Right this second, someone is recording a Youtube video, grinning from ear to ear, trying to sell you on the idea that if you’re not happy, there’s something wrong with you. Even worse, there’s probably also someone writing an article claiming they can show you how to fix it in seven easy steps.
First off, there is nothing wrong with you. If you don’t want to run around the streets naked right now or aren’t at the verge of a positivity-induced ecstatic breakdown, that’s just fine. What’s not fine is that there is a massive storm of fake happiness going on out there, and it leads to the kind of bad advice and “just be happy” bullying I just mentioned.
Today, you and I will identify, criticize, and debunk fake happiness. You will learn why people confuse happiness and something else, namely optimism. You will understand the true meaning and definition of optimism.
We will also learn how science defines optimism, which traits make a person optimistic, and how you can develop those traits in yourself, no matter whether you are an optimist or a pessimist right now. Let’s start by looking at 200 million pieces of terrible advice.
This is the flood of results you get when you google “how to be happy:” Some 270 million results – each one a piece of advice from someone who has likely neither understood the concept of happiness nor would consider themselves a very happy person to begin with:
And what kind of advice too…
This is one of the top results on Google. Really guys? You’re telling me to fake it? And to not treat myself when I’m feeling down, only to give the exact opposite tip next? What the f*ck is going on?
This has to stop. In a recent video, #1 Youtuber Pewdiepie hit the nail on the head. I’ve marked the most interesting part of his rant about this topic, just click below to watch the 1-minute excerpt:
Not only does it not help if we depict not being in a permanent state of pleasure as dysfunctional, it actually hurts those who are weak already, spurring them even further towards depression.
The kind of happiness people want when they google for it is not the kind of happiness a young girl feels when she opens her birthday present. It’s the long-term happiness of living a good life and being aware of it, with a bright outlook on the future that’s hard to shatter.
To me, it seems like many people confuse being happy with being optimistic.
Hence, this article is meant to do three things:
- Clear some of the confusion around happiness and what long-term satisfaction with life is really about.
- Explain what it means to be optimistic, what separates pessimists from optimists and how you’ve ended up as one or the other.
- Show you how you can go from being a pessimist to being an optimist and why that’s a good idea in the first place.
It’s long, will make you think and hopefully, it’ll be the last thing you’ll read about this topic for a long time. Let’s get started!
For easier reference, here’s a table of contents that lets you jump to different sections:
Table of Contents
- Debunking Happiness With Definitions
- Optimism Definition – What Does Optimistic Mean?
- Key Traits Of Optimistic People
- Why Be Optimistic In The First Place?
- Fake Happiness: What Optimism ISN’T
- The Path To Pessimism
- How To Become A True Optimist
- Taking Stock: How Optimistic Are You Right Now?
- What’s Next?
Debunking Happiness With Definitions
When I say people confuse happiness with optimism, that’s mostly a labeling issue.
Imagine your kids tell you they had a new type of cereal at a friend’s house and ask you to bring some from the grocery store. When you ask them what it looks like, all they say is that they were “little loops.” The only loop-shaped cereal you have ever known is Cheerios, so you go to the store and ask for some.
Unless you run into a really sharp store clerk, who tells you that recently, Fruit Loops have been all the hype and that that’s the cereal you’re actually looking for, you’re gonna bring home the wrong kind.
All because no one ever told you that the loops were colored. In the same way, “happiness” has become a catchall phrase for all kinds of things, which have nothing to do with what most people want when they say they’re looking for it.
Luckily, we can understand what’s really going on by simply picking apart some of the definitions of the words we use to describe these things. Let’s start with ‘happiness.’
Happiness is defined as:
We’ll look closer at the word “happy” in a second, but the first clue here is the word ‘state.’ Ask Google what it means and you’ll be told a state is:
“The particular condition that someone or something is in at a specific time.”
The time bit is interesting, because it makes happiness, by definition (literally!), temporary. In computer science, processors are also described in terms of what state they’re in at given times: processing or idle. When a computer gets stuck in either state, no matter which one, that’s bad. It can’t remain in a state forever, because that defies the definition of the word.
In this regard, humans are very similar to computers. If we get stuck in a state – any state – for too long, that’s bad.
Let’s turn to the word ‘happy,’ or, as the Oxford dictionary would have it:
“Feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.”
