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How to Become an Optimist With Journaling Exercises

Niklas Göke
Sep 18, 2017 · 10 min read

If your expectations for life were higher, you’d be happier. You’d try harder, look forward to the future more, and be less affected by negative events.

This different mindset is so noticeable we gave people with high expectations a name: we call them optimists.

In this article, I’d like to show you how to be become an optimist in a unique way: by focusing on the negative. By revisiting bad events in your life, you can debunk negative beliefs you hold about yourself. This technique is called reappraisal and comes from emotional self-regulation theory. As a result, you’ll have higher and more positive expectations, which will improve your overall outlook on life.

All you need is a pen and paper for these three exercises:

  1. Recording your ABCs: Adversity, Belief, Consequence.
  2. Disputing the beliefs you find with a series of questions.
  3. Defending yourself against these limiting beliefs in (fictional) conversation.

These exercises work whether you already consider yourself an optimist or not. I have always been an optimist, but I still found that this mindset made me feel less stressed, and less worried about the future.

The first two exercises only take a few minutes, and they provide most of the benefit. The third can be expanded at will and is for those who want to dive deeper into their own psyche.

But why is this practice worth your time?

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Why rose-tinted glasses are worth wearing

Martin Seligman, one of academia’s most prolific researchers on optimism and happiness, came up with the aforementioned exercises. He and the scientific community have long agreed on the many advantages of optimism:

But there’s one more advantage to optimism that really makes it the ace you’ll want up your sleeve. Before we dive into the exercises, let’s briefly examine that advantage.

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Optimism acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy

All stories of success through perseverance are also stories of optimism.

Here’s an example: life insurance sales. Selling life insurance is a brutal task; 9 out of 10 life insurance salespeople are turned down on first contact. MetLife hired Martin Seligman, the psychologist, to help find optimistic salespeople. When he compared the sales results of optimistic and pessimistic salespeople, he found optimism made a difference of 37–88% more in life insurance sold.

Beyond subjectively feeling better about their future, optimists also contribute more to proactively creating that future. You’ll have higher expectations — and more drive to live up to them.

Your tool to practicing optimism: interpretation

Both the joy of anticipation and increase in effort are outcomes of an optimistic outlook. Effects, not causes.

The tool at your disposal to generate these effects is interpretation. The way you currently describe and justify the events in your life is called your explanatory style.

A pessimistic explanatory style means you see problems as permanent, universal and tied to who you are. “It’s all my fault.” “I always spill my coffee.” “I’m a bad driver.”

Optimists, on the other hand, consider adversity as temporary, specific and external. “I’m sure it’ll stop raining soon.” “A bad player doesn’t make a bad team.” “There’s no way I could’ve seen that pothole.”

Wherever you would place yourself on the spectrum right now, the more you practice interpreting what goes wrong with an optimistic explanatory style, the more of the positive effects we talked about you’ll see.

The fastest way to do this is to record your ABCs.

Exercise #1: Recording your ABCs

The ABC model goes back to Albert Ellis, one of the pioneers behind cognitive behavioral therapy. His idea was that we use beliefs to explain adversarial events, which have consequences for how we feel. Problems arise not necessarily from negative consequences, but from irrational beliefs.

Your goal with this exercise is to make a habit of examining your beliefs and how they link to your consequent feelings and actions. Here are two examples for a pessimistic and optimistic set of ABCs, respectively.

A. Your best friend hasn’t returned your phone calls.
B. You think they must be mad and/or hate you, or they’re doing something fun without you.
C. You’re depressed all day.

A. Your best friend hasn’t returned your phone calls.
B. You think they’re probably just busy with something else.
C. You don’t feel bad about it, and go about your day.

To not get overwhelmed, take five minutes and try to think of as many adversities as you can from the past week. The events can be really small, like a crying baby, broken headphones or a missed phone call. Write down the negative event, the belief and the consequent actions and feelings for each situation.

You can use a bullet style format, like I did:

Alternatively, you can also write full sentences, like you would in a journal. Here’s an example from Seligman’s book:

Adversity: I decided to join a gym, and when I walked into the place I saw nothing but firm, toned bodies all around me.

Belief: What am I doing here? I look like a beached whale compared to these people! I should get out of here while I still have my dignity.

Consequences: I felt totally self-conscious and ended up leaving after fifteen minutes.

What’s important is that you distinguish thoughts from feelings. Your beliefs are subjective thoughts. Their accuracy is verifiable. In my case, it can be observed whether the whole world is actually against me or not. The feelings that go under consequences, however, will be hard to measure. There is no way to really tell what’s fair and what’s not. When I feel treated unfairly, I just do.

Don’t worry if you can’t come up with many examples on the spot. Finding one situation you handled well and one you didn’t is good enough to start.

This first exercise allows you to examine the link between your beliefs and their consequences. Practiced repeatedly, it also improves your awareness of those beliefs as negative events happen.

The second exercise then gives you the power to overturn the negative and unproductive beliefs you’ve identified.

