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What Happened During The Worst 5 Years Of My Life

And how I came out of it stronger than ever.

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Kiersten Essenpreis
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I never considered myself an optimist until I went through three disastrous failed relationships, two lost jobs, two major plumbing issues and a brutal attack on my dog that cost $3,000 in vet bills. It was the worst five years of my life.

Today, many feel like I did for those five years — isolated and depressed. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that more than half of Americans feel “generally pessimistic about the future of the United States."

It just feels harder to stay positive as we get older. But we can. How? Optimism — which is part genetics, part self-determination and part delusion.

Non-Toxic Positivity

Dr. Bill Chopik, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, explains that being an optimist doesn’t mean you’re always happy, which, in the face of adversity, can be unrealistic and inauthentic. It can also annoy those around you.

True optimism, he says, is a kind of laser-focus on only the good things in your environment and the general expectation that good things will happen in the future.

That could explain why a recent study found that among those American adults who reported poor physical, emotional and financial health, about half still said they look forward to each day. Large-scale studies into the most awful life events — divorce, the death of a partner, terminal illness — found that an optimistic outlook remains unchanged. As Dr. Chopik says, “Optimism is pretty resilient.”

Age is an Advantage

For most people, optimism increases over a lifetime. One would think that as our hourglass runs out of sand, we’d view everything as half empty, but that’s not the case. “It’s counterintuitive,” says Dr. Chopik. “People have this idea that when you’re young, life hasn’t broken you. But it’s usually the opposite. Young people are less optimistic.”

There are a few theories as to why. One is simply that as you get older, you get better at pretty much everything. Experience translates to confidence, and that can lead to optimism. This can even happen with less-than-great experiences: Lose your first job and you’re devastated. Lose two more and you learn another one will come along sooner or later.

Another theory, and one I relate to, is called the socio-emotional selectivity theory, a fancy way to say YOLO. “As you get older, you realize life is short, and your goals shift, so you pursue things that make you happy,” Dr. Chopik says. “You cut away at the superficial relationships in life and are more attentive to the positive stuff in your environment.”

During my five-year stretch of being in a near-constant state of misery, I realized I didn’t want to waste what precious time I had left feeling down. While I may not be able to control negative things that happen to me, I can focus on the good stuff instead.

Like many optimists, my success boils down to one attitude: I think I can. “Optimists believe they can control their outcome,” says Dr. Chopik. “They think they can bring about positive outcomes, so they try.” They ask for a raise or ask that guy out on a date. Happiness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Holding Out Hope

Of course, pessimism works the same way. “Pessimists think the future is terrible and will be terrible forever,” says Dr. Chopik. This mindset has a lot in common with depression, and research found that treating people for depression with cognitive behavioral therapy can make them more optimistic.

It’s important to encourage an optimistic attitude. While it tends to increase throughout life, there is evidence that it peaks around age 70 and may even start to decline. Dr. Chopik attributes this to age-related health issues and other factors. Maintaining healthy habits, physically, mentally and socially can be important for this reason. I’ve seen my own optimism soar since I began regularly hitting the gym.

There is also what is known as “domain-specific optimism,” which means if you don’t feel hopeful about the current political climate, maybe focus on your love life if it’s going well. If your relationship is in the toilet, maybe your career is taking off. Choose to focus on the things you feel optimistic about in the moment.

The Eeyores of the world may be right about one thing. “Optimists are a little delusional,” says Dr. Chopik, citing studies where participants were instructed to keep daily diaries. Optimists went into detail about the ways they felt supported by their partners, even when their partners had no idea what they were talking about. “Optimists see support even when it’s not there.”

Still, if my choice is to live in a miserable reality or a joyful la la land, I’ll take joy every time. I don’t see that as a bad thing — but then again, I wouldn’t.

For more information on how to live a happier life, go here.

Are YOU the kind of person who sees the cup as half empty or half full? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Lifestyle