Make Time For Optimism
Seasonal themes help bring clarity to each quarter of your year. For this spring, optimism feels like the theme we need.
It’s time to choose another seasonal theme. For winter, my seasonal theme was ‘make a map.’ I wanted a better sense of where I was after a year in isolation and various forms of lockdown. Map-making was my response to this general malaise, the languishing, which many of us have felt in the past year.
Now, as winter slowly gives way to spring, I need something that complements the yearly theme of ‘Imagination.’ It’s mid-May, wet, and barely 11˚C. But, I’m picking Optimism as the theme, because in this moment it feels right to reach out for some hope.
We Need Some Optimism Now
Okay, we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. Two weeks ago was the worst week so far for new cases of Covid-19, driven by the horrific rise of new infections in India. In places like Australia and Japan, there’s deep frustration with the slow deployment of vaccines.
Here in the UK, the end of another successful lockdown, combined with a strong vaccination programme, is providing a lot of hope. And in the US, where the vaccination programme has been even more successful, there’s even more cause for hope.
The situation is better for many of us, but not for all, and there’s still a long way to go.
We risk collective and systemic burnout if we don’t allow ourselves to feel some optimism.
Optimism and Imagination
I chose the yearly theme of Imagination because last year was so heavily focused on just getting through this pandemic that it felt hard to imagine things ever getting better. Sure, we knew we’d eventually get through this. But imagining that future – bringing it clearly to mind as a mindset amid the fog and confusion of this crisis – felt hard.
That’s not to say your imagination will work only if things are going well. Bitter disappointment and difficult circumstances can fuel our imagination. But even in those situations, imagination works as long as we don’t give up on a better tomorrow.
Optimism and Creativity
Every creative act is an expression of optimism. Why would we pick up a brush, or camera, or musical instrument without any hope that someone would experience something as a result? Even the angriest and darkest work carries with it a longing for connection, a cry for love, a hope for meaning.
Optimism also embodies our need to believe solutions are possible. In this way, optimism is essential to problem solving. It’s impossible to fix something if we don’t believe it can be fixed.
Optimism and Habits
Habits are something we’re often thinking about here. We choose and stick to our habits because we’re optimistic they will be good for us.
Whether it’s getting better sleep, exercising and eating well so you’ll feel better, or learning and reading so you’ll have better ideas, optimism is just another word for better.
Bringing optimism into our lives requires making some choices in relation to our mindset, or schedule, and even how we live. Optimism is as much an orientation as a belief, or even a feeling.
In particular, optimism is an orientation towards the future and the possibility of improvement. So, whatever tools you use to bolster your mindset, write hope into them and hold space for optimism.
One thing I’ve found particularly powerful is to schedule time for optimism. For me, 11am and 5pm are the bleakest hours, the moments when I’m most prone to lose hope, to feel like the day is not going well or has failed to live up to expectations.
It hasn’t quite evolved into a full-on meditation, at least not yet, but I make a moment to hold space for optimism. I imagine some specific part of my life and just let myself believe it could work out for the best. Importantly, this isn’t a prayer, it isn’t a wish. I think about a scenario in my life – my work for the day, the dinner I’m going to cook that night – and just let myself imagine the best likely scenario coming to pass, given the current circumstances. I won’t write a Nobel prize-winning poem or cook a Michelin-starred meal today, but I might make something better than terrible in either effort.
Increasingly, it feels like optimism isn’t something we work ourselves into feeling, but something we make room for, so it can grow.
“Expectations, gentle reader, expectations must be controlled. They must be handled firmly or they can crush hope. Manage your expectations for your own happiness.”
– Gary Rogowski
Realistic Optimism Or Optimistic Realism?
Being optimistic isn’t about rejecting all negativity. We need to be emotionally agile enough to cope with criticism, disappointment, and failure. Moreover, trying to ‘push’ negativity away can be stressful.
This often comes from unrealistic expectations. We expect too much happiness. We wish we had only positive emotions. Optimism isn’t the opposite of negativity. Optimism is a bias towards believing in the possibility of a good future regardless of how we feel in the moment.
Introducing a bias towards optimism is a realistic way to hold onto hope. So, instead of always asking ourselves what could go wrong, we also ask, what if it goes right?
We aren’t trying to quench optimism by making it ‘realistic’. We’re grounding our optimism in reality, in the possibilities in front of us, in the hope we feel when we feel it, and in the knowledge that dire circumstances can, and often do, improve.