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The+Art+of+Inspired+Living

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Published by: Krishnamoorthy Thiagaradjane on Sep 11, 2012
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‘The mind is its own place, and in itself can make
a heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven’

(John Milton)

Welcome to Principle No. 5: the power of optimism. In this chapter
you will discover:

whether your current attitude is holding you back from achieving
what you want;

how becoming more optimistic can improve your health, happi-
ness, and levels of success;

how to achieve a more empowering, optimistic perspective.

When Anne Frank said, ‘I don’t think of all the misery but of the
beauty that still remains’, she was describing the one power we can
always exercise, regardless of the situation in which we find our-
selves: the power to choose how we see things. Amid the horrors
of incarceration in a concentration camp, Anne Frank exercised her
power of choice to see not just the despair, but the beauty that lay
beyond.

At a time when the power of positive thinking seems to be all
the rage, it is easy to become cynical about optimism. After all, bad
things do happen to good people and we cannot always determine
what happens to us. But we canchoose how we respond. Whether
we sink into the depths of despair or embrace what experience has
to offer is, to some extent, a reflection of how we exercise our

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power of choice. In this sense, the art of inspired living has less to
do with the circumstances in which we find ourselves than it does
the perspectives we bring to those circumstances.
How do you respond to setbacks in life? After the initial disap-
pointment has subsided do you look at them objectively and see
what you can do differently next time? Or ruminate on them
endlessly, blaming yourself or others for failing? And what about
the future, including your beliefs about your ability to achieve your
goals? Are you cynical about your prospects for change? Do you
worry endlessly about what the future may have in store or trust
yourself to handle whatever comes along? Write your thoughts
about these questions in your learning log.

Karen’s story

When Karen came to see me, she was depressed. Her partner of six
years, with whom she had hoped to start a family, had recently left
her. Her self-esteem was in tatters, she was struggling to cope, and
had been signed off work with depression. ‘I feel like such a fail-
ure,’ she told me. ‘It’s all my fault Robert left, I always ruin my
relationships. I’m obviously destined to be alone. I just don’t see
the point any more.’
Karen was describing a sense of hopelessness true of many
people who are experiencing depression. The loss of her partner,
and the loss of her dream of starting a family with him, had trig-
gered a belief that life was pointless and that she would always feel
as unhappy as she did right then. She felt negative about herself,
the world, and her future.
When I talked to Karen a bit longer, I discovered that she had
always tended to look on the bleak side of things. ‘I have always
been a “cup half empty” person,’ she admitted. ‘But it’s better to
be realistic than to have your hopes ruined. Besides, my life is a
mess, so what’s the point of positive thinking? I’d just be kidding
myself.’

Karen was missing the point. She was confusing optimism with
‘positive thinking’ and was mistaking her current feelings of
despair for an accurate appraisal of her circumstances. She is not
alone in this. Many people believe that being pessimistic is a more

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realistic way to view the world. Perennial pessimists will even tell
you that there are benefits to anticipating the worst. It is not
unusual, for example, for people to choose a negative outlook in
an attempt to prevent disappointment: ‘If I expect the worst, I
won’t be disappointed’ is the rule that guides their outlook. But
there is a terrible price to be paid for this type of attitude.

The price you pay for your pessimism

If you see yourself as one of life’s pessimists, prepare yourself for a
shock. Studies in psychology have shown that a pessimistic mind-
set has a powerful negative influence on our health and happiness.
Not only has pessimism been linked to depression and, in extreme
cases, suicidal behaviour, but when we live our lives under its
shadow, we are likely to under-perform at work and fail to achieve
our goals. Pessimism even seems to affect the immune system,
making us susceptible to illness and disease.
Pessimism also saps our energy and love of life. Think of some-
one whom you would see as pessimistic. How do they respond to
challenges and setbacks? Their attitude may be one of doom and
gloom or they may exude an air of cynicism that veils a quiet
desperation. Think about how you feel after you have spent time
with them. Positive or negative? Energized or drained? Do you
enjoy being around them? Probably not.
Optimism, in contrast, has a major role to play in increasing the
amount of satisfaction we get from life. Studies show that opti-
mism is essential to success in many careers, including sales and
competitive sports where rejection and apparent ‘failures’ are
commonplace.

Think of someone you know who is naturally optimistic. How
does this person respond to challenges and setbacks? What kind of
energy do they radiate into the world? How do you feel after you
have spent time with them? Do you enjoy spending time with
them? Probably.

But why should optimism and pessimism have such a powerful
impact? Both these attitudes give out and attract back a certain
type of energy that becomes self-fulfilling. The more optimistic
you are, the more positive energy you radiate into the world, which

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in turn attracts positive reactions from others – the very kinds of
reactions you need to open up new opportunities. Conversely, a
pessimistic outlook sends out negative energy, which leads others
to react in an equally negative way. To some extent, it seems, we
get what we expect.
As life coach Fiona Harrold observes, our outlook informs, if
not determines, our landscape of expectations and possibilities.
And yet, rather than expand our range of choices, many of us
prefer to adopt inflexible and restricting beliefs that we fight to
hold on to. So, whatever Attitude you choose from now on, you
need to be clear about its impact and whether it is helping you
move in the direction of the life you want.

