Learned optimism is one of the most important aspects of my retirement transition. For most of my career, I was a critical-thinking pessimist. I was excellent at looking at worse case scenarios and planning to avoid pitfalls on any project or change we were doing. I had a boss once tell me “you’ll never be happy”. OK, he also was a boss who often told us to “shut up and row”, but I do agree I tended to see the negative side of things. So part of my retirement was an intentionality to be more optimistic. An optimistic happy person is who I wanted to be in retirement.
During the pandemic, I’ve been taking a series of Coursera classes on Positive Psychology (link here) to further my knowledge in this area. This blog post will share another of the tools beyond savoring (blog post link) I’ve learned more about. Focusing on learning to be (to remain?) optimistic has been helpful in this time of uncertainty.
Another tool I’ve been putting to use is the Cultivating Positive Emotions practice. It is more natural for us to focus on negative emotions (anger, fear, disgust) because for years of evolution that was necessary to prepare us to take action for survival. It is only relatively recently (in the history of humankind) that those negative emotions are not really needed on a daily basis. Positive emotions are not action motivation, but rather are life enhancing – they build social networks and stimulate creativity.
When cultivating emotions, it is helpful to broaden our vocabulary to really assess how we are feeling. I’ve personally created a lexicon of over 140 emotional terms! Some of my recently added positive terms: uplifted, inspired, serene, curious, motivated, amused, contentment, amazed, and cheerful.
When cultivating positive emotions, the first step is to become more consciously aware of your emotion. Having a broad language lexicon helps (please do let me know if you’d like mine). My lexicon is listed from more positive to more negative and all it takes sometimes is acknowledging where I am and looking to see if I can boost myself up a few levels of positivity. Sometimes that requires a “fake it till you make it” attitude; sometimes it’s via gratitude articulation or looking for little moments of joy that day (connect with a friend, engage in a hobby, do yoga, get outside, eat yummy food); and sometimes it is just venting (via journaling or a friend’s ear). And yes, sometimes I need to deal head-on with the source of the negative emotion through creative problem solving or reaching out for social support.
Some other ways I have used to help reduce unhelpful negative thinking are awareness of my self-limiting beliefs (the voices of “never good enough” or my bad habit of Compare & Despair) and trying to limit mindless (distracting) social media surfing.
I don’t ignore my negative emotion, but rather try to improve the ratio of positive to negative over time. For me, consciously cultivating positive emotions does result in a more optimistic (happier) life outlook.
Do you do any regular emotional assessment?
Picture Credit: me on a fall awe-walk – lovely tree color in our neighborhood.