The Optimism Project

Can positivity be learned? One writer aims to make over her negative ways

Photo by Norman Wong

When I tell my husband I’m working on an article on how to become more positive, he likens it to Stephen King writing a book of nursery rhymes. For as long as I can remember I’ve been a worst-case-scenario girl. But it wasn’t until a serious case of postpartum depression smacked me upside the head a couple years ago—one that continues to linger today—that I realized my inner nattering nabob of negativity, the one who swore like Alec Baldwin in a paparazzi scrum when she got on the scale this morning, wants to change.

Beyond my exhaustion with constant rumination, there are plenty of reasons why I should: Studies show that optimists are not only, of course, happier, but also healthier, with a reduced risk of heart disease. They reek of confidence and high self-esteem. They’re more motivated, more successful in relationships and they get further, faster at work. And with the ascent of Oprah and the rise of the positive psychology movement—as documented by Barbara Ehrenreich in her paean to negativity, bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive thinking has Undermined America— pessimism is very much out of style.

Sadly, it’s in my blood. I was born to a Debbie Downer (really, her name is Debbie); my mother is the all-time Eeyore. “Pessimism, like the majority of human traits, is a combination of nurture and nature,” psychologist Andrea Dinardo explains. “A pessimistic parent who expects the worst of every situation will model this to his or her children, who, in turn, will often adopt a similar view of the world.”

Another complicating factor? Hormones. “Emotions, thinking and neurotransmitters are all intertwined,” says Dinardo, which probably explains my prolonged postpartum depression. It’s likely also the reason why things seem especially bleak right before I get my period, when plummeting estrogen levels cause feel-good serotonin production to slow down.

Luckily, there’s still hope. “The good news is if you’re not born an optimist, you can learn to become one,” says Lucy MacDonald, author of Learn to be an optimist: A Practical Guide to Achieving Happiness. True to form, I’m not convinced, but I’m willing to give it a try.

LESSON 1: Change your inner voice
Tweaking your internal dialogue is key to gaining a positive outlook, according to Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism: How to change Your Mind and Your Life, and director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s widely considered to be the founding father of positive psychology, a do-gooder branch of study that seeks to cultivate positive traits to “make normal life more fulfilling.”

Of course, Seligman does have his critics; Ehrenreich, for one, isn’t sold on positive psychology. She claims erring on the bright side has done more harm than good to society—pinning part of the blame for the current financial crisis on optimistic types who went into debt assuming that they’d be able to pay it off eventually. (Nice try.) She argues that instead of repressing negativity, we should embrace realism; a case also made in a study published last fall in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which found that a touch of pessimism can keep us from being overly positive in situations that don’t actually call for it. All of this said, I fear I’m too negative for my own good—nevermind the good of society—which is why I embarked on this challenge in the first place.
Seligman maintains that optimism boils down to how you analyze the problems you’re faced with and the feelings that follow. Once you change your perception of a situation—by challenging that inner doomsayer— you can change how you feel about it.

While leafing through a pile of mail, I’m confronted with my first annoyance of the day: My Visa bill is overdue. Shit. Seriously? How did I forget to pay my Visa bill? I can’t do anything right. This screw-up better not affect my credit. What a disorganized moron.

Then I stop and realize that it’s 9 a.m. and my internal dialogue is already fully armed with a nasty arsenal of slurs—maybe even slander. So I channel Seligman and rethink the situation using his ABC approach, in which A stands for adversity, B for beliefs and C for consequent feelings. He explains that beliefs are a matter of making the connection between adversity and a consequent feeling.
My adversity (forgetting to pay the damn Visa bill), combined with my belief that I can’t do anything right leads me to feel like a moron. However, once I back up and realize that I’m usually good at paying the bills on time—in other words, effectively changing my belief system—I don’t have to feel bad about myself.

THE UPSIDE: It’s a relief to realize I have the power to put the breaks on a negative train of thought. I try the technique again later in the day when I’m about to launch a verbal assault on myself for almost being late for an appointment with my shrink. This isn’t to say I was able to immediately stop and make nice with my psyche. It will take plenty of practise and patience (something else I’m short on) to try to put things into perspective and realize that I’m not a disrespectful patient if I’m occasionally late for a doctor’s appointment; I’m not a terrible mother if I’m too tired to bathe my kids every night; I’m not a crummy housekeeper if there are dust bunnies the size of actual rabbits roll- ing across my floor now and then. It’s important not to allow my overactive brain to turn every adverse scenario into a chance to repeat a self-defeating script. That, like paying my Visa bill on time, is a good thing to remember.

