A quality of character that I receive a lot of commentary on is my positivity.
“Are you ever upset?”
“Are you always smiling?”
“How are you so positive all the time?”
Optimism is a quality of character that needs to be practiced and developed. Some are lucky enough to be taught positivity through their environment, but most of us, including myself, have to cultivate positivity the same way we cultivate other qualities that lead to wisdom.
This is not helped by the fact that our culture values cynicism and independence over optimism and connection. We are taught to mistrust others’ motives, to look out for ourselves above all else, and to stay vigilant lest we be taken advantage of. This leads us to compare ourselves to others constantly, especially through social media, and to feel personally attacked by the universe whenever we encounter challenges. A story emerges: it’s us against the world.
Let’s call cynicism what it is: a belief that the world is getting worse and that there is no changing it. It is helplessness, cloaked in contempt and indifference.
Optimism, therefore, is the belief that it is possible to change, to transform ourselves and our environment into something better. Optimism is empowerment, and it is a choice.
Complaining is a vast, black-hole void that we willingly throw ourselves into. Think about this: what are the things that we most commonly complain about?
-Time (or lack thereof).
We have no control over the weather. It is what it is, and we will be living through it no matter what we do. Then why do we feel the need to complain about it?
We have no control over other people. What other people do is often a mystery to us, and when faced with mystery, we fill in the gaps of our knowledge with assumptions. Most of the time, we assume the worst--that other people are incompetent, thoughtless, or evil. Why do we make this assumption? Are we, the complainers, incompetent, thoughtless, or evil? We can choose to know that we don’t have all of the facts. We can choose to believe that other people are doing their best, just as we are.
A lack of time is another thing we complain about, yet this differs from the weather and other people in that how we spend our time is 100% within our control. Some of our privileges do come with time demands (having children, for example), but those privileges are always within our control.
We complain when we feel helpless. When we feel helpless, we become frustrated, and frustration leads to ranting, venting, whatever we want to call that state of constant complaining about things that are outside of our control. We perform a cycle of helplessness and complaining that loops over and over.
Shifting away from complaining, simply choosing to not do so, requires a shift in perspective. Not everything in our lives is worthy of comment, consideration, or opinion. What we choose to think and speak about is within our control, and we can choose to think and speak about the things that make life precious, richer. We can think about how to solve problems rather than lament that we have them. We empower ourselves by choosing a perspective of optimism.
Our social structure is built around status. Who has the most followers and friends? Who has the shoes, the bag, the body? Which among the friend group makes the most money, has the best house, job, education, relationship? Who got married first or more expensively? Who’s always getting texts and messages and tons of likes on their posts? Who’s always got plans on the weekend? Who seems like they’re constantly achieving the goals they set?
We are wired to value and seek social status--our early ancestors needed status in order to survive. While we are still living in a society where more wealth improves our chances at survival, most of our status-chasing is based around superficiality. Double taps do not increase our likelihood of surviving.
Comparing ourselves to others and measuring our worth through external, superficial means is a path towards madness, because status is an illusion. It is worth based on others’ imagination of our fulfillment. Real fulfillment is achieved by knowing our values, knowing our direction, and executing our plan for personal growth.
There is a concept in Stoic philosophy called amor fati, meaning “love fate.” To love fate means more than accepting the uncontrollables in our lives; it means that we can develop a positive relationship with adversity. We can be grateful for the opportunities that fate presents to develop our character.
Very little in our lives is within our control, but the one thing that is always within our control, that can never be taken away from us, is the ability to control our thoughts. Our perspective on situations can only be influenced with our permission.
Some events in life are traumatic--being abused, enduring war, nearly drowning, or the death of a loved one. These are not events that we would wish on anyone, yet, when they happen to us, we have a choice in how we allow those events to influence our thoughts and our behavior. Do we choose to see the world as against us? Do we choose anger, hate, and disconnection?
Or can we choose a different perspective? Can we accept that events happen, good, bad, and neutral, and that any adversity we’ve been presented with is an opportunity to grow in character, to become a more valuable friend, spouse, sibling, or community member? An opportunity to show ourselves the greatness that we are capable of?
Positivity pays us in contentedness and wisdom, yet it is impossible to cultivate on our own, especially when facing adversity. We’ve romanticized independence to such a degree that people believe that seeking out connection is a weakness. The fact is, we need other people. Research demonstrates that connection and self-worth are achieved through vulnerability. The situations in our lives that challenge us are the most valuable opportunities we have for connecting with others. Inner strength is not antithetical to vulnerability; vulnerability is a demonstration of our strength.
When we choose to complain, we choose to do nothing: to accept the unacceptable.
Sometimes we don’t realize just how much time we spend complaining about the things we have no control over.
As an exercise, keep a notebook with you for a day and make a mark on it each time you complain. For a more advanced version, create sections for each of these uncontrollables: weather, other people, and time, and see which ones occupy your mind the most.
Complaining about time? A time audit can be an instructive tool for creating more time to do the things we want to do.
For 3 days, write out what you do each hour of the day. Then assess your days to see if there are ways to carve out time for what replenishes you or allows you to reach your goals. It is sometimes quite shocking to see how much time we waste
The difference between complaining and seeking support is in the intention. Complaining blames others and external circumstances for why we are upset. When we seek support, we acknowledge our responsibility for how we’re feeling. We share our struggle in order to better understand ourselves and what is within our control. When we complain, we are seeking pity or attention.
Vulnerability takes practice. We are sometimes so buried within the habit of bearing our trials alone that we may not know where to begin.
Who are the people you can go to to express your vulnerability? Who can you trust to be by your side when you’re scared or when you’re confused? Who listens and tries to understand you? Begin there.