'Fake it til you make it'

How being optimistic can change your life

July 5, 2012

A New York Times article this week explored what it means to be an optimist, featuring interviews with several individuals who found professional success after "willing" themselves to try new or different things.

For example, one Marine Corps fighter pilot decided that he would become a professional musician after World War II—despite lacking key skills and experience, beyond playing in his high school band. But after moving to Los Angeles, he was able to use his basic competence to parlay one job opening into another, before eventually becoming a drummer for singers like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. After his musical career helped him get established in Hollywood, he embarked on a second career as a comedy writer for Jerry Lewis and others.

Being an optimist is not just about positive thinking, according to Elaine Fox, a psychologist at the University of Essex.

What really makes the difference is "action," Fox says. "If you sit back passively, you won’t get the job you want."

She argues that using the following techniques can strengthen what she terms the “sunny” brain:

  • Face fears head on: Go outside your comfort zone to eliminate fears, anxieties that may be holding you in check.
  • Reevaluate events in your day-to-day life: Get perspective and understand "that maybe things aren't so bad."
  • Mindfully meditate: Learn to let emotions, thoughts pass through your mind without judging them.
  • Take control over your feelings.
  • Be completely engaged: Find activities—whether a career, hobby, or volunteer effort—that are meaningful and fulfilling.
  • Laugh.

According to Fox, "Optimism is not so much about feeling happy, nor necessarily a belief that everything will be fine, but about how we respond when times get tough."

"Optimists tend to keep going, even when it seems as if the whole world is against them," she added (Brody, "Well," New York Times, 7/2).

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