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Ch-8: Rise Above Anxiety, Anger, and Depression

Mental Control Strategy 5: Optimism

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
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Chapter 8, Part 6,  from You Can Choose To Be Happy,  Tom G. Stevens PhD
Go to book Contents     Return to chapter contents  Return to Dr. Stevens' Home Page

Mental Control Strategy 5:


You can be happy no matter what happens

 Being happy by accepting the worst possible outcomes
 Sample of comforting thoughts
 SUMMARY: Mental Control Strategy 5: OPTIMISM

Interviewing for a job, waiting to hear the results of a test for cancer, or discussing a serious relationship problem can create a high level of anxiety. These situations involve uncertainty about vitally important outcomes. In situations such as these, how do we adjust the thermostat to get into the zone of harmonious functioning?

If we believe that we will get what we want, then we feel more confident. The result of too much uncertainty is anxiety (too much challenge to obtain a state of harmonious functioning.) For most important goals in life, we want more certainty and confidence--not less. We want to feel calmer and less stress--not more.

To increase our mental control over an outcome, it is unnecessary to know that we will obtain the exact outcome we want. We simply need to increase our belief that we will get some outcome that we can be happy with (or at least accept). That optimism will give us increased mental control over our emotions.

Deep optimism depends upon confidence that our ultimate concerns will be satisfied. If we are confident that we and others can be happy despite not getting the job we want, the relationship we want, or the house we want, then we will remain optimistic and in control of our emotions.

However, the more threatening an event is to our ultimate concerns (or highest priority goals) and the more doubt we have that our ultimate concern will be satisfied, the more pessimistic and upset we will be.

Deep optimism refers to our ultimate concerns--confidence that ultimately we will be happy and the world will be ok. There are two basic sources for optimism--confidence in ourselves and confidence in forces outside ourselves.

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Answer the following questions:

(1) Fate is more in control of my life than I am. True or False
(2) Other people seem to have more influence over what happens to me than I do. True or False
(3) "Luck" or chance plays a dominant role in affecting my life. True or False

Believing we control outcomes increases calmness and motivation. Exaggerated beliefs that external causes--nature, luck, fate, other people, or the weather control the outcomes we want can lead to a "why try," apathetic attitude. We can slip into the role of being a weak victim of these powerful external powers. We often learn this attitude from parents who played the role of victim.

The more we believe that we can control the outcomes, the more optimistic and confident we will feel. Believing that we can control the satisfaction of our ultimate concerns helps produce deep, pervasive optimism. Knowing that our happiness is determined by our thoughts and knowing that we can control our thoughts is a pillar of that deep optimism.

Accurate Beliefs about Internal versus External Control. Dr. Julian Rotter was one of the first psychologists to recognize the importance of whether we believe we are internally or externally controlled. If we believe external forces control our important outcomes, then we don't have to work hard, face negative outcomes, or take the blame if we don't get the results we want. Thus, avoidance of responsibility and avoidance of anxiety can be powerful reinforcers for beliefs in external control.

The down side of exaggerated external control beliefs is that we tell ourselves we are weak victims. That message undermines our confidence in ourselves and decreases our chances of success. (See external versus internal control chapter.)

It is also possible to hold exaggerated beliefs that we control external events more than we actually do. To believe that we need to almost completely control outcomes is not only a serious logical error, but is often the root of prolonged unhappiness. A distorted belief in total control may give us a feeling of power. However, this distorted belief in power also has some of the following negative consequences.

  • Feeling too responsible for the outcomes--producing high worry and guilt.
  • Not allowing others to take responsibility and control (codependency)--placing an    extra burden on us and limiting others' growth.
  • Become domineering and manipulative.
  • Develop too high expectations--potentially increasing anxiety and reducing performance.
  • Become "overconfident"--also potentially reducing performance.
    Return to beginning

An accurate causal analysis leads to realistic confidence--
                                                                Think "MULTIPLE- CAUSATION." Almost all outcomes are caused by many factors--both internal and external--operating together in complex ways. Most of us tend to oversimplify our thinking and focus on only one or two causal factors. We may think someone else is the entire cause of the problem; or, conversely, attribute to ourselves such superhuman powers.

We are never entirely to blame for anything. Nor is anyone else. Stop wasting your time trying to find "who's to blame"--instead try to find the multiple-causes of the problem.

Optimism based upon our ability to influence life events. A client came in because she said she "could not make a commitment to get married" although she was very happy in her long-term relationship and wanted to continue it. In essence she was not confident that she would be happy if she got married.

When we examined the feelings, experiences, and beliefs about marriage, she made the comment, "I have never known a couple who were happily married." No wonder she was not looking forward to getting married! My client had grown up with parents who were very unhappy with each other and she certainly did not want that. She had no positive models for a happy marriage.

In order for her to increase her optimism, she developed a mental model for what her happy marriage could be like. She thought about how she and her lover could together create a happy marriage. Since her model was a lot like her current relationship, her confidence that they could be happily married increased. She had successfully replaced a negative view of marriage with a realistic, positive one.

