Between the two poles of optimism and pessimism there exist a continuum. On one end are the optimists who border on delusion and refuse to face reality. The quote “Denial is not a river in Egypt” comes to mind.
On the other end of the spectrum lie the morbid pessimists, who gripe about anything and everything and repel other people. It would be fairly safe to say that neither extreme is constructive.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, pessimism is defined as “an inclination to emphasize adverse events, conditions, and possibilities or to expect the worst possible outcome; the doctrine that reality is essentially evil; the doctrine that evil overbalances happiness in life”. There are few circumstances in which pessimism, as defined in these ways, would increase one’s well-being.
Perhaps a more “positive” cousin of pessimism is the term “cautious”, defined (again by Merriam-Webster dictionary) as utilizing “prudent forethought to minimize risk”. For instance, thinking twice about walking down a dark alley alone in the dead of night sounds wise.
However, what if you’re suffering from clinical depression? What if even getting out of bed in the morning feels agonizing? Trying to be just merely cautious, much less optimistic, when your mind and body tell you that all is lost can seem impossible. No question about it.
Clinical depression, which can stem from a variety of complex factors, including psychological or physical trauma, biochemical imbalances, or chronic stress, does not often go away without a concerted effort.
All the same, positive psychotherapy (PPT) has been shown to alleviate depression, even among people experiencing major depressive disorder.
Researchers at the Positive Psychotherapy Center at the University of Pennsylvania tested PPT techniques in various settings, including informal student, clinical, and Web-based formats. The results demonstrated that internet-based PPT alleviated symptoms of depression for over six months when compared with placebo exercises, which were effective for a few days at most.
In fact, people who suffered from severe depression benefited the most from the Web-based exercises, which included the following:
- Using Your Strengths. The study utilized the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS), which can be found at https://www.viacharacter.org/surveys.aspx (the test is free). However, you can also ask family members and friends to tell you what they consider your greatest assets. Then, make a list of ways in which you can implement these more often each day.
- Three Good Things/Blessings. At the end of each day, list three positive things that occurred and the reasons why.
- Obituary/Biography. Visualize your reaching the end of a meaningful and rich life and what you’d like people to remember about you.
- Gratitude Visit. Who are you grateful for? Think of someone who you have yet to thank for their contributions to your life. Writing a letter to them stating why you’re grateful for them, then contact the person by phone or in person (no texting or e-mailing) and read them the letter.
- Active/Constructive Responding. Once a day (or more), respond in a clearly exuberant and positive manner to hearing favorable news from someone.
- On a daily basis, slow down and enjoy an activity you generally rush through. Take a leisurely walk. Eat a meal mindfully, without simultaneously reading the paper or watching TV. Then make some notes about your activity, what was different, and how it affected you (as opposed to when you hurry).
Give one or more of the above activities a shot. In fact, try them out on a regular basis. (The people in the PPT research studies practiced the techniques from six to 12 weeks.)
Also, practice being compassionate and patient with yourself. Change is challenging. Developing new behaviors is like building an emotional muscle. For instance, if you’re right-handed you wouldn’t expect to print neatly with your left hand immediately.
The good news is that eventually you can become more emotionally “ambidextrous” – optimistic when appropriate, and “cautious” when called for.
Seligman, M.E.P., Rashid, T., & Parks, A.C. (2006). Positive psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 61(8): 774-788.