It seems as if every day, we have something new to worry about. Our jobs, our loved ones, our communities, ourselves. It’s hard not to feel hopeless.
Optimism might not be the first thing that springs to mind during a pandemic. But thinking more optimistically about what is going on right now can make a difference—both in how we feel, and in how we respond.
In fact, research finds that about 20 percent of a person’s emotional wellbeing owes to how optimistic they are.
How can we cultivate optimism in trying times? Before diving in, let’s clarify what optimism is not.
What optimism isn’t
- Ignoring reality. Optimism isn’t about “sticking our heads in the sand” and pretending everything is okay. It doesn’t mean we stop social distancing, washing our hands, or taking other important measures. Rather, it’s adjusting how we think about difficult times.
- Suppressing our feelings. It’s natural to feel upset, anxious, or sad. We are grieving the loss of normalcy, and we should let ourselves feel our emotions. Optimism isn’t about fighting feelings—it’s about cultivating hope and remaining solution-focused where possible. It’s okay to feel both down and optimistic.
How to practice optimism
By making 3 shifts in how we think, we can become more optimistic.
1. If something goes wrong, don’t shoulder all the blame
We sometimes jump to blaming ourselves when bad things happen. We might think, “If I hadn’t asked for a flexible work schedule, I wouldn’t have been let go,” or, “I can’t believe I snapped at my partner—how awful of me!”
Optimists recognize the role that circumstances play. For example, they might think, “I lost my job because the economy is slowing down. A lot of people are in the same position,” or, “This situation is stressful and it caused me to lose my temper—next time I’ll be more patient.”
2. Appreciate what hasn’t changed
The pandemic is affecting many parts of our lives. It can feel like nothing is “normal” anymore.
Optimists appreciate the parts of life that haven’t been impacted by adversity. Ask yourself: what remains the same as before? What gives you joy? Maybe it’s watching TV with the people you live with, snuggling a pet, or simply drinking a hot cup of tea in the morning.
3. Remember that this too shall pass
One of the unsettling things about the pandemic is that we don’t know exactly when it will end and life will return to normal.
But optimists remember that adversity is almost always temporary. Economies rebound, grief eases, epidemics pass. We will be able to spend time with others again. Have dinner parties. Buy toilet paper. Hug each other. In other words, this too shall pass.
Optimism doesn’t just make us feel better—often, it gives us a more accurate perspective on things.
Keep in mind that optimism is a discipline. It’s something we have to gently remind ourselves to keep doing. Be kind with yourself.
Seligman, M.E. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. Vintage.
Gillham, J.E., Shatte, A.J., Reivich, K.J., & Seligman, M.E. (2001). Optimism, pessimism, and explanatory style. Optimism and Pessimism: Implications for Theory, Research, and Practice, 53-75.
Youssef, C. M., & Luthans, F. (2007). Positive organizational behavior in the workplace: The impact of hope, optimism, and resilience. Journal of Management, 33, 774-800.
Travers, K.M., Creed, P.A., & Morrissey, S. (2015). The development and initial validation of a new scale to measure explanatory style. Personality and Individual Differences, 81, 1-6.