with them. This is why they do so much better when they’re dealt huge blows, like finding out they have an illness. Unlike pessimists, they take the blame off of themselves and focus on getting better rather than assuming they’re going to get worse.
This one’s a bit harder because it’s a knee-jerk reaction sometimes, but one thing you can do is try to not immediately go for the negative scapegoat. Instead, really think about all the angles of what just happened before explaining it away, and see if you can find the lesson or something OK about what just happened.
4. Never give up
Pessimists have a tendency to give up when something gets hard or frustrating, whereas optimists work much harder and naturally reap the benefits of that extra effort. The only way to really get around this one is to think like an optimist. I know, I know… You’re probably thinking, “Well, if I could do that, then I wouldn’t be a pessimist.” But hear me out. If you can essentially fake it till you make it, you might actually trick yourself into becoming an optimist, at least temporarily. This trick has been shown to have instantaneous effects on people’s emotional states, and the more you do it, the better it works.
5. Find an optimist friend
If you’re having trouble with the “fake it till you make it” thing, then try befriending or even dating an optimist. Their positive energy and support will rub off on you, and you’ll start picking up their good habits. The relationship itself will also act as an emotional boost for you, which should work as armor against any negative feelings that pop up.