Aha! It’s a feeling. But aren’t those temporary as well? Definition please!
There it is again. ‘State.’ So being happy cannot be permanent. But what about pleasure and contentment? Those are very different things, how’d they both end up in there?
If I told you to make a list of things that give you ‘pleasure,’ you’d likely put things like ice-cream, cocktails, beach days and, yes, sex on that list. Things you can indulge in. Being ‘content’ is much more on the “I’m fine” end of the spectrum, although it’s not the opposite of pleasure either (that would be discomfort).
Indeed, the range of states the word ‘happy’ describes has become stupendously broad.
To illustrate, here’s a selection of synonyms of the word ‘happy.’ I’ve taken the liberty of separating the ‘pleasure’ ones from the ‘content’ ones.
22 of these are on the contentment side, 29 on the pleasure side. More than half of the ideas we associate with happiness are on the extreme end of the spectrum. They’re outliers.
Clearly, our perception of happiness is imbalanced and it leads us to have the wrong expectations. For example, how many of the people you know and consider to be fairly “happy” on average are in one of the pleasure states every time you meet them? The answer will be close to zero.
Now, what if we adjusted our definition of happiness more towards the middle, centering it more around the contentment part, rather than putting focus on the pleasure side?
What do you call someone with such a definition of happiness?
Someone, who’s content most of the time, regardless of whether they’re going through a rough patch at work or have just won a free trip to Hawaii? A person, who’s neither worried about Donald Trump, nor ecstatic about the latest hyped stock? Someone, who just keeps doing their thing, because they know fluctuations are normal, yet is in good spirits about the future most of the time?
There are people like this. And we have a name for them already. They’re called optimists.
Optimism Definition – What Does Optimistic Mean?
An optimist is, according to Google’s dictionary:
“A person who tends to be hopeful and confident about the future or the success of something.”
Tends to be. That means more often than not, but not all the time.
The word optimism appeared in the English language in the early 1800’s, but only started finding widespread use after 1870. It originates from the Latin adjective ‘optimus,’ which means best. The noun ‘optimum,’ which we still use today to describe the best possible outcome of a situation, transformed over time, yielding ‘optimism’:
Suddenly, there was a doctrine, a belief system someone could subscribe to, if they were in the habit of expecting things to turn out well.
And sure enough, if we look at the synonyms of the word, you’ll likely find yourself reminded of the ‘content’ synonyms of ‘happy’ from earlier: cheerful, cheery, positive, confident, hopeful, sanguine, bullish, buoyant, bright. Cheerful, cheery and buoyant are on both lists, yet none of the ‘pleasure’ synonyms are found.
Let’s sum that up.
Key Traits Of Optimistic People
It looks like optimism is more in line with our adapted perspective on happiness, but what makes one optimistic? I couldn’t possibly give a scientifically well-grounded answer to that, but Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at UPenn and one of the founding fathers of positive psychology, can.
According to Seligman, optimism and pessimism are two different explanatory styles, a concept he described as early as the mid-80s. Your explanatory style decides what you attribute the events in your life to. It’s how you justify why you experience the things you do.
Seligman notes that both styles are acquired traits, which means you can learn to be more optimistic, just like you might have been conditioned to become a pessimist.
He discovered this while researching another famous concept of his, learned helplessness, in which both humans and animals increasingly gave up control over their lives the more they believed they didn’t have any.
For example, in one study participants were given a switch to turn off a disturbing noise while working. Those who had a working switch performed significantly better than those, whose switch didn’t work, regardless of whether they used it or not. It’s the belief of having control that matters, not how much you actually have.
In his 1991 book dedicated entirely to this topic, Learned Optimism, Seligman makes out three characteristics of people with an optimistic explanatory style, based on decades of research. Optimists see problems as:
- Temporary: A spilled coffee does not make a person clumsy.
- Specific: One less-than-average player is not an indicator of a bad team.
- External: Getting splashed by a car is the driver’s fault, not yours.
These three traits give people the perception of control over their lives, which helps overcome learned helplessness and acquire a more optimistic explanatory style. Thus, if you master these three things, you’ll become an optimist.
Time to recap again.
Why Be Optimistic In The First Place?
