Optimism - The Missing Muscle

Wait, you can train that?

Jacob Haugen is a fitness coach and has his BSc in Kinesiology from the University of Michigan. He is creating online programs for handstand training and offers virtual health coaching. You can find more at waterstonefitness.com.


Optimism is a tendency to expect the best outcome or dwell on the most hopeful aspects of a situation.

The habit to look at a situation as optimistic is a mental muscle that you train. And this muscle is the foundation for you to train every other muscle, recover faster from injuries, and get the real benefit of a healthy life: happiness.

But how do you do that?

Well, like training posture it's something that requires mindfulness to just remember to train, corrective exercises, and strengthening workouts. But with consistent effort, you can train a foundational mental skill that keeps you moving in an upward spiral throughout your life.

What should training optimism feel like?

When you first hear about training optimism, you might have flashes of a gaunt face staring in the mirror and through a forced smile chanting the words "I am a happy person... I am a happy person..." in hollow hopes saying it enough will make it come true.

The goal with training optimism isn’t lying to yourself, and it’s not to turn you into a Hollywood Boulevard impersonator of Flo from Progressive. Instead, optimism is actively finding and focusing on the truth that leads you in the direction that you want to go.

It is the same mental ability that you use to convince yourself that you deserve a slice of pizza after a workout. Everyone knows that they shouldn't have pizza after a workout, even insistent Italian mothers. But you want the pizza. So slowly, you justify reasons to yourself why you deserve it until you finally feel like it's the right thing to do and give in. You might catch yourself you might not, but the tendency to convince yourself is there. With training you can use this tendency to convince you of reasons to be happy, rather than reasons to eat pizza.

The goal of training optimism is to be clear headed and actively solving problems in your life by training your mind to automatically convince you of positive and truthful perspectives. Training optimism is not blindly telling yourself you will do something, it is not ignoring failures and suck in life, and it is not lying to yourself that you're happy when you're not. Things can suck, but you acknowledge that they suck, and being free to admit that to yourself might be the bright spot to focus on. It's choosing to focus on the brighter side of reality that is already there when it’s hardest to.

The key here is the focus on truth. It's optimistic to think you'll have the energy for a workout after a long day. But it's not optimistic to think you will have the energy for a workout after a long day if it didn't work the last time. Instead, it would be practical to consider that you're going to be tired and optimistic to consider that you have the energy now so you can get a quick workout in before you're tired.

Optimism also has an important relationship with failure. It's not optimistic to punish yourself for eating a piece of cake at a birthday party as a treat. It would be more optimistic to focus on how because your overall diet is solid, a piece of cake is a worthwhile delight. In a similar vein, if your overall diet is filled with cake, it would be optimistic to focus on the chicken breast you had for dinner instead, with why that happened, and how to do that more often.

How do You Remember to be Optimistic?

I recommend using your phone to remind yourself to be optimistic.

The easiest way is just to set a timer for a few hours from now to remind yourself, and then set another one when you get that first one and create a chain.

However, notification blindness can quickly set in if you don't put in a bit of additional effort.

Therefore you don't just want the timer name to be "remember to be optimistic" instead you'll want to put in several different reminders. Changing up the intervals between reminders, delivering it through different apps (email, todo list, calendar, ect.), and pasting in quotes on optimism can be an easy way to keep yourself paying attention to these and actually working to reframe your life as you go through your day.

Here's a list of 10 quotes to get you started. Try scheduling reminders with them over the next few days.

“More smiling, less worrying. More compassion, less judgment. More blessed, less stressed. More love, less hate.” ― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

“Take responsibility of your own happiness, never put it in other people’s hands.” ― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

“Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.” ― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” ― Anne Frank

“Be thankful for everything that happens in your life; it’s all an experience.” ― Roy T. Bennett

“Stop comparing yourself to other people, just choose to be happy and live your own life.” ― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

“Do not let the memories of your past limit the potential of your future. There are no limits to what you can achieve on your journey through life, except in your mind.” ― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

“Do not set aside your happiness. Do not wait to be happy in the future. The best time to be happy is always now.” ― Roy T. Bennett

“It’s your life; you don’t need someone’s permission to live the life you want. Be brave to live from your heart.” ― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

“Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

How do you Train Yourself To Be Optimistic?

Optimism is like posture. It's not just a position to hold but one to check and train your body to remain in. How we train posture is with challenging exercises to balance out the body into alignment. These can be strengthening exercises or stretches to improve the range of motion. We can train optimism to strengthen it and increase its range of ability.

There are two exercises that I want to challenge you to add into your life over this next week.

  1. Identify your pessimism with Optimistic Journaling
  2. Stretch your optimism with Negative Visualization

Paradoxically, to strengthen our optimism we focus on negative parts of our life. This negative focus challenges us to find optimism when we need it the most. A little optimism in a dark spot of life can go a long way. With a little flashlight we can a brighten a shadow more than a bright sunray.

Optimistic Journaling

Optimistic journaling is something that you can easily fit in right before bed or at the start of your day. It involves asking three questions:

1. What's one thing that's going wrong in your life?

2. How have you been working to fix it?

3. How can you focus on that more?

I often say that it's not our strengths that hold us back but our weaknesses. Optimism is something that we want to strive to search for in the darkest spots in our life as that is what will bring the largest changes.

Negative Visualization

This is related to a gratitude exercise to help you realize how much you take for granted. It involves imagining your worst fears coming true. Which is supposed to be a bit scary. However, we don't want to fixate and ruminate making things worse, instead we want to figure out practical strategies and positive aspects that we still have and can rely on.

For example, let's say that you have a crush on a cute person and want to ask them out, a natural fear would be being rejected when you ask them out. Negative imaging would be imagining that you get a horrible rejection for what you prize the most. If you lost your hope for that, what bright spot could you focus on instead?

It could be that you like your humor and you imagine them saying "no" and then dating a person you think is less funny, and then when you ask they text back "ya it's because they're funnier than you are". At that moment you want to focus on what you still have and what you can do. This have is how you train optimism. You might focus on other people, you can practice and get more feedback on your comedy, or you might focus on another positive aspect, like your sense of style or the simple fact that you’d still be alive.

As William Irvine explains in his book A Guide to the Good Life:

“We normally characterize an optimist as someone who sees his glass as being half full rather than half empty. For a Stoic, though, this degree of optimism would only be a starting point.

After expressing his appreciation that his glass is half full rather than being completely empty, he will go on to express his delight in even having a glass: It could, after all, have been broken or stolen… He might comment about what an astonishing thing glass vessels are: They are cheap and fairly durable, impart no taste to what they contain…

To such a person, glasses are amazing; to everyone else, a glass is just a glass.”

If this is too intense, you can imagine yourself to be a character in your favorite movie or a friend going through the same exercise. The important part is to focus on the constants that remain the same even when the worst happens. Those are things that you can trust and that will give you resilience.

How long does it take to become optimistic?

Optimistic journaling and negative visualization are interesting practices, however, it doesn't take a daily practice for the rest of your life to see benefits from them. Instead, the goal is to establish a foundational mental habit of stopping negative thoughts that takes care of you automatically when you're in the middle of a stressful situation. We train it with these tools until we notice this change and then we forget about them until we notice we need them again. With these exercises and a few reminders to practice applying the correct mindset throughout the day eventually your mind, like a well-trained soldier, will jump to the optimistic perspective in difficult situations. And that optimism, will keep you focused on taking the right action, moving yourself in an upward spiral.

As always, thanks for getting better.

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