Wouldn't we all like to multiply positive things in our lives? You may think that we can't change our nature, but we can all take small steps that result in big changes increasing our optimistic outlook and boosting our happiness.
When I swim my laps, if I have a choice, I will always choose to swim in the lane that has the most sun. I like the light, and I love the way the water drops sparkle when I bring my arms out of the water and the water drops back into the pool. It is a simple little thing, but it makes me happy.
The other day I had just finished my laps and saw an elderly gentleman about to get into the pool a few lanes over where the sunlight hadn't yet hit the water. "You can have this lane," I said, "there is sun over here."
He scowled at me, "That's okay, I prefer the darkness."
I have no idea why this gentleman chose to dip his toes into the dark lane. Perhaps he was avoiding melanoma - though to be clear, it is an indoor pool, lit from a window on the side of the building. Perhaps, he has sensitive eyes and can't take the light or life's challenges had worn him down. He had become tired and frustrated. Maybe, it was easier not to see things than to deal with them.
I was that person once. My basically optimistic nature had gone into hiding, though I didn't realize it. I was called out, in public, at a department meeting.
My colleague, Katie had just shared an idea for a new program, and she was excited and enthusiastic. It wasn't a bad idea, but she hadn't thought through the details. I was more experienced and had led several similar projects. I was quick to point out all the things she hadn't thought of, why the project would stagnate and how we didn't have time to tackle it.
"Well, aren't you the Debbie Downer," she said, "you always see the negative side of things." The room got very quiet. I was floored.
I thought I was being realistic and helpful by pointing out the issues. Instead, I had been overly harsh and unsupportive. Even so, nothing she said corresponded with my inner sense of self.
My childhood report cards described a girl who was "cheerful and helpful." My high school time capsule predicted that in twenty years I would "still be smiling." As a young professional, I was once chided by a colleague for being so happy. He jokingly told me "you're making the rest of us look bad." How could I have strayed so far from that smiling, optimistic soul?
Not only had I been publicly humiliated, I was devastated. My colleague was right. Without realizing it, I had become a pessimist.
Pessimists are not encouraging; they will not share your big dreams or fuel you with excitement about your future prospects. I had just demonstrated this in a very vocal way. Pessimists are often filled with negativity. In my comments, I had shared nothing positive. Pessimists are skeptical and distrusting. I did not trust my colleague to carry out a project to my standards. Pessimists often carry disappointment or hurt they felt in the past. I became keenly aware of the times I had felt let down, and the hard work that had gone unnoticed.
Most importantly, pessimists appear to be unhappy most of the time. I realized that I had become an unhappy person. I struggled with an over-packed schedule, lack of sleep, and minimal self-care. When a friend asked what I had done for fun over the weekend, I realized that the answer was nothing. Everything in my life revolved around work and obligations. Not a recipe for happiness.
I wanted to be an optimist. Optimists share brightness, kindness and laughter. When you are with them you feel better. They see the best in you, and help you to shine. They are the encouragers, the positive dreamers. Optimists are hopeful and confident that things will work out in the future. Optimistic people are more resilient than their more pessimistic counterparts. We all have adversity in our lives, but optimistic people recover more quickly.
After crying in the office bathroom stall and doing a little soul searching, I decided that I needed to change. I wanted to be a kind, helpful supporter. I wanted to work positively with my colleagues so that we could create great programs. I wanted to stop being miserable. Maybe my inner optimistic nature kicked in and helped me to recover, but I believe that anyone can change if they really want to. I started with seemingly small and simple things, but soon they resulted in a big impact.
1. I decided to see the best in people.
Everyone has positive attributes. My colleague did not deserve my negativity. First, I apologized. I shared what I liked about her idea and the strengths I genuinely felt she brought to the team. I followed through by noticing the good things in people and commenting on them. I started sending little notes of congratulations or encouragement. It has become a habit that makes me focus on positive things.
2. I decided to stop complaining.
When I complained about how busy I was or how tired I felt, it just emphasized the problem. The more I talked about negative things, the more negative things I saw. When someone asked, "how are you?" I started to comment with things like, "it's a beautiful day." At first, I felt a sense of fake-it-till-you-make-it. Then I started to believe it. Words are powerful and our thoughts become our reality. Say it enough and you will start to believe it.
3. I decided to eliminate the things that were making me unhappy.
Lack of sleep, poor eating, and no exercise left me chronically exhausted. I needed to learn to spend my energy on the work that really mattered and let some things go. I needed to find time for fun things. This was the hardest part and I took it step by step. I started with trying to sleep a half an hour more each day. Then I gave up the diet soda that made me edgy. Bit by bit, things started to change for the better.
Over time, I have found myself in a better place. I am happier and enjoy good relationships. I feel much less stress. My health has improved for the better. I look forward to each day. I learned the hard way that being pessimistic doesn't serve me well. Whether we are optimists by nature or not, I think we can all find our inner optimist.
And when we do, we can choose to swim in the light.
Michele Meier Vosberg, Ph.D. is an educator, writer and speaker. Determined to stop the nagging little voice in her head that said there was something else she was supposed to do with her life, she quit her job as a college professor at the height of her career. She and her husband sold their big house in the country, and moved to Madison, Wisconsin. Michele is now redesigning her life to live more simply, happily and well and empowering other women to do the same.