The fact that so many people confound happiness and optimism is telling in and of itself: they’ll tell you they’re looking for the former when what they’re really seeking is the latter. So whatever this optimism thing is, it’s gotta be pretty powerful.
And it is. Apart from looking forward to the future more, scientific studies have found a wide selection of benefits related to optimism:
- It positively affects how you cope with everyday life and how much negative events affect you.
- Higher levels of optimism indicate improved subjective well-being and perceived health.
- Optimism can buffer your immune system from psychological stress (although this highly depends on the circumstances).
- It can lead to longer survival when faced with a terminal illness.
- An optimistic attitude can help a sports team succeed.
- When students were sorted into optimists and pessimists at UPenn, the optimists did better in school.
- In jobs with lots of rejection, like sales, optimism boosts productivity and job retention.
- Optimists have an easier time taking good care of their bodies, because they believe exercising and eating well make a difference.
- If you’re optimistic you tend to trust and confide in people more, which makes it easier to maintain friendships, which have a positive effect on mental health.
Conversely, subjects in the pessimist category of the noise-and-button-study reported symptoms of depression. So yes, being more optimistic pays off in a whole bunch of ways.
Fake Happiness: What Optimism ISN’T
Sadly, a huge percentage of the information you’ll find online claiming to teach you either to be happy or more optimistic will do neither.
Real optimism is as much knowing you’re going to be okay when you’re not, as it is knowing you’ll be even better than you are right now. This includes accepting when things aren’t okay, instead of putting on an act.
Optimism is not…
- smiling when you don’t feel like it,
- laughing when it’s not funny,
- saying yes when you want to say no,
- pretending it’s okay when it’s not,
…or any other inauthentic behavior that doesn’t feel right. Anyone who tells you otherwise is just trying to brainwash you with the same nonsense that’s already out there. That’s neither happiness nor optimism.
It’s fake happiness.
Once you start paying attention to it, you can spot it quite quickly. It always shines through, because like in our definitions, it’s overly focused on the pleasure side of things. It’s a facade you can only keep up for so long until it crumbles.
For example, Gary Vaynerchuk is someone I perceive to be very content and fulfilled. Yet you’ll rarely hear him sugarcoating things, getting overly excited, or even smile excessively. Just look at this grid of his latest Instagram posts:
Not a lot of “happy” oozing out of these, is there? He’s hardly smiling, always in action and the expression on his face is often one of deep thought. Yet, you’ll hear him talk about optimism and happiness all the time, both of which he claims to have a lot of (and I believe him).
As with material belongings, it’s not about the flashy outside. What’s on the inside is what counts.
Okay, now that we know what real optimism is and where we don’t want to end up, let’s answer the question that gets people into the quagmire of having to figure all this out in the first place: how does someone end up as a pessimist? If you are one, you deserve to know.
The Path To Pessimism
We all start equal. Since both optimism and pessimism are acquired explanatory styles, being a pessimist is a result of conditioning. It has nothing to do with your genetic makeup. Which style we end up using as adults is mostly determined by two parties while we’re growing up:
- Our parents, who we imitate and model ourselves after as children.
- Our (school) teachers, with whom we spend a great amount of our childhood and who yield great influence over us.
Naturally, if your parents are pessimists, you’re likely to become a pessimist too. And if your teacher keeps telling you that “girls just aren’t good at math,” you’ll likely believe it after hearing it a couple of times.
Pessimists hold the opposite perspective of optimists, when it comes to explaining problems. They judge problems as:
- Internal: When their boyfriend leaves them, they think it’s their fault.
- General: They can’t button up a pair of jeans and throw out all of their clothes, because now they believe they’re too fat for all of them.
- Permanent: One screwed-up pitch and they believe they’re bad at sales.
No matter where you begin on the spectrum, if your environment pushes you over the barriers from one to the next of these three traits, you’ll drift more and more into pessimism.
Let’s walk through an example. A few notes:
- Green resembles optimism.
- Red resembles pessimism.
- Clouds represent temporary problems (they come and go).
- The moon represents permanent problems (the moon is always there, after all).
Imagine you’re in college and you fail an exam. That can have a variety of reasons:
- You studied the wrong material.
- You studied the right material, but not to the extent covered in the exam.
- The professor selected a lot of topics you didn’t cover in class.
