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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Optimist Prime

In a world of negativity, it's easy to be cynical.

It's really a "chicken or the egg" kind of debate as to whether there is so much negativity in the world because everyone is so cynical, or everyone is cynical because there is so much negativity in the world. But the fact remains.

Now, I have to catch myself here, because I too am being cynical by implying that "the world is a negative place", that I don't trust the world to be inherently "good". I'm doing so to demonstrate a point: It's easy to be cynical. I couldn't even get through one sentence of a post on optimism without being cynical.

Why is it easy to be cynical? There are many reasons and many misconceptions. Here are my thoughts.

  1. It's a defense mechanism. By assuming the worst, we think we can soften the blow of a more undesirable outcome. For example, by saying something like "So and so will just let me down", it is assumed that we won't be as negatively affected if we actually are let down. 
  2. It protects us from vulnerability. Perhaps this is just rewording number 1, but it's an important point. For many people, their natural instinct is put a guard up, and protect against vulnerability. But on the contrary, experts including Brene Brown demonstrate that vulnerability can lead us to deeper connections and a more empowered life.
  3. Our beliefs and actions are shaped by what we choose to see. When we see negativity on the news or in daily life, we begin to look for the worst in people, instead of looking for the best. 
  4. Strangely, cynicism is often associated with intelligence. If people want to seem intelligent, they should question people's motives. Again, I'm not convinced.
There's a dangerous and destructive result of cynicism. It shapes our perspective, and therefore our reality. We begin to live in a negative and cynical world. Worst of all, we begin to bring people down with us.

It may seem counter-intuitive based on the reasons listed above, but it has been my experience that taking the opposite action and focusing on optimism can dramatically change your life for the better. 

Being optimistic is not easy. It takes work, especially as we have to overcome a mountain of negativity. We have to absorb criticism from the cynics for our positive outlook. We have to become vulnerable. We have to overcome our own preconceptions. 

It's hard work being an optimist, but it's worth it. As optimists, we live in a world where we know anything is possible. We are more joyful and grateful for all of the beauty of the world that surrounds us. We grow in faith. Doors are opened to us because we believe we "can". Opportunities we never even considered are presented to us because we open our hearts to new ideas. Our new found perspective becomes our reality, and the world around us becomes more beautiful.

I used to be leery of Mr. Rogers (yes, the one on PBS). There had to be something wrong with a man who spent is adult life with other people's children and played with dolls all day. "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood"? What are you hiding in that closet with your collection of red sweaters?

But Fred Rogers was an optimist. The kind who made an incredible contribution to the world because of his outlook. As a cynic, it was my wish to tear him down. I'm glad that I don't have to live like that anymore.

There is a Fred Rogers quote that floats around the internet from time to time which perfectly describes the necessary work to shape a positive outlook in the midst of cynicism and negativity. 

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” - Fred Rogers

When faced with negativity and cynicism we tend to join the mob. But instead I would challenge everyone to glorify the good. It is not just a mental exercise, but a way to change our lives. To turn us into optimists. To help us love our neighbors.

Here are a few ways to shape an optimistic attitude today. 
  1. Recognize and acknowledge where negativity and cynicism exists in your life.
  2. Write down 10 reasons why you are grateful today.
  3. Meditate for 10 to 20 minutes.
  4. Give at least 3 people a genuine compliment.
  5. Spend some time with a fellow optimist.
  6. Turn off the news. Seriously, turn it off right now. If something important happens, you'll hear about it. The rest is just gossip.
  7. Unfollow negative or gossip sites/friends. You don't need to unfriend them, but you don't need to read their negativity either.
  8. NEVER read the comments.
  9. Read one really dumb joke per day.
  10. In the words of Mrs. Rogers, "Look for the helpers."
Today it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, and I'm glad you're my neighbor.