Now more than ever seems both a challenging and imperative time to embrace optimism. Not in spite of reality, but because of it. That’s not to say we should take up living in denial of the unknowns, worries, and stressors of life during global pandemic. Instead, it’s to say that we stand to gain richly from focusing not just on the cracks in the foundations of our lives wreaked by Covid-19, but the light that shines through them. Sometimes, it’s the scariest, most upturning moments in life that are the richest opportunities for reminding us who we are, what we are capable of, and what we value most.
This is where optimism plays its vital role. As a recently published article in the New York Times reports, longitudinal studies demonstrate a strong correlation between optimism in the face of all life’s challenges—from trauma to loss to aging to life’s natural changes—and positive health outcomes, including greater longevity and reduced cardiovascular distress. While pessimists “bathe their bodies in damaging stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine all day long,” which increases “inflammation in the body and fosters metabolic abnormalities,” optimists “reframe challenging circumstances and react to them in less stressful ways.” By curtailing their stress responses, optimists decrease their fight-or-flight stress hormones, lower inflammation, and tax their cardiovascular system less. And that’s just the biological benefit of optimism.
But what about our mentality? Our emotions? What does optimism mean and how does it benefit us in those ways? In the words of social researcher Brené Brown, optimism is not so much chasing “extraordinary moments to find happiness,” but rather recognizing what’s “right in front of me if I’m paying attention and practicing gratitude.” In other words, optimism isn’t denying what’s hard or frail about life, but it’s seeing possibility, hope, beauty, and significance, even in the vulnerable moments.
Gratitude for all that is good even in times of hardship is the gateway to optimism. It’s soaking up sunshine and reminding ourselves that though we’ve gone days without brightness as clouds darkened the sky, light has always come back. It’s holding hands with those share space with, talking on the phone, Skyping, and recalling happy memories while making plans for new ones when the future allows. It’s practicing presence to today, instead of worrying about tomorrow; going for that socially-distanced walk, reading a delightful book, laughing and daydreaming, helping ourselves live into the positive belief that though not everything is in our control, there is so much we can take charge of—our mindset, our openheartedness, our optimism.