Perspective can be quite a divisive topic. Many of us associate optimism with naivety or carelessness, whereas pessimism can be seen as closer to melodrama. The fact that we cannot agree on the right way to tackle life's hurdles suggests that there is some merit to both sides. Looking at this difficult balancing act in its entirety can let us make up our minds on how best to go about adapting to the world and all it throws at us.
The First Steps
Research points to us latching far more tightly to negative news compared to positive. It takes extra effort to come back from the one rude comment we receive in a sea of compliments, and we tend to remember it far more clearly. We also feel the elation of a job well done for far longer than we feel the dejection caused by a failed attempt. A study by Alison Ledgerwood found that people would often find it hard to regain a positive outlook towards others when they had let them down, even when the issue itself was resolved. We are naturally trained to look for the things that can fault us, so it can be much harder to let things go when we are disappointed or hurt.
On the other hand, research has found that we often overestimate our own capabilities. This is why we sometimes overlook risks displayed for everyone, such as general health warnings on food- it could happen to them but not to me. The concept of optimism bias means that we often blame our environment for our flaws rather than looking inward- the test was unfair, or the interview was rigged. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it can encourage us to keep trying rather than to accept things as simply part of a reality that cannot be changed. But we also need to remember not to react by reeling back into cynicism if we feel that optimism doesn't entirely suit us. While there is nothing wrong with a degree of realism, it can be damaging when it borders on pessimism. Being prepared for things to go wrong is good as it can save us from feeling let down by difficult circumstances, but assuming that things will go wrong can make us stagnate. Why change if these things will happen regardless?
Methods to Help
Finding that balance for traversing this stressful world can be tough. When we begin any new commitment it's important to remember that these things are never instantaneous- if they were, no one would ever struggle with big life changes. Being patient with yourself as you learn can help you pace yourself better and take stressful life events less to heart. You are still going to feel upset or angry at points in life no matter how much work you do. Remember that this is a good thing, as positivity at the expense of reality can be toxic- it means you aren't seeing the full picture. Being positive doesn't mean ignoring or avoiding unpleasantness, but instead learning to be more resilient, accepting and working with these feelings so they don’t swallow you whole.
We prefer Fridays over Sundays because the idea of the weekend makes us happier than the thought of the oncoming work week. We prefer the anticipation of good experiences in our future over a good event when unpleasantness is on the horizon. If we then try to sprinkle in little events or treats that we can be excited about later, it can help to keep us motivated and happy. The idea of a reward works on many levels. It makes us feel like we have earned something good for our troubles and reminds us that the unpleasantness doesn't always last long.
A study conducted by Tali Sharot found that we find it much easier to take in information when the news is better than we expect. There are crucial areas in our brains that love good news and are far more active when we feel pleasantly surprised. Understanding the systems our minds use to motivate us and keep us attentive can help us harness them for ourselves.
Reframing How we Think
Because of how hectic life can be, we often ignore the smaller victories to focus on the big stressor of the day. Being more aware of our own emotional pitfalls can help us avoid toppling into them.
The next time you are in a stressful situation, try changing the context in your mind. Rather than being annoyed that you’re stuck in traffic, think about how good it is to have a car. Perhaps it's hot out and you have air conditioning, or you can listen to some of your favourite music whilst you wait. In some situations there is very little we can do to change what upsets us, so getting comfortable and finding little victories along the way can be far more beneficial.
Finding ways to clearly signpost progress can also be a brilliant way of staying positive. If you are struggling to stay motivated at work, then making a physical record of how much progress you have made (not towards the goal but from where you started) can be a good way to change your perspective. Looking at how far you've come is a clear example of reframing the situation that can also do wonders for your productivity.
No Moment is Guaranteed
Sometimes putting things into perspective can be a daunting experience. When we remember how little control we have over the course of our day, it can make us freeze up with indecision. The important thing to remember is that we always have the autonomy to change how we see the world. There are people that have amassed everything that they could ever want, yet still feel dissatisfied. It seems that much of our fulfilment comes from the ability to work towards something and be satisfied in the journey itself. We may be far more motivated to take that extra step in the future if we can definitively say to ourselves that what we are working towards is truly worthwhile.
The key is finding the sweet spot. It's great to be realistic so that you can consider all your options and adapt proactively to setbacks, in the same breath it's absolutely essential that you remember to take some time to exist in the present moment. Looking at the things that make you feel happy and grateful (no matter how seemingly insignificant) can help us become more open to flights of hopefulness. The methods discussed here all agree that the value of perspective comes from finding the right balance between realism and idealism. We should still take those leaps of faith even if we might fail, because with practice we can all learn to land far more gracefully.
Christian Jarrett (2018) Whats your stress mindset?, BPS Research Digest, online, available: https://digest.bps.org.uk/2018/01/05/whats-your-stress-mindset/
Daniel Dipiazza (2016) , How to train your mind to see the good in every situation, Huffpost, available: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-to-train-your-mind-to_b_7764078
Dan Gilbert (2014) The psychology of your future self, online, available: https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_the_psychology_of_your_future_self#t-389372
Dan Gilbert (2004) The surprising science of happiness, online, available: https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_the_surprising_science_of_happiness#t-38578
David Steindl-Rast (2013) Want to be happy? Be Grateful, online, available: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_steindl_rast_want_to_be_happy_be_grateful#t-852033
Matthieu Ricard (2004) The Habits of Happiness, online, available: https://www.ted.com/talks/matthieu_ricard_the_habits_of_happiness