Why is it that as humans we sometimes struggle to remain hopeful or optimistic?
I was recently commissioned, by a group called rebel women to lead a workshop called- ‘Dancing in the rain - How to remain optimistic in challenging times.’ This piece was inspired by the conversations that took place over the three hour workshop.
While we were discussing what it means to be hopeful and optimistic we settled on the understanding that both are learned behaviours. Learned and acquired in the process of human evolution and learned (or not) over the lifetime of an individual.
Throughout human history we have learned that what we dream, or image can be brought into reality; we have travelled to the bottom of the oceans and to the surface of the moon. What are these achievements but the products of hope, optimism and resilience. On a smaller scale we have the may triumphs of daily life; it is a painful fact is that we are not all born into families that nurture positive self-esteem and self-worth or societies that value all of its people equally. So many of us have to battle against core beliefs developed in childhood, limiting self-beliefs internalised from negative human interactions, in order to express our natural desires for fulfilment. In addition to that we have a complex world full of volatility, uncertainty, and ambiguity; there is no straight and easy path toward our goals. When we dream big we have to be prepared for the inevitable setbacks, failures, dead ends and the many false turns. Remaining optimistic in challenging times is therefore a test of both emotional and cognitive fibre. When we exercise the ability to learn from experience, and draw strength from the example of others, we become more resilient.
Positive psychology sees all human beings as in possession of a natural tendency to ‘self-actualisation’. The term was brought to prominence by Abraham Maslow and is defined throughout his work as "the desire to for self-fulfilment, to realise one’s potential.” This conception created a revolution in thinking about human psychology because turned on its head the traditional model of broken a humanity in need of repair, salvation or absolution. Self-actualisation is seen as a naturally occurring desire, wish, or dream enabling us to reach toward continual growth and unfolding. As such I see self-actualisation as deeply connected to hope and optimism which, in the individual who has been nurtured to believe in her/himself, are essentially emotional states linked to positive core beliefs. Hope and optimism will flow more naturally.
However, for individuals who have to battle both their internal self-limiting beliefs as well as external difficulty and and limitations hope and optimism have to be acquired as part of conscious rational activity. We have to train our minds to focus on talking to ourselves in affirmative ways and of interpreting events within a balanced, measured and realistic framework.
So if we were not taught as children to believe that we are all capable of growth and development, that mistakes are part of the process of learning that each person is whole and to be respected and valued as whole, then we have to teach ourselves. Only then are we likely to be resilient to life's difficulties and challenges. If someone tells us we are not good enough we persist. If someone tries to bully us we exert our rights to be heard and respected. Even in the darkest of circumstances we chose not to be defined by the negativity or brutality of others.
The recent death of Mohammed Ali reminded me of how significant that iconic man was to my sense of self while growing up. He was loud, self-confident, witty, talented, quick and most of all ready to stand by his beliefs even when faced with imprisonment. He was a rebel and the rebel is a fine example of hope and optimism over fear and negativity when rebellion is harnessed to positive and affirmative beliefs.
Without hope, we could not be future focused, could not plan, look forward, dream or set goals. Without optimism we would not believe that through our own efforts anything good could happen; optimism is also inextricable from positive self- belief, high self-esteem and sense of personal agency.
Alongside characteristics such as self-awareness, effective self-management, appreciation, gratitude, strong sense of purpose, good physical well-being, and strong social connections, hope and optimism are essential components of what makes us resilient to the inevitable challenges of existence. This is also a proactive stance, optimism without meaningful action and learning from reality is blind and delusional. We will know when our optimism and hopes are well founded because we get results from our endeavours and can therefore show persistence in the face of resistance. We also see when hope in a particular course is no longer warranted but we do not abandon hope in our (realistic) goal, we change course, pursuing our goals through other means.
Surely this is why sometimes, despite our best intentions, we struggle in the face of difficulty. Change and growth is not an easy route to travel, particularly for those whose rights and very existence is devalued by others. Running this workshop was another reminder of how important it is to have social networks that confirm and strengthen this natural tendency toward growth.
Thanks, rebel women, for the opportunity to contribute.