What comes to mind when you think of an optimist? I think of someone who stays positive no matter what they’re going through, and looks past the bad things going on in their life. At the most recent (virtual!) Well+Good TALK on finding happiness amid a global crisis, Deepika Chopra, PsyD, explained that there’s more to the definition of an optimist than someone who wears rose-colored glasses.
“The true definition of an optimist is someone that is very aware and mindful of all the setbacks and roadblocks and less-than-ideal things that happen in their life,” says Dr. Chopra. “The caveat is that they are just aware that those things are temporary, and they have the ability to overcome them.”
Sound familiar? If you make a point to acknowledge your hardships without letting them consume you, then surprise! You’re an optimist. Dr. Chopra says you can’t begin to discuss optimism without understanding resiliency.
“You actually can’t build upon happiness or joy, or, you know, increase optimism without this idea of exercising your resiliency muscle,” says Dr. Chopra. “The two go very hand in hand, you can’t define one without the other.”
As humans, we experience the full range of emotions from joy to despair. “Some of our low emotions, and even our neutral emotions, really helped build and sort of exercise our happiness muscles,” she says. And when you try to push the negative emotions away, Dr. Chopra says it does more harm than good.
“The more that you sort of put it under the rug and try to avoid it, the bigger it gets and the more that has an effect on your physical and mental state,” she says. “When you have those moments of anxiety—and we all are having them right now at an elevated degree—we need to lean into it, instead of saying ‘I gotta be positive.’ ”
When people try too hard to fake happiness and ignore their feelings, that’s “toxic positivity,” says Dr. Chopra. “Our brains actually are so efficient, and our brains love being right. Whatever you’re actually thinking, you cannot trick your brain into saying a blanket statement affirmation that you don’t believe. It just wouldn’t work,” she says. “You’re better off really mindfully checking in with how you really feel, then sort of putting on this false ‘I’m going to be okay everything’s okay, I’m happy right now, I’m having a perfect day, I’m just gonna take my anxiety and throw it away because I’m too scared to be anxious.’ That’s where we run into trouble.”
Now, this doesn’t mean optimists exist in a state of doom and gloom. Dr. Chopra says you have to set boundaries for yourself. Don’t let fears and anxieties about your situation spiral out of control, but also don’t try to push them away. Root yourself in mindfulness and fully embrace your truth.