- You had a bad night’s sleep.
- You’ve been wrestling with a personal issue, which distracted you from learning and in the exam.
- The format of the exam was different from what it was supposed to be.
- Someone made a lot of noise and you couldn’t concentrate.
Regardless of which of these are actually true, it is up to you to choose which ones you blame this failure on. And with the decision, your journey into pessimism starts.
1. Internalizing Problems
The moment you learn you failed the exam, a cloud popped up on your horizon. A small, temporary problem. Whatever the cause, let’s say you decide you failed because you studied only a too small section of the material and memorized it badly. What you’re doing then is taking the external problem and internalizing it.
Okay, not great, but you’re still a fairly optimistic person. You just happen to be carrying around a problem with you. But what if it happens again?
2. Generalizing Problems
Now, you’re not a student who failed an exam any more. You’re a student who failed two exams. Plural! It slowly dawns on you that maybe, you’re not so good at this college thing after all. Now, you see yourself as “a student who fails exams.”
You’ve generalized the problem and connected it to your identity.
3. Making Problems Permanent
Worst comes to worst, you fail a third exam the next semester. As you internalize it, because hey, you fail exams all the time now, you turn the little cloud of a single failed exam into a moon – making it permanent. You sit in horror as you realize that from now on, you will always fail your exams.
If you just so much as hear an exam date, a big, red moon pops up in sight, reinforcing your belief that this is a permanent problem. You stop seeing clouds.
More and more moons appear, each reminding you that all of the problems you see are forever and the situation gets worse.
You continue to internalize all of these problems, making your pessimistic attitude stronger and stronger, until…
…you arrive at the ultimate conclusion: you’re a bad student and should just quit college altogether. There’s nothing to be gained from continuing your studies whatsoever. You drop out of college and become a barista.
But wait, not so fast! It’s not time to become a barista just yet. Because just like you acquired a pessimist mindset on your own, you can maneuver yourself back to being optimistic.
How To Become A True Optimist
Of course going from hardcore pessimist all the way back to optimism will take a lot more effort and time than starting somewhere in the middle and going to either side, but it’s possible. You just have to cross the barriers in the opposite direction again, making your problems temporary, specific and external.
No matter why you ended up as a pessimist and whatever the problems were, you can reverse this process. I don’t know your specific situation, but you can turn this around. Where you start isn’t important and depending on who you are, one of the reversal steps might be easier than the others. Start with that one.
Let’s stick with the college example for now.
1. Making Problems Temporary
When you see moons everywhere, it’s hard to believe that some of the problems in your life are still temporary. But if you can find something manageable and tackle that, it’ll signal you that things aren’t so bad. This could be an easy exam, but even just a test or something else entirely:
- Helping a friend jumpstart their car.
- Cleaning your dorm, washing all your laundry and tidying up your room.
- Cooking dinner for yourself.
The point is to find your belief in problems being solvable again. However, seeing one cloud in a sea of moons might not be enough.
Maybe you’ll have to change your situation entirely, because you can’t see the forest for the trees. For example, you could take a semester off and do volunteer work or help out in your uncle’s dry cleaning business.
When you start fresh it’s a lot easier to look at the first moon you see and realize it’s a cloud after all, because it’s just one problem you’re dealing with.
2. Specifying Problems
Even if you still consider your problems to be permanent, making them specific again can be a huge relief. If you can make the perspective switch from “I’m a bad student who fails all of his exams” to “I’m a bad student who’s failed a bunch of his exams,” that’s an improvement.
Look for opposing evidence. What about the exams you passed before you started failing? Your SATs? How did you get through high school?
You never failed 100% of your exams, it’s just a narrative you’ve created. Zoom out to the big picture and you’ll see your problems aren’t as generic as you think.
3. Externalizing Problems
After you’ve honed in on one of your problems, showing yourself it’s either temporary, specific or both, there’s only one way to externalize it again:
“It’s not my fault.”
Whatever the exterior factors are that can be blamed, blame them. Detach yourself from what caused the problem, so you can focus on solving it. You’re not shedding responsibility, but you’ll stop pointing at the mirror and telling yourself how ugly you are.
For example, you could make a list of all the environmental factors from your failed exams, which weren’t ideal, and cut yourself some slack this way.