I have had many clients who have felt devastated by a breakup because they thought they would never be happy again. However, once they realize that they have the qualities necessary to attract someone at least as good as their last lover and have the qualities necessary to do their half to create a happy relationship, they feel optimistic again. In these cases their optimism was based upon their understanding of the situation and their confidence that they could perform the steps necessary for getting the results they wanted.

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Our happiness is more controlled by internal factors--Which we can control. We have internal and external routes to happiness. However, our emotions are most directly affected by internal factors. We can learn how to get internal control over our emotions. We can learn how to "choose to be happy" in any situation. This confidence is the basis of optimism--it helps us rise above life's daily difficulties as if floating on a cloud over life's peaks and valleys. This "bottom-line" security is based upon realistic knowledge that we can rise above any situation.

Being happy by accepting the worst possible events. Sometimes, we have little control over important outcomes. If we can feel good about all of the possible outcomes--including the worst ones--then we will get mental control over our emotions.

For example, a client was facing a difficult and serious operation for life-threatening cancer. She knew that her beliefs, emotions, and behavior could affect the outcome. She did her best to maximize her positiveness and her health. Yet underneath her positiveness, she still had an overwhelming fear of dying and she knew that this fear of dying could actually increase her chances of dying.

She also knew that her health would be affected by many factors beyond her control. How could she overcome a fear of dying when she knew there was a high chance of dying no matter what she did?

How could she feel calm when so much of the outcome was out of her control? There are really two answers--the first is that she would feel better to the degree that she could really trust the external powers that were in control to help her get well. If she believed the physicians or God was in control, then she would be calm to the degree that she could really trust that they would heal her. Hearing positive stories of how others had survived helped comfort her.

But, secondly, she still needed to face the worst possible outcome. She needed to get mental control of her fear of dying. There are many ways to deal with fears of death or other uncontrollable outcomes (see world view chapter). Changing her view of life as well as death was necessary. Instead of deficit motivation, feeling sorry for herself, and focusing on what death would mean that she could not have, she began to focus on abundance motivation and appreciate all that life had already given her. She accepted the inevitability of her eventual death and accepted that possibility that it might occur soon.

Whenever she would get fearful about death, she would focus on moments of happiness throughout her life to feel gratitude instead of resentment. It worked--she felt much better. At last report, over a year later, the immediate cancer threat was gone and she was in better health.

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If we believe that some deep, unchangeable forces will cause our ultimate concerns to be met, then our optimism will be deep, pervasive, and enduring. One such belief is that a benevolent Supreme Being is in charge of the universe. Another is that we are in harmony with the laws of the universe and that harmony is sufficient to get our ultimate concerns' met.

If, on the other hand, we believe that the world is basically a dark and capricious place, that the built-in forces of the world will only randomly provide happiness, or that these forces are "out to get us," then our pessimistic view of life will be deep, pervasive, and enduring.

If you have developed a deep, pessimistic philosophy that the negative forces usually win and that happiness is elusive--at least for you, then that philosophy is an underlying source of your resentment, suspiciousness, pessimism, and depression. You may believe that your views are a true and accurate picture of the world. You may believe that I am "too optimistic" and "unrealistic." I can never prove to you that I am right, but living my life built upon the optimistic assumptions in this book has been my most important source of happiness. How are your assumptions working for you? Try rereading chapters 1-4 if you are still having a problem with this philosophy.

When you have little external control, put your trust in benevolent forces. When you recognize that you cannot control important events, put your trust in powerful, benevolent forces--whether they be God, Nature, Evolution, Society, your doctor, or a friend. Deep optimism is not that we will get exactly what we want, but that we can find some way to be happy no matter what happens.

Following is a sample of comforting statements that have worked for others when they felt that an outcome was outside their control.

  • "Let go and let God" (take care of the problem--it is outside my control or responsibility)
  • "That which does not kill me, makes me stronger. . .He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how."--Nietzsche
  • "Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the way that leads to cessation of pain. . . abandonment, forsaking, release, non-attachment." Buddha (Burtt, 1982)
  • "Trust the creative forces inherent in every atom, cell, and living creature"
  • "Everything in the universe has a purpose." "There are no accidents, everything I am experiencing is in some way necessary for me to move ahead to the next step... Rather than asking the "Why me?" question, you begin to ask, 'What is in this experience that I can use in a beneficial way?'"-Dr. Wayne Dyer, Real Magic, pp. 6-7.
  • "When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. . .His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden. . .What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you." -- Dr. Victor Frankl, Man's Search For Meaning, p. 123-125.
  • "The human spirit can "rise above" any hardship to find happiness."
  •  "Happiness is a state of mind we can create by harmonious thoughts."
  • "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. . .for even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. . . Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." Psalm 23

PRACTICE: Add your own favorite quotes.

SUMMARY: Mental Control Strategy 5: 

Realistic optimism is not based upon fooling ourselves
that we will get everything we want.
It is based upon valid beliefs that we can find meaning and be happy
either if we get what we want or if we do not.
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