Resilience Series Part 4

Improve Your Outlook

It is easy to find yourself in a cloud of negativity when you are going through tough times. You may feel angry or disappointed, and you start ruminating about how terrible everything is. If these thoughts continue to play on repeat, they gradually tint your outlook in a dark shade of gray, and you start to sift everything through a sieve of pessimism. Unfortunately, this only makes things worse; you start to see only the dark side of everything as if you are blind to the rest. And the more you are gloomy, the gloomier you become.

It may seem impossible to get out of this cycle of negativity. However, this is not entirely true; you indeed have the power to change your outlook. You can choose to stay negative and see everything through dark, foggy glasses, or you can remove them and see everything in true color. In this part 4 series, you will learn how to accomplish this by finding and tapping into your purpose, boosting your positivity and optimism, and practicing gratitude. You will also get insights about using humor in the face of adversity and finding shared humanity with others even when it feels impossible. As a result, improving your outlook will take you one step closer to becoming more resilient. 

Meaning and Purpose

Have you ever thought about what life means to you? Do you know your life’s purpose? Although some people find meaning and purpose early in life and strive toward achieving their goals, other people don’t find their calling until much later in life. Moreover, sometimes we experience hardships of such a great magnitude that we question everything about our lives. As a result, life loses its meaning, and we lose our purpose. This situation causes many people to lose hope and give up on their dreams unless they find meaning and purpose again. But what do we really mean by meaning and purpose?

When we talk about meaning and purpose, we consider the significance of our existence. In this sense, meaning refers to how we make sense of our lives. On the other hand, our purposes involve our motivations and aspirations for our future lives (Ivtzan et al., 2016). 

Most people find meaning and purpose without any conscious attempts. In fact, some adversities may help us realize a new purpose they wouldn’t consider otherwise. Yet, regardless of whether you find meaning and purpose through philosophical deliberations or they just spontaneously occur to you, they can help you see emerging themes and the big picture of what kind of impact you want to have on others and allow you to create the onward plot of your life. Here are a few tips for finding your meaning and purpose:

* Find your values. Meaning and values go hand in hand. When you discover what you value most, you can use these values to help you figure out your purpose to make a positive impact.

* Tap into your skills. We all have talents and skills. Doing things that you are good at not only increases your confidence but also allows you to guide or redirect your actions in ways that help you feel like you’re doing something important.

* Expand your horizon. Learning new concepts and ideas opens doors to new meanings and possibilities. You might want to read widely, not just the genres you typically enjoy but others that reach beyond your comfort zone. The more ideas and beliefs you expose yourself to, the more doors you can open in your mind. Similarly, you can also broaden your mind by taking classes or attending free seminars offered at community centers, libraries, and local university campuses. 

* Help others. Offering a helping hand to others in need can make us feel belonging to a community and increase our sense of meaning and purpose. Indeed, researchers found that prosocial behavior enhances meaning in life and improves satisfaction (Van Tongeren et al., 2014).

Positive Visualization

Another way you can incorporate a more positive outlook is by visualizing yourself in a positive situation. People have been using positive visualization techniques for a variety of goals, such as stress relief, mood improvement, bodily relaxation, promoting sleep, or increasing confidence. Does that sound too good to be true? In fact, research suggests that practicing visualization indeed comes with many benefits for us. For instance, it can increase physical performance (Ranganathan et al., 2004), boost relaxation (Yu et al., 2014), and mitigate stress while increasing sleep quality (Amini, Shirvani & Bazgir, 2022).

But how does one practice visualization? If you have ever daydreamed in the passenger seat or during a meeting, then you have the fundamental skills to get started with this technique. Simply put, positive visualization is an imagination technique that enables you to focus on something you want to achieve and envision yourself in a scenario where you reach that goal. 

There are three keys to effective positive visualization: being very specific, incorporating as many sensory details and emotions as possible, and repetition. When you are specific in your visualization, you create a detailed picture from the start to the finish line. This process allows you to figure out any steps you need to take to reach your goal. Moreover, it is imperative to incorporate many sensory details to create a complete mental image, such as where you will be, how you will look, the smell of the room, etc. Similarly, try to imagine your emotions from beginning to end during the entire process. The more pleasant the emotions (especially when you imagine the desired outcome), the more you would want to reach this future. Finally, just like you’d practice a line for a play, rehearsing the same scenario a few times can solidify your visualized future in your mind. That way, you can be tuned to take steps to achieve this desired future. 

Exercise: Visualize Your Best Life

This exercise was adapted from a study conducted by Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006). It will take only a few minutes each day for a total of six to eight weeks. 

On the first day, start thinking about what success means to you and what you truly aim to achieve in life. This means that you will imagine yourself in the best-case scenario in the future. In other words, you will visualize that everything in your life has gone well, your hard work has paid off, you have accomplished all of your life goals, and all your dreams have come true in the future.

