The Pursuit of Optimism

Major Depressive Disorder has become one of those diagnoses that everyone in our society is becoming aware of.  Either we have been diagnosed ourselves, know someone who has been, or experience some level of symptom; even if it’s not enough for a full diagnosis.  It is a disorder that is frequently referenced as a catalyst for a number of different individual and more global problems in our media, print news, and interpersonal conversation.  Often, we can find ourselves in an endless cycle of stress and depression that eventually becomes exhausting and even damaging.  Therapy and medication management will be helpful to those stressful and depressive situations and symptoms that do not appear to have an end in sight.  But what about those situations that are more temporary?  What about those times when we believe in our abilities overall, but are beginning to notice those precursors of possible depression:  feeling defeated, unsure of ourselves, or inadequate?  Recent research suggests that positive thinking and optimism may be the answer.

Winston Churchill said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty,” a quote from a man governing a country during one of the most trying times in world history.  Research shows that pessimists and optimists approach problems differently and that the way you approach these problems could significantly impact your current mood state.  Optimistic people believe that problems or negative events are time limited, temporary, and overall, manageable.  They are better at taking on appropriate levels of responsibility and accountability; meaning they do not take the blame for things they don’t deserve to.  Instead they accept responsibility for things that they have some influence over.  The powerful component of this type of outlook is that you do not beat yourself up for reasons you don’t deserve and you can acknowledge where you may have actually gone wrong and then work to make changes in the future.  This gives the optimistic person the hope for change and a level of personal power and control that can and will be useful in the future.  

Optimism is a significant protective factor that can be useful from minor life occurrences to some of the more major and extreme life events.  For example, the optimist is more likely to recover from and even feel like they are overcoming a life challenge more effectively than a pessimist.  Research indicates that this is primarily the result of the optimist’s ability to more successfully cope with challenges and disappointments by attending to the positive points of the situation and developing active plans to make positive changes.  This is a useful skill because we know that even in bad situations there are always positive aspects because there is always a balance.  Optimists can notice this “silver lining” more quickly than pessimists and use that as a spring board to move past the current negative and begin to problem-solve.

This may all make complete sense and sound awesome, but you might be saying to yourself:   “How do I start becoming more optimistic then?”  In reality it takes a lot of work.  It is significantly more complicated than just telling yourself to ‘get over it’ or ‘look on the positive side.’  The bright side (no pun intended) is that optimism, like any other skill or habit, can be learned with practice.  In the technologically savvy world that we live in, there is always an app for everything and developing your optimistic skill set is no different.  Searching for ‘optimism mental health’ apps on your smart phone will pull up a number of self-tracking apps that can help you detect your current level of optimism and increase ability to proactively manage your daily stressors.  There are a number of apps that will help you develop, and then monitor, strategies that will work best for you.  You will also be able to track your “triggers” (those things that have a tendency to pull you more towards your pessimistic side.)   “Optimism” is an app available for Apple products that helps you chart your mood.  You can also develop and store strategies and chart triggers and symptoms for depression, as well as other mental health conditions.   “Moody Me” is a daily mood/diary tracker that can help you understand the changes in your mood.  This app is useful to better comprehend the trends of your moods and determine where the best interventions can be placed.  In a modern day world, where optimism can be hard to come by, utilizing apps to become more mindful of the people, places, or things that tend to make us feel depressed can be extremely beneficial to our overall happiness and our long-term mental health.

Authored by:  Kaitlan Gibbons, PsyD