7 Jul, 2022
By Sam Buckerfield
The idea of “optimism” could make you cringe, particularly since we’ve emerged from a period of social media influencers spurring us on to make proverbial lemonade out of our lockdown lemons. This article is not about making unsustainable, serious culinary commitments or athletic goals. It is not about denying the very real challenges we have faced collectively or individually. That would be toxic positivity. Instead, what we are looking at is genuine optimism which can be described as authentic hope, not denial.
Dr. Susan David in her book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life talks about this concept. Dr. David says that “making the leap” in hope and optimism is not about ignoring, fixing, fighting, or controlling fear—or anything else we might be experiencing. Rather, it’s about accepting and noticing all our emotions and thoughts, viewing even the most powerful of them with compassion and curiosity, and then choosing courage over comfort to do whatever we’ve determined is most important to us. Courage and optimism she says, is not the absence of fear. Courage and optimism are fear walking.
A research project looking at regulating emotions published in the Journal of Personality found that denying or suppressing emotions could have adverse effects and cause serious psychological harm. Instead, the researchers posited that we should aim for what Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl coined “tragic optimism”. This is where we acknowledge the difficulties and the pain and the suffering of what’s going on, and at the same time, maintain our capacity for hope.
A finding comes up frequently in psychology research is that in general, resilient people have intensely negative reactions to trauma. They experience anguish and pressure and acknowledge the horror of what’s happening. But even in the darkest of places, they see glimmers of light, and this ultimately sustains them.
During World War II Great Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, made a profoundly optimistic statement of the times they were navigating, in line with Viktor Frankl’s thinking.
“Do not let us speak of darker days; let us speak rather of sterner days. These are not dark days: these are great days—the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.”
Churchill acknowledged the extreme pressure they faced as a country and without minimising it he pointed to the fact that everyone alive at the time was a participant in the future of Great Britain.
In line with this, Simon Sinek, a best-selling author and organizational culture and leadership expert says, “The primary ingredient for progress is optimism. The unwavering belief that something can better drive the human race forward.” So how do we do hold these tensions of acknowledging reality but maintaining optimism? Kristen Lee, Ed.D., LICSW who describes herself as a “recovering perfectionist” gives four tips for resisting what she has called “lemonade propaganda”:
The hardcore lemons of COVID are far from the Meyers kind that shows up in Harry and David gift baskets. It will take time to heal and detoxify from the giant influx of lemon juice concentrate we’ve been served. Not everyone’s lemons are the same; water and sugar are not always plentiful.
We can’t just skip over the sour. Primitive instincts can instigate denial or distraction approaches. Science shows that acknowledging and naming pain, both individually and collectively, can aid healing processes. Modern brain science reveals that facing and naming complex, challenging emotions can help us cope more effectively. When pain is validated, it can help create space for better understanding ourselves and one another.
None of us are meant to be ceviche. Lemon soaking 24-7 without respite can erode our well-being. Nurture your mind, body, and soul with proper sleep, nourishment, creative activities, and community. Give yourself permission to breathe and cultivate some respite and joy to fuel your spirit of hopeful optimism, without pressuring yourself to be Zen or hyper-motivated.
Don’t hoard sugar and water supplies if you have them. Keep an eye out for ways you can contribute positively and help support collective efficacy. In addition to the moral imperative to do so, research shows that when we demonstrate kindness and empathy and hold ourselves accountable to work towards reparations and social justice, it builds the kinds of bonds that help us move towards a future we can truly be optimistic about.
Positivity can be blind, optimism has its eyes wide open—full of hope. Let’s be the kind of people who keep our eyes wide open to possibility.
Sam Buckerfield is our GM for Corporate Communications