Brighter Outlooks for Pessimists

Pessimist

I’m sharing my experience with a ten minute daily habit that’s been shown to reduce depressive symptoms in pessimists. 

Predicting a Brighter Future

As James Clear writes in Atomic Habits, “Life feels reactive, but it is actually predictive. All day long, you are making your best guess of how to act given what you’ve just seen and what has worked for you in the past. You are endlessly predicting what will happen in the next moment. Our behavior is heavily dependent on these predictions. Put another way, our behavior is heavily dependent on how we interpret the events that happen to us, not necessarily the objective reality of the events themselves.”

It would be depressing if our well-being were dependent on what happens to us, which often is beyond our control. But, with practice, we can get better at controlling how we interpret what happens. This exercise from Greater Good in Action shows us how.

List Five Good Things

To start, list five things that make you feel like your life is enjoyable, enriching, and/or worthwhile at this moment. These things can be as general as “being in good health” or as specific as “drinking a delicious cup of coffee this morning.” The purpose of this first step is to help you shift into a positive state of mind about your life in general.

Here are five things I find enjoyable, enriching, and or worthwhile about this exercise. 

1. I find that listing things that are going well helps me appreciate them again in the moment. 

“Enjoyed dropping in on the Day of the Dead art exhibit at Guardino Gallery.”

2. It primes me to look for and recognize the good in things I might otherwise take for granted.

“Washed new underwear and socks. Look forward to wearing them!”

3. It prompts me to pursue the good when opportunities arise. 

“Signed up for a Social Gathering Meetup on Saturday.”

4. What is enjoyable, enriching, and/or worthwhile in the moment is relative, and highly scalable.

“Not feeling well because of debilitating allergies. Scrambled eggs and English muffins was comforting breakfast.”

5. Through repetition and neuroplasticity, repeating these instructions changes the brain.

“I’m noticing that this exercise is helping me recognize and reframe frustrating situations more quickly.” 

Describe the Situation

Next, think about the most recent time when something didn’t go your way, or when you felt frustrated, irritated, or upset.

In a few sentences, briefly describe the situation in writing.

Focusing on the “most recent” event brings attention to fresh circumstances instead of rehashing old ones. Writing the event down translates it from feelings and negative self talk (which I seldom question) into words (which I constantly question). The ten minute time limit and brief description prevent me from going on a rant.

“I was frustrated that none of the friends who said they were interested in joining me for Paranormal Pub at the Kennedy School showed up. I kept looking at the door to see if they’d arrive. It made it difficult for me to relax.”

List Three Positives

Then, list three things that can help you see the bright side of this situation. For example, perhaps you missed your bus this morning. Three ways to look on the bright side of this situation might be:

1. Even though you missed the bus, you got some good exercise when you were running to catch it.

2. You’re fortunate to live in a city where there was another bus just 10 minutes later, or where buses run reliably at all.

3. Ten years from now, you likely won’t remember what happened this morning.

Three things I like about these examples:

1. The running to catch the bus example encourages creative thinking and having a sense of humor about oneself.

“I can be autonomous in choosing something I want to do and let others choose for themselves.”

2. The recognition that there’ll be another bus acknowledges how we benefit from each others’ contributions.  

“It’s nice that Kennedy School puts these programs on as an opportunity for community.”

3. Taking the “ten year” view works with larger setbacks. It’s unlikely we’ll remember small ones even one week from now.     

There will be another opportunity to get together.”

Ten Minute Exercise

Finding Silver Linings

Ten minutes daily for three weeks

1. To start, list five things that make you feel like your life is enjoyable, enriching, and/or worthwhile at this moment. These things can be as general as “being in good health” or as specific as “drinking a delicious cup of coffee this morning.” The purpose of this first step is to help you shift into a positive state of mind about your life in general.

2. Next, think about the most recent time when something didn’t go your way, or when you felt frustrated, irritated, or upset.

3. In a few sentences, briefly describe the situation in writing.

4. Then, list three things that can help you see the bright side of this situation. For example, perhaps you missed your bus this morning. Three ways to look on the bright side of this situation might be:

a. Even though you missed the bus, you got some good exercise when you were running to catch it.

b. You’re fortunate to live in a city where there was another bus just 10 minutes later, or where buses run reliably at all.

c. Ten years from now, you likely won’t remember what happened this morning.

Bonus Track

Listen to the “How to Find Your Silver Linings” episode from the Science of Happiness podcast.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.