So much for the general paths to pessimism and optimism, respectively. Before we wrap this up, I want to give you a tool to find out how optimistic you are right now, as well as three exercises Martin Seligman shares in his book, which you can practice regularly to become an optimist.
Taking Stock: How Optimistic Are You Right Now?
Whatever you do in life, if you don’t get a feel of where you’re at first, it’s hard to take the right steps forward. Stanford University has adapted the optimism test included in Seligman’s book online, which means you can take it any time.
It consists of 48 questions, for each of which you’ll have to pick one of two statements. It took me ten minutes to complete. At the end you’ll be given various scores:
The last one, “Good minus Bad” records your overall level of optimism. The scale is as follows:
Total Optimism Score (G-B)
- 9 or above optimistic across the board
- 6 to 8 moderately optimistic
- 3 to 5 average
- 1 or 2 moderately pessimistic
- 0 very pessimistic
You can download the scales for the other measured variables here.
Once you know your result, you can then try the following three exercises to increase your level of optimism.
Exercise #1: Recording Your ABC’s
This exercise is based on another world-renowned psychologist’s work. Albert Ellis laid the foundation of what is today widely known and recognized as cognitive behavioral therapy. His ABC model can be used to uncover (and get rid of) irrational beliefs:
- A stands for the Activating Event that triggers your inner dialogue.
- B stands for the Belief that you form from the event.
- C stands for the Consequences that follow, namely how your belief makes you feel.
It is important to distinguish thoughts and feelings here. When you’re playing golf with a friend and your shot lands out of bounds (A), a belief could be “I’m a bad golfer” (B), whereas feeling embarrassed and ashamed in front of your friend will be the consequence (C).
Tip: You can also remember A as “Adversity.”
Ellis’s idea was that even negative activating events can be followed by healthy, negative emotions, as long as the beliefs you form are rational. They help you stay inside the temporary-specific-external triangle of optimism.
For example, when you call your girlfriend and she doesn’t pick up (A), you can think “she doesn’t want to talk to me because I’m annoying her” (B1) or “she’s probably busy right now” (B2). B1 will lead you to feel you’re “a bad boyfriend” (C1), whereas B2 is a chance to practice empathy – “I hope she’s having fun, I’ll just try again later” (C2).
Same activating event, entirely different consequence.
As most of our self-talk is unconscious, it helps to deliberately take time to practice this, for example by sitting down at night and writing down five sets of ABCs for your day.
Exercise #2: Belief Disputation
This is directly linked to the first exercise. Once you’ve recorded a bunch of beliefs you carry, you can then debate how rational they are. If we don’t like something, we sometimes go to great lengths to dispute the issue, no matter how vain arguing is. Extending this behavior to a belief that doesn’t serve you can actually make it useful.
These four questions are a good start:
- Is my belief absolutely true without a doubt?
- Could there be any other possible explanation for this?
- What are the implications of my believe if it is true?
- Is what I’m thinking useful to me?
You can do this exercise right while recording your ABCs for the day.
Exercise #3: Externalizing The Voices
Lastly, and this is for advanced practitioners, you can take the negative, irrational beliefs you’ve discovered and, much like your problems, externalize them. Here’s how:
- Sit down with a close friend you trust.
- Give them your list of negative beliefs.
- Have them verbally “attack” you with one of your irrational beliefs, using the same words you’d use yourself.
- Defend yourself out loud, by arguing against your friend.
- Repeat with the next belief.
Because you’re taking what’s in your head and voicing it, this makes everything feel more real, both the negative beliefs, as well as the positive results you’ll get from defending yourself. This must be practiced carefully and in a safe environment, but can change your perspective a lot.
Alright, one last recap!
When I started writing this post, I had no idea it’d end up being a 5,000 piece devoted to a linguistic analysis of happiness and a holistic guide through the science of optimism. I just thought “Pewdiepie’s right, this is not healthy.”
I hope this helped you form a clearer picture of what it means to be happy and will help you shape a more optimistic attitude towards life.
So, what should you do next?
- If you’re a pessimist, start recording your ABCs and debunking your irrational beliefs.
- In case you’re an optimist, but think you could use some more, do the same.
- If you’re an optimist and happy where you are: congrats! Pass this on to a pessimist 😉
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