It’s all going to be OK.
Is that something you often tell yourself? Or are you more inclined to think it’s not going to be OK? Or maybe you actually think that it’s all going to be brilliant, not just OK, or perhaps that it’s all going to be dreadful. Why am I asking these questions? Well, partly because I’ve just written a feature on optimism and pessimism – for which I did far too much research – and partly because of some things I heard at an event on the self-help industry last night hosted by Psychologies Magazine in London.
Doing all my research into optimism really got me thinking about my own outlook on life. Could it be that I’m actually a pessimist, despite really wanting to be an optimist? Or am I a bit of both? I guess the latter has to be true – and perhaps for most of us – but I’m definitely prone to some negative thinking or rather a lot of it, as I also noted in my All will be well post a while back. I’m a worrier. A ruminator. Like cattle chewing the cud, I turn things over and over in my mind. It has its advantages – I’m particularly diligent with my work, for example. But it can be time-consuming and exhausting.
Martin Seligman, credited as the founder of positive psychology, wrote about rumination in Learned Optimism, which I’ve just read as part of my article research. Rumination, he said, is associated with a pessimistic outlook, or what he called a pessimistic ‘explanatory style’. And it can lead to depression.
He also wrote that failure can occur when talent and desire are present in abundance but optimism is missing. This has really got me thinking about my work. We can have all the talent in the world but if we don’t have self-belief, faith or optimism, nobody in the world will ever get to know about our talent. It’s the self-belief, faith or optimism that’ll help us be persistent, determined and resilient in the face of setbacks.
And the art of hope, Seligman wrote, is finding temporary and specific causes for our misfortune, rather than permanent and universal ones. This reminds me to avoid phrases like “I’m rubbish at this” or “this always happens to me” or “I’ll never be any good at that” and instead to look for reasons why something might not have worked out, learn from my experience and move on. I can apply this to my writing and journalism, to my relationships, activities or sports. Take yoga, for example. I’m not a natural. Or rather my body has become rather inflexible over the years. Ever since I gave up my regular gymnastics class as a young girl to go to Girl Guides instead, I’ve not done much bending or stretching. I’ve done a lot of running, cycling and swimming – but very little bending and stretching. So, my negative thought patterns would lead me to assume I’ll never be any good at yoga. But if I really think about it, I know I can become more flexible if I practise it often (which I’m not right now, I should add, despite being all fired up about yoga when I wrote Our core is mush back in July). I know I can learn to be more bendy and, in time, I might be able to do some of the moves more dedicated yogis can do. Similarly, I can learn to be a more persistent and disciplined freelance journalist or a more patient friend or, according to Seligman’s Learned Optimism book, a more positive person.
That said, it seems our way of thinking was shaped very early on in our lives. As psychotherapist and author Philippa Perry said at last night’s Psychologies event, our basic belief system – ie. the idea that everything will turn out alright or that it won’t – is formed during the first two years of our lives. If we had a secure base and felt loved and protected, we’ll likely form a more positive mindset. If we didn’t, we’ll have an in-built belief that we’re not OK, not loved or not safe and we’ll go in search of something outside ourselves to give us this sense that we’re OK, loved or safe. This might be through relationships, work, money or whatever. Sometimes with harmful consequences.
The good news is that the brain, although formed in those early years, remains plastic and we can direct it to think in a different way. Now, I’m not an expert but I’m guessing we might not be able to replace that initial belief system completely but we can find ways to compensate for it. Philippa, author of Couch Fiction, also made the point that since our early belief system is formed through relationship with our primary caregivers, the best way to change this belief system is through relationship with others. Hence why so many people find therapy useful, and more useful than self-help books.
But what about the self-help industry? Does it help? Well, I haven’t got time or space to answer that here so I’ll direct you to Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman, who spends a lot of time writing about it and has compiled his columns into a book entitled Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done. Oliver also spoke at last night’s Psychologies event. As the owner of too many self-help books – some of which I’ve had to read for work, others I’ve wanted to read for reasons of ‘self-improvement’ – I liked what Oliver had to say in favour of approaches to change that are “incremental or modest” as opposed to ones that promise to deliver dramatic results. As he mentioned, a lot of the advice in self-help books is common sense and you can find it in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, in the Bible or in the works of other religions.
Nevertheless, I guess we all need a little bit of help, from books, friends and some of us from therapists – not necessarily in that order! But I think the key is to take all that advice, sit with it and work out which bit of it is relevant or helpful to our lives. I’ve definitely been guilty in the past, and sometimes in the present, of thinking other people or books can give me the answers to my problems. But I’m learning that I have those answers, when I take the time to listen to myself and trust my instinct. And believe that it’s all going to be OK.