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Does it seem to you that everyone is anxious about something these days? Can you even remember the last time you met a chilled, positive person?
In fact it seems almost irresponsible to be optimistic in the face of the challenges we’re being constantly told we are facing – climate change, political divisions, violence, even brand new apartment buildings that are unsafe to live in! How can anyone be expected to channel their inner Pollyanna when we’re being bombarded with messages that our world is unsafe.
So does that mean optimism is dead? No, it doesn’t, but its meaning and application have evolved. Economist and policy entrepreneur, Paul Romer makes a distinction between two very different types of optimism, what he calls complacent optimism and conditional optimism.
Complacent optimism is the feeling of a child waiting for presents. Conditional optimism is the feeling of a child who is thinking about building a treehouse. “If I get some wood and nails and persuade some other kids to help do the work, we can end up with something really cool.”
In the first example, the child is passively waiting for someone else to take action; in the second, the child has an idea and is taking the initiative to make it happen and engaging with others to join in and share the fun.
So how does that affect my life? Well, here’s an example. I might be hoping that someone, somewhere comes up with strategies to mitigate the effects of global warming – just like that child waiting for a present. Or I can decide to make some changes in my life towards reducing consumption and waste, actions I do have control over. And maybe I can even encourage other people to do the same. I may not slow down global warming but I am increasing my resilience to rumination and generalized anxiety by taking action.
Simply emoting about a problem we have no control can be enough to trigger the body’s autonomic emergency response, the fight or flight response to threat and activate the release of the stress hormones, adrenal and cortisal. This in turn drives anxious thoughts and uncomfortable body responses like shortness of breath, racing heart, tingling or sweaty hands.
So the next time you find yourself shouting at the TV screen or getting upset about the state of the world, ask yourself some simple questions is there anything I can to change this? Does it really impact my everyday life? Can I choose not to allow this into my life? What do I want to focus on instead?
Be optimistic by taking control over those things you can change and in doing so settle those anxious racing thoughts and perhaps even teach the body a new calmer response. Be that chilled, positive person!