When the world seems dark and hanging on to optimism is a challenge, here are some suggestions for renewing the wellspring of happiness and calm in your life.
Hanging on to your optimism in this world of suffering and strife can be an overwhelming challenge. On the other hand, optimism is essential to make change for the better happen. You have to believe in a brighter future to have any hope of reaching it.
How do we keep our morale up so we can keep those dreams alive? How do we hold that vision of the possible in mind when the real world falls so far short?
Here are 6 suggestions that have worked for me:
Remember your circle of control. This is the best concept I’ve heard for keeping your equanimity amid the crashing waves of a chaotic world. It goes back to the Greek philosophical school of Stoicism.
Imagine a Venn diagram. The biggest circle is everything that’s happening in the world. A smaller circle within that one is everything you care about. A third circle, nested within the first two, is everything you can personally control or influence. Obviously, it’s the smallest of the three.
The key is to focus on things that are within your control. Unhappiness arises when there’s a mismatch between your feelings of moral concern and your sphere of control—when you feel burdened with responsibility for outcomes you can’t change. That engenders feelings of futility, depression, and despair.
You can’t control the result of an election or a Supreme Court case. You can’t control what dictators in distant countries choose to do, what ignorant or hateful opinions people spout on social media, whether the economy crashes, or whether the rainforests are cut down.
But you can call and e-mail your representatives. You can talk to your neighbors and friends about issues that matter. You can donate money to worthy causes. You can volunteer for community groups where your participation makes a real difference. You can vote in every election. You can quit a job that’s bad for you and find one that pays more or treats its employees better. You can use the power of your dollars for good by choosing ethically created products. You can exercise more, eat a healthy diet, sharpen your mind with education, and spend time with friends who encourage you in good habits.
By focusing your efforts on what you can do, rather than what you can’t, your life will be happier, calmer, and more meaningful, and you’ll avoid crippling yourself with feelings of helplessness. This doesn’t mean you should stop caring about the world beyond your front door. But you can give yourself permission to not take its whole weight on your shoulders.
Don’t dwell on the past or obsess about the future. This is a special case of the last point, but it’s worthy of its own mention.
Dwelling on regret is an all-too-common habit of human beings, but it’s one of the most futile and psychologically harmful pursuits you can engage in. The past is the past, and it’s impossible to change what happened. The most you can do—the only thing you can do—is to take that experience for wisdom, and use it to make better choices if you’re ever faced with a similar situation again.
As for the future, no one can know for sure what it holds, which is why it’s pointless to fret about something that might or might not happen. If it doesn’t, all that anxiety was spent for nothing. Even if it does, worrying about it in advance won’t have prevented it.
Practice gratitude. A potent suggestion for warding off anger, anxiety, and sadness is to make a practice of gratitude. Spend some time every day thinking of things you’re thankful for.
These can be large things, like achieving a lifelong goal, or small, as simple as a favorite book or a bed to sleep in. By making a habit of reflecting on the good things in your life, you’ll be reminded that there are reasons to be happy. It’s a counterbalancing weight to remind you that there’s more good than bad in the world, even when the headlines don’t make it seem that way. Speaking of which:
Cultivate offline time. This point could be phrased as, “Try not to spend too much time on social media or watching the news.”
The news is sensationalist. It emphasizes scary stories and disaster, because humans have a built-in negativity bias. In our evolutionary past, it was important to be alert for danger, so fear and threat command our attention in a way that positive emotions don’t. They get us to tune in, which means we see more commercials, which means news companies make more profits. As the saying goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
However, this doesn’t tell the complete story. You can’t write stories about things that didn’t happen, so if the world is improving, you won’t be able to tell by watching the news. Against a backdrop of progress, it will only focus more on the increasingly rare tragedies. It will always paint a misleading picture of how bad things really are.
Social media has the same problem. It rewards clicks and engagement, so the most enraging, sensationalist content tends to bubble to the top. On top of that, many people treat social media like a therapist’s couch and use it for venting. The natural tendency of emotional contagion means that immersion in a bath of other people’s negative emotions makes you feel worse too.
For these reasons, it helps me to strictly limit the time I spend browsing social media or reading news. I want to know what’s going on in the world, but there’s no added benefit to taking in more than that.
Find non-political hobbies and interests. No one can do the same thing all day, every day without burning out. That applies to political activism, paid work, raising a family, caregiving, or any other occupation you could name. Everyone needs time to rest and recharge.
That’s why you shouldn’t invest your entire identity in politics. It’s important to reserve time for leisure, so you can occupy yourself with something calming and rejuvenating that doesn’t remind you of the world’s troubles. I find it helps if it’s something you do with your hands or your body, because physical activity gets you out of your own head. It demands a focus on the present moment that keeps you from dwelling on anxious or pessimistic thoughts.
Some hobbies that I pursue include cooking and baking, exercise, reading books, photography, and music. Other people might prefer video games, board games, collecting, sewing, or crafting.
Get out in nature. As the kids would say, “Touch grass.”
While any non-political hobby is helpful, I find it’s especially beneficial to spend time in nature. Gardening, hiking, birdwatching, or just sitting under a tree and reading a book: it’s all good, as long as you can see plants and feel sunlight and breathe fresh air.
The cycle of the seasons and the rhythm of growing things are more enduring than our passing troubles. They’re a reminder to slow down, have patience, and not overvalue the present moment. And this has scientific backing. Studies show that exposure to nature relieves stress, anxiety, and depression.
In a world with so much pain and ugliness, it’s essential to seek out beauty. We all need an occasional reminder of what we’re fighting for, a clear vision of the place we want to reach. If you allow fear and anger to consume you, you’ll become embittered and cynical, of no help to anyone, like a burned-over wasteland.
Instead, you should strive to make your life a garden of loving-kindness. Fill it with the good things you find, to lift your spirits when they’re low. Tend and nurture it so it grows strong, absorbing the buffeting of storms. Then, open its gates so it becomes a place of refuge for others.