Personal Growth

How to Stay Optimistic During Tough Times

There’s a dark and a troubled side of life. There’s a bright and a sunny side too. But if you meet with the darkness and strife, the sunny side we also may view.” Keep on the Sunny Side of Life

Since 1899 when Keep on the Sunny Side of Life was written, artists like Johnny Cash have belted out its positive lyrics. The song urges people to choose an optimistic view of life, especially during challenging and trying circumstances. The cheery tune reminds us how optimism can help us navigate life’s challenges – if we let it. Optimism is a choice; it is not an inherited gene or pre-determined personality trait. With practice and conscious effort, optimism can be learned.

Research tells us that life tends to be more manageable for optimists. Optimists experience increased physical, mental and emotional health benefits. They manage stress better and demonstrate resilience and strength during illness and life stressors. At work, optimism has been linked to overall work happiness, increased motivation, improved task-orientation, and better problem-solving. Thus, being optimistic is good for you – personally and professionally.

Defining Optimism

Optimism is characterized by how you define events and circumstances. An optimistic thinker tends to view positive events as evidence that more positive things will follow and that the events occurred because of something they did. They view negative events as isolated events separate from other life areas.

Optimism is ultimately all about how you perceive things. Do you focus on the good and what is working well in your life, or do your thoughts dwell on the negative and what is not working well?

“Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as on the pessimist, but the optimist weathers them better.” -Dr. Martin Seligman

Below are four strategies for thinking more optimistically. These strategies, adapted from Positive Psychology, are based in science and research.

1. Speak to Yourself Differently

Be mindful of, and challenge, the ‘voice in your head’ or your ‘inner critic.’ In other words, change how you speak…to yourself. Research shows that changing your self-talk can positively affect your ability to manage negative thoughts, feelings and behavioural patterns. Choose self-talk messages that are self-helping, vs. self-hindering. A powerful way to do this is to speak to yourself as you would a good friend – supportively, with positive encouragement and without negative judgement.

2. Retrain your Brain

Through a practice called cognitive restructuring, you can learn to adopt a more optimistic mindset. Think of a current situation you consider to be negative in your life; write down the automatic thoughts that come to your mind. Search for negative thinking patterns. For example, are you viewing yourself harshly? Are you viewing the event in an extreme way, such as assuming the situation signals a never-ending pattern? Consider alternative, more realistic, and helpful thoughts to challenge your automatic negative thoughts. The key is to challenge the negative thoughts quickly and work to replace them with more helpful thinking patterns.

Consider alternative, more realistic, and helpful thoughts to challenge your automatic negative thoughts.

3. Focus on the Positive, Three at a Time

Try the ‘three good things exercise’ for an immediate transport to an optimistic thinking landscape. List three positive things that happened in your day and reflect on what caused them. Your three things can be simple, like having a good meal or tackling an important deadline. In a team setting, at work, one can ask the question: what three things went right with the project today? What did we (the team) do to make those good things happen? The more you do this exercise, the more you train your brain to look for the positives.

4. Picture your Best Self

The Best Possible Self (BPS) exercise is a mental time travel exercise, where you envision yourself in an imaginary future in which everything has turned out in the best possible way. You have achieved the things you wanted to in life and things have unfolded as you wanted. Researchers have determined that visualizing positive outcomes can transform your mindset and life outlook. Write about your BPS on paper or sit quietly for five minutes and visualize. Let the words or images flow naturally, without the need to judge what you’ve written or visualized.

What can thinking more optimistically bring to your life? Increased health benefits, improved mood and the ability to tackle life’s challenges more effectively. Remember, optimism is a choice – and if you chose it, you might just see the sunny side after all.

For additional information on getting through tough times, check out our printable handout, Building a Coping Toolkit. For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


Jennifer Kelly

Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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