Now, write about this future using the following prompts. Make sure you add sensory and emotional details. 

●        What stands out about you in this ideal future?

●        What are the emotions of the future you?

●        What can you do to make that future a reality?

The next day and later, take a moment to read and reflect on what you have written. Connect with this scenario as much as you can. Repeat this exercise for at least six weeks. It is okay if you miss a few days here and there. Just try to do it as consistently as you can.

Take-Home: Imagining ourselves being successful in the future helps us recognize our strengths and abilities, increases our hope, and puts our current situation in perspective. With this exercise, you may improve your outlook as you realize that what’s upsetting today doesn’t have much emotional weight in the grand scheme of things. 

Boost Optimism & Positivity

Do you tend to see the glass as half-full or half-empty? If your glass is half full, it is likely that you are an optimist. If not, don’t worry; we can all work on our optimism and adopt a more positive outlook. But what exactly is optimism, and how can we improve it?

Experts define optimism as “the extent to which people hold generalized favorable expectancies for their future” (Carver et al., 2010). In simpler English, optimists expect good outcomes. A similar term, positivity, refers to a generally positive attitude. Hence, you might think of optimism as future-directed positivity. Generally speaking, optimists tend to cope with adversities better than others because they tend to think more positively about these situations and believe that good things may come out of them.

A significant advantage of optimism is that it is associated with lower levels of stress (Seligman, 2006). Therefore, optimism can help us fight the physical and mental effects of stress, which in turn increases our well-being. Moreover, optimism can improve our social and romantic lives as well (Carver et al., 2010). This interpersonal influence of optimism is likely due to viewing social situations more positively and expecting good things to happen in our relationships. Here are a few suggestions to help you boost your optimism and positivity.

* Question your negative thoughts. Some people believe pessimism means realism and adopt a pessimistic or negative outlook for the sake of being realistic. This notion is false more often than not. Realism is the balance between optimism and pessimism, which includes both the light and dark aspects of things. When you are viewing a situation through a pessimistic lens, you might be mainly focusing on its negative aspects. So, next time you realize you are approaching a situation with pessimism, question the validity of your stance. Chances are, you might be ignoring any positive aspects of that situation. Realizing that there are also positive qualities in most situations can help you boost your optimism and can realign your attitude toward a more genuine realism.

* Be aware of the negativity in media. Most media organizations thrive on catastrophic news. Although many amazing things happen every day, most good news barely makes it to the news cycle. Negative events rule the headlines and breaking news alerts. Psychologists think that this dominance of negative news is due to the assumed tendency of humans to be more attentive to negative news (Soroka, Fournier & Nir, 2019). Unfortunately, daily exposure to bad news seems to make us unhappy and more pessimistic (de Hoog & Verboon, 2020), likely because they give the impression that bad things happen more often than they actually do. What is the solution? You can’t escape bad news altogether, but you can limit your exposure to them. You may also remind yourself of the negativity bias of news cycles or seek out and share positive news. 

* Surround yourself with optimists. Believe it or not, optimism and pessimism can be contagious. If you are surrounded by negative people, chances are their negativity will rub on you. The same is true for positive people. When the people around you have optimistic attitudes and views, you may also become more optimistic. Moreover, optimists tend to support and cheer you up during difficult times as well. 

* Don’t force optimism and positivity. If something is truly bad, don’t try to give it a positive spin or pretend all is well. Everything can’t be good or beneficial all the time, and that is okay. Forcing positivity inappropriately on negative events is called toxic positivity, which diminishes emotional acceptance, encourages us to suppress our negative emotions, and makes it harder to cope with adversities in healthy ways.

Practice Gratitude

We can define gratitude as the state of thankfulness and appreciation. When we feel grateful, we leave cynicism at the door as we acknowledge that life, and other people, contain goodness and generosity. Being and acting grateful allows us to appreciate what we already have, the people in our lives, and the opportunities we have been presented with. 

So, why should we practice gratitude? Besides increasing our overall happiness, gratitude provides numerous other benefits, such as making us more forgiving. It allows us to count our blessings when we are dealing with adversities. Furthermore, practicing gratitude may increase our satisfaction with our relationships, boost the success of our intimate bonds, and makes friendships more pleasant (Lambert et al., 2010; Gordon et al., 2012). 

Some of us naturally tend to be grateful, and others learn to become grateful. In other words, we can still cultivate gratitude with practice as long as we are willing to do so. Here are a few suggestions.

* Write a gratitude list. Take a moment to think about everything and everyone you are grateful for, and write a list of things you are grateful for.

* Thank someone. Reach out to someone you are grateful for and tell them how much you appreciate them.

* Gratitude affirmations. Many people need a reminder of what they are grateful for. Affirmations that focus on appreciating what we have can make us more grateful.