Exercise #2: Disputing your beliefs

Arguing with others is easy. We all have a lifetime of experience in it. Arguing with ourselves is hard. Luckily, Seligman offers four tools to make a convincing case against our own, limiting beliefs:

  • Evidence
  • Alternatives
  • Implications
  • Usefulness

Getting back to the gym example, here’s what applying those might look like:

Belief: What am I doing here? I look like a beached whale compared to these people! I should get out of here while I still have my dignity.

Disputation: This is ridiculous. Clearly, I’m not the heaviest person in here [evidence]. Many people work out regularly, even long after they’ve reached their target weight [alternative]. I should stop comparing [usefulness]. And even if I am on the more overweight side [evidence], nobody will notice me for my weight [implication]. If anything, they will notice me for my discipline at the weights [implication], which is the only thing that will help me lose my extra pounds [usefulness].

If you find it hard to write a comprehensive text, you can also use the four elements as a guideline in question format, like I did. Here is how I disputed my belief about the whole world being against me, based on being stuck in a traffic jam. I’m gonna spare you my handwriting this time:

Belief: The world is against me.DisputationEvidence: Is there even a tiny chance my belief is wrong? Yes. It is very unlikely that literally everyone in the world is out to get me. That'd be a whole lot of people I don't even know, secretly conspiring.Alternatives: Is there another possible explanation for the traffic jam?Absolutely. When holidays start and end, lots of people hit the road at the same time. Thousands of accidents and construction measures happen each day, leading to clogged streets.Implications: What are the implications if my belief were true?I would constantly be in fight mode and work against others, instead of with them. I would feel angry a lot.Usefulness: Is this belief useful for me right now?No. It is ungrounded, irrational and will only cloud my visions in situations when I need to think clearly and objectively.

At this point you may feel more energized and empowered. As the false belief crumbles under your analytical scrutiny, you regain composure and feel more in control.

If you take a few minutes each week to record your ABCs and dispute them, you’ll eventually be able to observe them in real time and argue against them in your mind.

For those of you who want to trace their beliefs back to their deepest roots, there is one more exercise you can do.

Exercise #3: Practice defending yourself against your irrational beliefs

Seligman calls this last exercise ‘The Externalization of Voices.’ He suggests you sit down with a close friend you trust, hand them a list of your negative beliefs and let them verbally attack you with them. Your job is to then defend yourself out loud, using the same disputation techniques as before.

While I’m sure a 20-minute session would be helpful if conducted correctly, it requires a lot of effort up front. You have to carefully select a friend, arrange a time to meet or call, and prepare a long list of beliefs in advance.

I wanted to make this more practical, so continuing in the journaling style from before, I made up both the friend and the conversation in my head, then wrote it down.

Here’s how I see a conversation with a friend accusing me of thinking the world is against me:

Imaginary friend: "Nik, you're always fighting the current. Why are you trying so hard to swim upstream? It's just annoying and tactless. You're making all your friends feel bad. Why can't you be normal, like the rest of us? You used to fit in so well. We're not against you. You just changed for no reason. We don't like all your exhibitionist writing and we especially don't like it if you write about us. Just stop. You'll never fit in if you keep pursuing all these weird ideas."Me: "I'm not trying to swim upstream. I'm just trying to be myself [alternative]. It just so happens that in this process, I set off people [implication]. I don't intend to offend. I want to help. Many people have told me what I do helps [evidence]. I can never make everyone happy [evidence]. So I have to focus on making people happy in ways that make me happy also [usefulness]. Writing is a big part of that. I can't just give it up [usefulness]. And if that means being weird and comes at the expense of fitting in [implication], then that's a price I will pay. I'm not happy about it, but I know it's the right choice."

Notice how we went from a conversation about being stuck in a traffic jam to an attack on my personality and career path. That’s the true power of the third exercise — it shows you that mundane events can trigger the same limiting beliefs your subconscious wrestles with deep down. Most of our negative beliefs originate from a few, big issues in our lives.

The section in bold is where I flip the belief on its head. I provide myself with evidence that people have supported me in the past, and that a few always will. Then I can draw the consequential action it takes to cultivate this new belief: writing more for the people who enjoy reading my work.

This exercise can escalate quickly without you even noticing it. I encourage you to try it once and see how you feel. Follow your gut, like you would in an actual, defensive conversation, then let what you wrote sit for a while. Come back later and then try to objectively identify the four elements of disputation.

Optimism is underrated

Around 80% of people have some type of optimism bias. We all think we’re above average drivers, that our marriage has no chance of divorce and that we’re more attractive, interesting and modest than our neighbors.

But if most of us wear rose-tinted glasses already, why further boost this bias? Don’t we need a damper? Seligman doesn’t think so:

“My profession spends most of its time (and almost all of its money) trying to make the troubled less troubled. Helping troubled people is a worthy goal, but somehow psychology almost never gets around to the complementary goal of making the lives of well people even better.” — Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism

That’s why he’s spent the majority of his career on making optimists more optimistic. With pen, paper and a few minutes of reappraisal each week, I believe you can be happier, too.

What can I say? I have high expectations.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Niklas Göke

Written by

I write for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. I also publish daily micro-blogs to help you live a balanced life:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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