When recovering from addiction or even when considering getting sober, a positive attitude is a huge asset. For one thing, it’s hard to put much effort into recovery if you don’t think it’s possible. Optimism also enhances the quality of your recovery. Studies have shown that optimism has many benefits, including a more engaged style of coping and less avoidance, more goal-oriented behavior, more resilience, and even better health.
Unfortunately, most people considering entering addiction treatment or just beginning recovery aren’t burdened with an excess of optimism. The decision to seek help typically comes at a personal low point, when they can no longer ignore the seriousness of their substance use issues. What’s more, many people with substance use issues also struggle with co-occurring depression and anxiety disorders, neither of which are conducive to positive thinking.
If that describes you, there is still hope. While some of our optimism is determined by genes and childhood experiences, a lot of it comes down to our thinking and behavior and we can learn to be more optimistic with persistent practice. Here are some tips for seeing the glass as half full.
If you’re currently a pessimist, one of the biggest challenges to being more optimistic is that you probably have a mental image of optimists as naive and perhaps slightly irritating people – Pollyannas who are just one good deed away from getting taken for all they have. The reality is a bit more complicated. First, it’s important to realize that we are all, to varying degrees, risk averse because erring on the side of caution helps us survive. However, the reason optimists exist and often thrive is that we need to accept some level of risk to survive and grow. If you are too pessimistic, not only are you exaggerating threats more than average, you’re limiting your opportunities. A more clear-eyed view of optimism is to think of it as seeing the possibilities and the threats and not just the threats.
Another common misconception about optimism or positivity is that it means rarely or never experiencing negative emotions. In reality, that’s impractical. We all feel sad, angry, frustrated, depressed, bored, anxious, afraid, and jealous sometimes. Often these are normal and healthy reactions to common life events. What’s not helpful is to believe these emotions are inherently wrong or bad. When you try to suppress these emotions or criticize yourself for feeling them, you only end up feeling worse. In fact, studies show that people who are most accepting of their emotions tend to have fewer depressive symptoms and less negative affect when under stress. Positivity is not about feeling good all the time but rather about knowing things can get better.
This is an exercise recommended by positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman. The idea is simple: each night before you go to bed, write down three things that went well that day and why they went well. This helps shift your attention from the bad things, which we naturally pay more attention to, to things that are going well or that we did well.
Gratitude, like optimism, has been shown to have many benefits, including better health, better sleep, better relationships, greater well-being, and more optimism. There are primarily two ways to cultivate gratitude. The first is similar to the “three good things” exercise above, except that you write down three things you’re grateful for. They can be big things or small things.
The other big gratitude practice is to write a gratitude letter. Think of something someone has done for you that you haven’t adequately thanked them for. Write a letter describing what it was and what it meant to you. Then, you can either deliver the letter in person or not. Researchers at Stanford found that writing gratitude letters helped reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in participants, even if they didn’t deliver the letter. However, if you do decide to deliver it, it can be a nice little boost for your relationship.
As noted above, being more optimistic isn’t necessarily a matter of exclusively seeing the positive, but rather enlarging your view to include the positive as well as the negative. Many of our cognitive biases cause us to take an excessively negative view of the world and ourselves. For example, many people are afflicted by the cognitive distortion of catastrophizing, the belief that some outcome will be indescribably awful. For example, your boss criticizes something you did at work, so you instantly assume you’ll get fired and end up homeless. In reality, we don’t really know what will happen, but most of the time, it’s not that bad.
Positivity researchers have identified two particular traits of optimists: when good things happen, they assume they are responsible for them and that good things will continue to happen in the future. When bad things happen, they assume circumstances are to blame and they will fare better under different circumstances. Pessimists are the exact opposite. They see good things as accidents and bad things as the normal state. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle, but it’s certainly to your advantage to think of failures as the result of temporary circumstances.
Finally, a lot of your attitude depends on who you spend time with. If you spend time with positive people, you are more likely to be positive and if you spend time with negative people, you are more likely to be negative. This is one reason a sober network is such a huge asset. A 12-Step meeting is a place you can go regularly and be assured that you will be surrounded by people focused on sobriety.
No one can be positive all the time. Even the most optimistic people who have ever lived have faced setbacks they didn’t know if they could ever overcome. Often, it comes down to a willingness to keep trying. At Enlightened Solutions, we know that recovery is a journey and how it goes depends a lot on your outlook. That’s why we emphasize a holistic approach and a positive environment. To learn more about our programs, explore our website or call us today at 833-801-LIVE.
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