* Keep a gratitude journal. Whenever you are grateful for something, write it in your journal so you can remember it later.

Exercise: Finding Gratitude

In this exercise, you will learn how to find gratitude using positive reappraisal, which is a coping technique. Simply, cognitive reappraisal involves reframing an event or a situation to weaken the negative emotions related to it either by focusing on the positive aspects or realizing there could be worse outcomes (Troy et al., 2018). 

* Start this exercise by considering the following scenarios and imagine yourself experiencing them. Write down how you’d feel in that situation (frustrated, angry, etc.)

   * You are taking a challenging class, and you received a D on your first assignment.

   * You forgot to pay your bills.

   * Your umbrella broke, and it started pouring.

   * You dropped your lunch on the floor.

   * The sound system broke just before your wedding.

   * The airline representative just informed you that they’d lost your luggage.

* Once you have identified your emotions for each situation, think about any positive aspects or outcomes. Then, consider worse things that might have happened. Write down these positives and negatives and reassess your emotions. Do you feel better about most of these situations?

Take-Home: Sometimes, it is hard to see that a situation isn’t as bad as it initially seems. This exercise was designed to help you explore the positives and less-bad outcomes in several examples. Using this approach in real-life situations can help you become more grateful.

Use Humor

Who doesn’t like a good laugh? Humor is a powerful tool that can help you cope with difficult periods in your life. Whether you laugh at a funny cat video, a lighthearted movie, or a coworker’s joke, you can improve your mood and change your outlook. But the benefits of humor and laughing are not limited to a more positive outlook. Laughter is associated with stress relief, reduced anxiety and depression, increased optimism, a more stable affect, and greater resilience (Cann & Colette, 2014; Jiang et al., 2020).

Although humor promotes well-being, there is a catch: the type of humor seems to matter. There are at least four types of humor that have been studied: affiliative, aggressive, self-defeating, and self-enhancing (Martin et al., 2003). Affiliative humor involves jokes that most people would find funny and tends to bring people together. On the other hand, aggressive humor involves insulting jokes that might offend or harm an individual or a population, even if other people find it funny. Self-defeating humor involves putting yourself down and cracking aggressive jokes about yourself. In contrast, self-enhancing humor involves laughing at yourself in a harmless way, such as when you’re telling your friends about something terrible or ridiculous that happened to you. Research suggests that affiliative and self-enhancing types of humor are healthy ones that can reduce stress and provide the benefits listed earlier, whereas aggressive and self-defeating can be damaging (Jiang et al., 2020). 

Exercise: Find Everyday Humor

Do you think your life is boring and there is nothing to laugh at? Funny things happen all the time. All you need to do is notice them and write them down somewhere for later. In this exercise, you will spend about ten minutes per day writing the funniest observations of the day for at least a week. Here is how you’ll do it.

* Think about your day and try to remember the three funniest things that you experienced. It can be something you’ve heard or seen, a benign misunderstanding, a funny post on social media, etc. 

* Write down each funny observation with as much detail as you can. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling.

Take-Home: Laughing is one of the easiest ways to feel good. Sometimes, we don’t realize how funny something is while we experience it. But when we remember it later, that experience turns into something that makes us chuckle. This exercise has asked you to write these experiences down instead of just thinking about them. The case for writing them down is it slows your thinking and allows you to pay attention to its details. It also makes it easier to remember later when you need a good laugh. 

Find Shared Humanity

Many of us find it easy to categorize people we interact with as “us versus them”. We might focus on the differences that set us apart and make these people unlike us. Moreover, when someone (or a group of people) wrongs us, we might resent them, lose our respect for them, and might feel anger or hate. These feelings can make us forget one thing: we are all humans.

Recognizing our shared humanity with others involves acknowledging that no matter how different we look, behave, or think, we all are humans who have similar needs and face comparable problems. After all, all humans on this planet want to be safe, healthy and loved, and everyone experiences stress, pain, and suffering in one way or another.

Acknowledging our shared humanity doesn’t mean we stop noticing individual differences or accept injustices. In contrast, it means understanding that some of us face more barriers in life, suffer more, or have fewer resources than others, even though we are all humans. Hence, when we truly recognize our shared humanity, we can feel more compassion toward others and have an increased sense of belonging to our society. 

In Sum

Adversities can tint our lenses dark, giving us a gloomy, hopeless outlook. We may struggle to see a way out and feel powerless. Fortunately, you can take off those dark lenses and adopt a brighter outlook. You can find meaning and purpose even in the face of adversities and visualize a brighter future. You can boost your optimism, have a more positive view of everything, and notice things and people you are grateful for. Moreover, you can find humor in daily life and find shared humanity with others, which may strengthen your joy and compassion. By improving your outlook, you can feel more powerful to ward off whatever life throws at you.