The Importance of Optimism in Recovery

“Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.” — William James A contrast of the dark and light is a human paradigm, yet seeing the shadow and not the sun is commonplace for people entrenched in addiction. Are people hardwired for optimism or pessimism? Some studies indicate certain people seem to be born with a bent toward positive or negative thinking — at least according to their brain scans. But sometimes the Internet shows us just as much about another person’s outlook as any brain scan could. Social media posts provide a glimpse at the belief systems of online friends. People who praise their lives and the people in them, as well as those who bemoan nearly every aspect, will offer evidence of their perspective. Some share their highs and lows to try to draw folks into their drama, while others do so in order to establish connection and seek support.

Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?

Cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot, PhD, wrote The Optimism Bias, which maintains that “humans are hardwired for hope.” While encouraging, her statement makes it easy to wonder which outlook applies more to you. The following habits indicate you might be a pessimist:

  • You imagine the worst case scenario, such as “I just know I’ll fail that test.”
  • You wonder why anyone would want to spend time with you.
  • You complain often about things over which you have no control, such as traffic and weather.
  • You carry the past around with you like a heavy weight.
  • You believe your history is your destiny.
  • You notice the people around you seem to be happy being miserable, as misery loves company.
  • You believe that anticipating what could go wrong makes you better prepared.
  • You identify with the Winnie the Pooh character Eeyore.

By contrast, the following suggest you’re more of an optimist:

  • You wake up smiling.
  • You channel your inner “Annie” and remind yourself when circumstances seem discouraging that “The sun’ll come out tomorrow.”
  • You make lemon meringue pie when life gives you lemons.
  • You share good news.
  • You attract positive people.
  • You have an attitude of gratitude.
  • You find that others are drawn to your enthusiasm.
  • You look for solutions and solve problems.

Perspective is crucial to arriving at solutions. Albert Einstein famously said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Imagine wearing eyeglasses with smudges on the lenses: You’d “see” that the world looks blurred and distorted. Clean the specs and the world appears clear. We find what we’re looking for.

Positivity-Powered Healing

Leadership skills are one benefit of optimism, and they play a prominent role in recovery. When people feel as if they can take charge and master a challenge, they’re more likely to succeed. Martin Seligman, PhD, a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, researches the emotions and character traits that make people feel life has meaning and is worth experiencing. However, Dr. Seligman originally focused on “learned helplessness” — the sense of inability to change a situation that in reality can be changed. Consider those contrasting outlooks in light of how one might view the possibility of overcoming an addiction. When people move into recovery, they often discover — or rediscover — their resilience. They find that they can unlearn harmful attitudes and behaviors if they accept that what they’ve done in the past wasn’t working for them. None of this is to say it’s wise or realistic to ignore challenges in service to being the eternal optimist. That would be like getting into a ring with a bull and believing he won’t charge because you’re a vegetarian. By weighing the pros and cons of a situation, taking stock of your resources, and then taking inspired action, you can use awareness of what could go wrong to be proactive. There’s always a balance. The power optimism has to support recovery comes from its ability to give perspective on what you’re really capable of. Think of the analogy of a glass being half full or half empty. In reality, the glass is full: Air fills the space not taken up by liquid. Another way of considering this concept is to think of yourself as an “opti-mystic” — someone who sees the world through the eyes of possibility. By Edie Weinstein, LSW Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1

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