Some people seem to see the world in such a positive light, it’s enough to make you wonder if their lives are that much better than yours or mine. In the same vein, one may ask if pessimists actually have worse experiences than the average person. In the vast majority of cases the life experiences of both these people are, actually, much the same. So how can we explain such different perspectives? The answer lies in the question; reality as we know it is comprised of two things (assuming one is not suffering from delusions or psychosis) 1) the world as it actually is, and 2) the world as we see it. The latter is what truly determines our outlook.
Biologically speaking, we are designed to survive and this survival instinct leads us to attend and remember negative events much more than positive ones. This in part explains the point of view of pessimists. It also explains why most of us are much quicker to recall bad memories and unpleasant experiences than the good things that have happened to us. Depressed individuals are exceptionally proficient at noticing negative events in their lives, often to the exclusion of any positive event. Actually, a large part of therapy with people who are suffering from depression centers around teaching them to look at the world as it is, balancing out the good, the bad and the neutral.
What optimists do differently than the rest of us then is that they attend to the good and the positive aspects of their world. A true healthy optimist is not necessarily unrealistic, they are not focusing on the positive to the exclusion of the negative. They are simply paying more attention than you to the things that are good and to the experiences that bring them pleasure and joy. Anyone can learn to do this, and everyone can benefit from this shift in perspective. The act simply requires some mindfulness skills, and specifically the ability to pay attention to one’s experiences openly and purposefully.
I have this exercise I recommend to my patients and that I myself practice, sometimes more consistently than others, which I call moments of bliss (MOB). It entails simply training yourself to attend to your daily experiences, and while doing so trying to identify moments, instants really, where life feels right. Examples of moments of bliss are all around you: that first sip of hot coffee in the morning, getting a piece of mail that you were waiting for, noticing the beauty of a bird’s song, hearing a favorite tune on your ride to work, a smile from a stranger or a friend, a quiet lunch break, a meal waiting for you at home, or a load of laundry someone else has taken the time to fold. What constitutes a moment of bliss is entirely dependent on the individual. Do not be fooled, this can be more challenging than it seems, especially on a day where the negatives outweigh the positives. People who attempt this and practice developing the skill, however, all report improved moods and a greater sense of satisfaction with their life. So why not give it a try, and if you are up to it maybe post a few of your MOBs on Life in Focus’ Facebook page. Because who couldn’t use a bit more life satisfaction?