These two questions will make you an optimist

Last year, I decided to become an optimist.

My pessimistic disposition wasn’t doing me any favors. I was tired and cranky all the time. I got sick frequently. I dreaded each day from the moment I awoke.

It sucked.

I’d seen plenty of research about the benefits of an optimistic outlook:

  • Better health
  • Improved sense of well-being
  • Greater happiness at work
  • More resilience in the face of adversity
  • Longer life

Who wouldn’t want all that?

But adopting an optimistic outlook isn’t as easy as declaring, “I’m going to be an optimist now.” I had to replace two long-standing, negative habits with positive ones.

First, I tended to expect bad things to happen. I wanted to reverse that so that I would start to have positive expectations for the future.

Second, I tended to forget about good things that happened and ruminate on setbacks instead. I wanted to change my internal narrative so that I focused on positive events.

I challenged myself to complete two simple tasks each day that would support these mindset changes. From past efforts to build new habits, I knew it would take about a month, and so “The Thirty-Day Optimism Challenge” was born.

Every morning, as soon as possible after I woke up, I wrote an answer to this question:

What is one thing I can look forward to?

The answer could be anything, no matter how simple or small. It had to be something that would occur that day or the next, and the answer had to be unique each day.

Here are some examples from my notebook:

  • Playing cribbage with Michael this afternoon.
  • Going to Saint Augustine tomorrow.
  • Picking up Carolyn at the airport tonight.

There were days, especially at the beginning of the challenge, when I struggled with this question. When that happened, I had a simple solution:

Plan something.

I planned something enjoyable that I could do within twenty four hours: Tonight I’ll browse my favorite book store. I’ll invite a friend to have coffee tomorrow morning. I’ll spend my lunch break drawing.

That plan became my answer to the question.

Either way, I reminded myself every morning that something positive was on the way.

The morning question addressed my desire for a habit of positive expectation. The evening question would address the other half of the equation: focusing on positive events.

Every evening, I wrote an answer to this question:

What is something good that happened today?

As with the morning question, the answer could be anything, no matter how small or simple. My answers included:

  • Visited the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Dali Museum.
  • Ran a successful new exercise with my team at work.
  • Stopped for a haircut on the way home from work.

Even on my worst day, at least one good thing happened. And I found that when I focused on positive events, negative events didn’t sting as much.

For both questions, I wrote my answer down. That way, I could revisit my thoughts from time to time, remember how much I had to look forward to, and prove to myself that every day had at least one good thing in it.

I was surprised at how effective the challenge was. I noticed a dramatic boost in my mood and outlook halfway through. By day thirty, I had more energy, felt healthier, and felt motivated to overcome setbacks rather than resign myself to defeat. It seemed like positive things happened more frequently, and opportunities appeared more often. But they’d been there all along, waiting for me to notice them and take advantage of them.