Optimism and pessimism: different mindsets
for different ends

Being optimistic is not about seeing the positive in everything. Nor
is it about adopting a blind faith in the goodness of humankind.
Total optimism in all situations is naïve, even dangerous. For
example, if you start to experience chest pains whenever you take
physical exercise and you have a history of heart problems in your
family, to tell yourself that it is just indigestion could be overlook-
ing an important message that your body is giving you. A healthy
level of pessimism leads you to take action when action is required
– in this case, seeing a doctor. Making a will, taking out life assur-
ance, and buckling your seat belt are similar examples of healthy
pessimism: you hope you will not need them, but by anticipating
the worst, can protect yourself from possible hazards.
The problem occurs when pessimism starts to permeate your
life in a way that limits your choices. If you see most things
through the mental filter of pessimism, life becomes a disaster
waiting to happen. You spiral into a vortex of negativity that soon
feels impossible to break out of, fuelling feelings of helplessness,
hopelessness, and despair, much like Karen.
Many of these mental filters simply come down to habit. If you
get into the habit of interpreting everything through a pessimistic
lens, your outlook on life will be equally negative. Similarly, if you
adopt the habit of interpreting events through an optimistic lens,
your outlook will be more constructive.

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Optimism, then, is the mental habit of perceiving and interpret-
ing events in a particular way. You can learn to develop this habit in
much the same way you might develop any other good habit such
as eating healthily or taking regular exercise. If you are not used to
it, it may feel strange to begin with, but the more you do it, the
easier it will get – and the results will be well worth your while.
Here are some of the benefits you can expect from developing a
more optimistic perspective:

feeling more inspired by your life;

making the most of your gifts and talents;

being more appreciative of your relationships;

honouring your priorities and values;

turning challenges and setbacks to your advantage;

solving problems more easily;

being able to take advantage of new opportunities.

The true nature of optimism

Having described some of the benefits you can expect from adopt-
ing a more optimistic Attitude, let’s look at the nature of optimism
in more detail. If it is primarily a mental habit, what is the nature
of that habit and how can you acquire it?
Ground-breaking research by the American psychologist Martin
Seligman and his colleagues has revealed fundamental differences
between optimists and pessimists, not just in terms of whatthey
think, but more importantly howthey think.
What Seligman and his colleagues have discovered is that opti-
mists and pessimists explain events in fundamentally different
ways. Pessimists explain setbacks in ways that are personal (‘It’s my
fault’), pervasive (‘My whole lifeis ruined’), and permanent (‘It’ll
alwaysbe like this’). But optimists see negative events as imper-
sonal (‘It’s one of those things’), impermanent (‘It will pass’), and
situation-specific (‘This is a tough situation but other areas of my
life are working really well and I still have a lot going for me’). For
optimists, difficulties are problems to be solved, not an indication
of their flaws as a human being. Pessimists, in contrast, ‘own’ their
difficulties and see them as all-encompassing.

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As you might expect, this pattern is reversed for successes: it is
the optimists who interpret positive events in a personal, perma-
nent and pervasive way and the pessimists who put them down to
‘fluke’ events. In short, the difference between the Optimistic and
Pessimistic mindset can be seen in Table 1.

Which categories do you tend to fall into? Think about a time
in your life when something went well for you. How did you
explain it? To what did you attribute your success? Write any
insights in your learning log.
Now remember a time when something didn’t go well – an
event that left you feeling disappointed, disillusioned, or fed up.
How did you explain this? To what did you attribute the difficulty?
What did you believe it was telling you about yourself or your life?
Again, write your thoughts in your learning log.
On balance, are you a natural optimist or, someone who leans
towards the pessimistic end of the spectrum?

Transform your pessimism into inspirational optimism

One of the best ways to start developing an optimistic outlook is,
paradoxically, to get to know your pessimistic mindset. Although it

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Table 1.The mindset of the optimist and the pessimist.

Type of situation

Optimistic style

Pessimistic style

You see bad events as:

Temporary

Permanent

You see good events as:

Permanent

Temporary

You see bad events as:

Specific to that

Pervasive (relating

situation

to all of your life)

You see good events as:

Pervasive

Specific to that
situation

You see bad events as:

Not personal (you

Personal (you

attribute them to

attribute them to

an external cause)

an internal cause)

You see good events as:

Personal (down to you)Not personal
(down to luck or
chance)

Corrie Revs & correx 2/16/09 1:37 PM Page 84

may have exerted a powerful negative influence at certain times,
you have been doing it for a reason. Try viewing your pessimistic
perspective as a misguided friend: someone who has your best inter-
ests at heart but whose dire warnings are often wide of the mark.
The following exercise is designed to help you discover what
motivates your pessimistic Attitude and how you can transform it
into an outlook that is truly empowering.

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