LESSON 2: Accept your challenges
I’m struggling to lose my baby weight—see aforementioned scale cursing—a staggering 120 pounds in total that I gained from two pregnancies. Dinardo says my inner skinny bitch needs to recognize that there’s a way to overcome this weighty burden without self-castigation and loathing. She calls it the five Cs. (Positive psychologists are apparently big on naming techniques after letters.) Following her method, my challenge is to rethink how I see my post-baby bod. My choice is either to be proud that I have only (only!) 40 pounds to go—hey, at least I’ve lost some of the weight—or to let the formerly size 6 voice in my head get me down with her cruel commentary. So I choose to commit to 30 days of controlling my body snark, and to remember that those pounds served a purpose: carrying my two beautiful girls, four-year-old Addyson and two-year-old Peyton. Dinardo tells me that afterward I get to celebrate the improved way I see myself with a new outfit in the size I am, not the size I (desperately) want to be.

THE UPSIDE: I like the excuse to shop but it’s still tough to break the habit—I was the queen of body snark long before I had kids, and now I actually have a reason to be. I don’t quite reach the end of my month-long challenge before I decide to splurge on a size 12 pair of coral jeans. In the dressing room, I sigh when I get them done up—they’re still ever-so-slightly too tight. Then I realize I’m in a pair of pants that don’t have an elastic waistband and I feel marginally better about myself. If I’m never back to my pre-baby weight, so be it. (That said, I’m keeping the 28 inch waist, slim-fit Guess jeans I bought pre-Y2K just in case. How’s that for optimism?)

LESSON 3: See yourself the way the world sees you
“Because our brains like to be consistent in their beliefs, pessimists don’t just have a negative outlook on the world, they also have a negative view of themselves,” Dinardo says. She wants me to invite my friends and family over and ask them to write down what they love about me on cue cards in the hopes that I’ll start seeing what they see. That sounds a little pitiful—and I don’t feel like vacuuming—so instead I turn to Facebook: “Friends: I know this *kinda* sounds like I’m fishing for compliments, but, in the interest of research, I have to ask: What are the three things you love most about me?”

THE UPSIDE: A former colleague says she likes my “sunny outlook.” LOL. Friends say I’m hilarious, honest, open-minded, hard-working, sassy, sarcastic, talented, smart, analytical, witty, kind, loyal. A few mention my curls, my Noxzema-girl skin and my ever-rotating stash of stylish eyewear. They tell me I’m a great friend and mom. My sister, who I’ve often suspected hates my guts, writes, “You’re a good sister.” The doomsayer pipes up: What did you expect them to say? Luckily, my common sense—something my BFF lists as one of the things she loves most about me—kicks in and I acknowledge that of course negative thought patterns would emerge in the face of compliments. I proceed to “like” everyone’s comments.

LESSON 4: Break the habit
The idea that negativity is nothing but a bad habit is intriguing. According to Charles Duhigg, author of the Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change It, any habit can be replaced with a new one if you can identify what cues the habit and what “reward” it brings you. He says this approach— called habit reversal therapy—can treat smoking, gambling, procrastination and even anxiety (of which pessimism is a key feature). Bingo.

In true pessimist style, I’m forever envisioning worst-case scenarios— what therapists call catastrophizing. “The reward to that habit is having a plan if something goes wrong, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” he says. (Ehrenreich agrees.) One theory is that it has to do with the amygdala —the brain’s emotional processor: It could be that we pessimists attempt to pacify it by trying to be predictable— in other words, figuring out whether we’d fight or take flight—in advance of unpredictable situations. That said, the problem with constantly catastrophizing is pretty obvious: It keeps me stuck in a downward spiral. Duhigg tells me it would be much less anxiety-inducing to figure out the rough likelihood of whatever I’m worried about actually happening in the first place.
Soon afterward, I hear noises coming from the kitchen one night and immediately assume a serial killer is rifling through my knife block. But instead of waking up my snoring husband, I do the math: True, the odds of getting broken into are about one in 200, but the odds of my activated and fully-functional home alarm not alerting me to this fact—at least according to my security company— are pretty much zilch.

THE UPSIDE: After this quick reality check, I manage to fall back asleep. I also eventually realized the culprit was the dishwasher, so Duhigg’s pragmatism prevails.

With my crash course in positivity drawing to a close, I now know that I worry much too much about things that aren’t likely to happen. Even more glaringly, I’m way too hard on myself in trying to be the perfect wife/mom/writer/housekeeper/ bill-payer, which makes it nigh impossible to celebrate my wins in life when they do happen. (And they do, I swear.) I wouldn’t say I’m much more positive yet—I definitely need to keep working on it—but I don’t consider this a failure. And that in itself is no small victory.

Further reading for would-be optimists:

Learn to be an Optimist: A Practical Guide to Achieving Happiness by Lucy MacDonald.
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman (November 2012).
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change It by Charles Duhigg.
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman.
Bright-sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich.