Bernadette Russell, author of How To Be Hopeful, writes for Stylist about practical ways to be optimistic.
A while ago I set out to look for hope, as I became increasingly overwhelmed, as so many of us are, by the troubles of the world. I sought out the people, ideas and organisations who were daring to hope for a brighter future and acting on those hopes. I wanted to learn from them, and to pass on what I had learned. My book How To Be Hopeful is the story of my journey and what I discovered on the way.
I wondered why we adults seem so prone to pessimism and negativity, and soon came across the work of Dr Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist who has studied his own ‘negativity’ bias. He realised that he was expecting the worst and experiencing despair, even when nice things were actually happening. It was hard for him to enjoy positive experiences in the moment and very difficult to feel hopeful about the future. He wondered why this was and if there was anything, he could do about it.
Dr Hanson’s fascinating work explores why we humans have this inclination toward pessimism: in part, it’s the way our human minds have evolved over millions of years. I found it easiest to understand as a story about our ancestors, in particular a woman living on earth thousands of years ago, whom I’ve called Adede.
Adede lives with her tribe. Everyone looks out for each other and protects one another from predators and rival tribes.
One day, she is given some mixed nuts and seeds, like some kind of ancient muesli. Delicious. Later that day, she’s out picking berries and trips on a tree root and falls, hurting her leg; luckily nothing is broken, and she survives. What she’ll remember from that day isn’t the kind gesture and the tasty muesli, but the fall, simply because that event could have led, eventually, to her death. She has to remember to be more careful on that route to ensure it doesn’t happen again. She might even tell the story around the fire to the rest of the tribe as a warning. The muesli, meanwhile, will never get a mention.
Why is this? Since negative experiences, such as getting injured, were potentially life-threatening, our brains developed to store and recall them in order to keep us alive. We have an in-built alarm system to aid this process: the amygdala, an almond-shaped region in each side of the brain which uses many of its neurons to quickly commit negative experiences to memory. Positive experiences are not stored in the same way as they are not essential to our survival. So, our negativity bias is not our fault – our brains have developed this way in order to keep us alive.
This is not so helpful to us now, however. Most of us do not face the same threats as Adede did thousands of years ago: we are unlikely to die from the effects of a minor injury, for example. Dr Hanson explains how in the modern world this negativity bias can give us “a tendency toward pessimism, regret, and resentment; and long shadows cast by old pain”.
Yet he claims that there is a way to override this ancient reflex and be more hopeful. By allowing ourselves to enjoy the positive feelings that occur when something good happens, to stay with them and savour them for a few moments - the situation is then more likely to transfer to our long-term memory. These positive memories can make us feel more hopeful about the potential for joyful experiences in the future.
I put this theory into practice and found it really does work. Training yourself to focus on positive experiences can bolster your hope by simply making a daily practise of reminding yourself of one positive, enjoyable experience you had, no matter how small, and allowing yourself to linger on and enjoy it. You’ll build a library of hope and happiness for yourself, to help build your resilience and encourage your positivity.
This was a wonderful, practical and simple way of finding joy and hope in my own life. So far, so good.
However, there was still lingering ominously in the background, the seemingly relentless bad news, including looming economic crises, conflicts and the climate emergency. How on earth can any of us remain hopeful in the face of such news? It seems obvious that we need to take action, and to be motivated to do so we need hope: we have to believe that there’s a chance that our actions will make a difference. So, how do we find something achievable and sustainable for ourselves right now, with our busy demanding lives, that can help?
First of all, if the news is getting you down, help yourself by limiting your consumption to 10 minutes a day, and actively seek out those news sources that are telling the stories of active hope, positive innovation and triumph over adversity (you will find them, they are out there). Organisations like Positive News are providing us with light in the darkness, seek them out and allow yourself to be inspired by them. Whatever is diminishing your hope, know you are not alone, and that there is somebody out there, somewhere, working towards improving that situation. You just have to do a little work sometimes to find them.
Lastly, think about the brighter future you would like to see. Then identify something for yourself that you can do, something enjoyable and achievable that you can take action on right now. Find a group who is doing the thing you’re interested in if you can. Join them. Plant a tree. Help out at a food bank. Learn a new skill.
As philosopher Edgar Morin says, “Life is an ocean of uncertainties”; I find some comfort in that.
It can be very helpful to remember that there are many potential outcomes and futures branching out from every moment and every situation, and many of them contain hope and joy. The future is not yet written, and we have the power to shape it both individually and collectively, if we act on our wildest hopes, together.
Images: all Unsplash