How To Be Optimistic — Even At Rock Bottom
After a suicide attempt, I was left seriously brain injured and lost custody of my two sons, who moved to a different state with their father. As part of my emotional recovery in the years that followed, I HAD to consciously look for the good around me because there wasn’t any readily apparent anymore. Often, I had to get out my magnifying glass to find some, but good was always still there. I just had to notice it.
The sun warming my cheeks as I walked the dog on a chilly morning; the silkiness of the cat’s fur as I scratched her rumbling chin with her curled up on my lap; a really good tune playing on my iPod were the smallest of joys, but smile-worthy nonetheless. And, they made me feel a heck of a lot better than focusing on all the bad stuff.
Your brain has a natural negativity bias which means it constantly looks for, learns from, and holds onto anything it considers a danger or loss more intensely than anything that's neutral or pleasant. There's a good reason for this. Our ancestors were much more likely to live long enough to pass on their genes to a new generation by remembering a deadly predator's territory than remembering a sunny napping spot.
Look for the good, and you'll find it.
This tendency to notice and remember the bad is just your brain protecting you. But it means your brain is always on guard, scanning the environment for danger. Bad trumps good every time. The media takes advantage of this fact by blasting catastrophic, panic-inducing stories at us all day. Being on alert all the time leaves us overwhelmed, stressed out, and anxious.
So, how do you find good, happiness, and joy when even your brain is against you? You have to intentionally look for, put emphasis on, and create good experiences.
Your brain doesn’t automatically recognize the good that is present in your life every day. There’s no threat, no fear, nothing to make your brain take notice. (It doesn’t automatically note all the bad things that didn’t happen.) And through a process called habituation, your brain filters out all the ho-hum things that don’t change, whether it’s the buzz of the refrigerator or the routine absence of disasters. While habituation is an efficient use of your neural resources, it causes you to miss a lot of the good.
By becoming mindful of the present moment, you can find the good that's already in your life and shift your perspective. Now, I'm not suggesting that you stick your head in the sand and deny the ugly stuff. I'm telling you to give your attention and energy to the things that could yield a positive experience for you by finding good in your current setting, recent events, ongoing conditions, personal qualities, the past, and the lives of others.
You’re alive. You ate today. The sun is out. That trip to the beach with your friends last summer was epic. You ran this morning. You earned a college degree and scored that award at work last month. These kinds of small, good things can help build positive momentum in your brain by allowing yourself to feel the glowing emotions and sensations that go with the thoughts. Pleasant thoughts cause your brain to secrete good neurochemicals which means a happier, calmer you. It’s important to follow through on any positive actions that occur to you along with the thoughts, like writing a note, making a phone call, or putting your hands on that award, to extend and internalize the good vibes.
Good things are all around you every minute of every day — you just have to start to notice them. Even bad things often contain seeds of good experiences. What lessons did you learn? Are you stronger for having had the experience? What did you gain?
Sometimes, it's impossible to come up with anything good in the middle of a big mess. You might be in terrible pain, have suffered a tremendous loss, be buried deep in depression, or in a total panic. That’s OK. That’s being human. Have compassion for yourself, accept where you are, ride out the storm, and look for the good when you can come up for air.
Noticing the good has become a way of life for me. It’s a choice, costs nothing, and I can do it anywhere at any time. Making a conscious effort to notice the good and internalizing it makes it easier for me to stay calm and positive, even in the middle of chaos. Because neurons that fire together wire together, the practice of changing your focus and directing your attention to notice and internalize the good, actually changes the neuronal structure of your brain, through a process called neuroplasticity, helping to counter your brain's natural negativity bias and slant it in a more positive direction all the time.
Look for the good, and you'll find it.