Note from Shola: Hey Solutionists! This week I have a special treat for you because I’m featuring a guest blogger on The Positivity Solution! Her name is Mona Harris from the blog Small Things Good, and I’m certain that you’ll absolutely love her. So, without further ado, here’s Mona!
Becoming an optimist is one of those things that sounds like a simple solution to life’s woes; but, it can be challenging to reconcile a positive outlook on the future, with the harsh realities of our lives.
Everyone’s lives come with times of great struggle, and sometimes in those times it can be difficult to cling to optimism.
I believe that this is because optimism, like many other traits, does not work well on its own. We are all multifaceted beings, none of us is ever only one thing at a time, and we require balance in our lives.
Heroism without wisdom is recklessness, just as intelligence without humility can transform into pride.
The Power of Gratitude
I’ve always thought that one of the balancing traits to optimism was gratitude.
As optimists, we strive to enjoy life to the fullest, and to have joy for the life that we are living. Those are great things to aspire to! But, when optimism is separated from gratitude, it can become a yearning for a better future–and a discontent for the present.
If we are struggling financially, we look with envy upon those who want for nothing. If we do not have good health, we are jealous of the able bodies around us. If we lack charisma or good looks, we blame these traits for our bad luck.
We can find ourselves hoping so desperately for a bigger and brighter horizon, that we stop taking time to appreciate the moment that we are in, and if the moment that we are in is challenging it can be nearly impossible to find a silver lining.
That’s why cultivating internal gratitude is so vital to our lives as optimists. But how can we do this?
The Key to Cultivation
As a culture, we have a massive obsession with fitness and health.
We know that to become strong and fit we must train for many hours a week in a gym, and that to be healthy we need to eat fresh, balanced meals and abstain from unhealthy habits.
In our minds this seems logical and obvious; to get the benefit, you must put forth the time and effort. However, as a culture, we don’t seem to apply these same ideas to our internal emotional lives–but we should.
Cultivating optimism, like anything, requires deliberate practice.
In fact, significant research (including a recent large scale study at the University of Wisconsin) shows that people who meditate with regularity, physically change their brains. In other words, MRI brain scans of people who meditate–literally, do not look like the rest of the human population. Researchers believe that this restructuring actually gives these people a higher capacity for happiness, and an overall reduction in negativity.
Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard (formerly a molecular geneticist at the Pasteur Institute) has written and spoken extensively about the uniquely human ability to engage in “mind training.” He was a participant in the study and has since been dubbed the “happiest man in the world,” based on the unusual nature of his brain scans and his massive capacity for positive thinking.
One thing Ricard always seems to mention when he speaks, is that two opposite feelings cannot happen in the brain at the exact same time.
In other words, when we feel angry toward a friend or spouse, and say to ourselves, “well of course I’m still thankful for my relationship, I’m just really mad”–we’re not being truthful. Actually, in those moments we are not thankful for our friend or spouse at all–because it is impossible to be completely thankful for something, and have anger towards it at the same time.
Ricard believes that by focusing on our own internal states, we can gradually build ourselves to become more immune to negative thinking.
Testing the Waters
Not everyone wants to jump into intense meditation to change their state of mind–but anyone can easily test the waters by building little blocks of appreciation throughout the day. Sometimes it begins with a single moment.
Whether it’s a hot cup of coffee in the morning, a quick evening workout session, watching a great movie, or attending a much anticipated evening out with friends–we can, and should, practice relishing in the moment.
I started by choosing just one thing to fully appreciate: My morning coffee.
Every day I used to sit with my cup, immediately begin to read emails, and slurp it down in 30 minutes flat. Now I take just a second to smell it, to watch how the cream swirls into the dark liquid, to take that first taste and think about how warm it is (especially when it’s so cold outside.)
It started with just this one moment, but for me it has naturally grown to other moments in my day. When I sit in my chair I think about how nice it is to have furniture and a place to live, when I walk outside I notice the sky and the way the breeze feels against my face.
When I shop at the grocery store I think about how lucky I am to live in a time and place where and abundance of food is so readily available–how lucky I am to be able to walk! Each day I try to collect more and more little moments of enjoyment, pieces of happiness that when put together become a puzzle filled with the details of my life.
The more that I do this, the more natural it becomes, the more second nature it is to me. Now I hardly even think about it, it just happens! Our brains are powerful muscles, if we ignore what they are capable of, we will never achieve any level of control over them. But if we take care to address the things we’d like to change in small, deliberate ways–we can completely revamp our thinking.
I used to have a terrible temper, little things that I had no control over would irritate me to my core. Today, I honestly cannot remember the last time I felt rage–and when irritation comes, it passes very quickly and without incident.
Finding happiness in little moments can help us get through the rough patches in our lives. It is harder, to be sure, to find gratitude when things are going against our wishes–but if we start to practice paddling our boats of joy on calm waters, then we are more likely to be able to weather the storms that might come in the future.
When we don’t fear those storms that may be off in the distance, it is easier to enjoy life in the moment–and to be optimistic regardless of what may pass.
Mona Harris is a writer who lives and works in New York City. She spends her time freelance writing, reading, researching, cooking, and working on her website, Small Things Good. She is passionate about minimalism, meditation, and frugality, and wants to introduce as many people as she can to the endless possibilities in life.