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Using Mindful Optimism to Stress Less

by Beth on November 13th, 2023

In her book, The Mindful Body, Ellen Langer proposes that a mindless view of events causes stress. Stress relies on two things: 1) we assume something is going to happen and 2) when it does, that it’s going to be awful. She explains that we can reduce stress by challenging these two points. First, we can’t predict what is going to happen next. If we generate reasons why the event might not happen, we will feel better. Second, nothing is inherently positive or negative. Considering how something you think is negative might have hidden advantages can diminish stress. Instead of thinking this terrible thing is definitely going to happen, reflect on the fact that it may or may not happen and, if it does, there will be some positive aspects.

Defensive pessimism is preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. We think by expecting something bad to happen that we will be in a better position to handle it, but our expectations can shape reality. Hoping for the best sounds nice, but it acknowledges that the worst is a real possibility. The stress caused by worrying the worst might happen can negatively impact your health, your effectiveness at work, and your relationships.

Mindful optimism is a better approach. You make a plan, then live fully in the moment with the expectation that everything will be fine. It’s like buying insurance. We can worry or we can relax, and things can turn out good or bad. Langer explains why it’s better to relax and expect the best. If things turn out well, you haven’t wasted time worrying. If things don’t turn out as you hoped, then you are stronger and better able to deal with it.

Making choices can be stressful. Understanding that the outcome of every decision is unpredictable can reduce stress. You should make the best decision based on the information you have with the understanding that there is never a single right choice. Langer suggests that rather than worrying about making the right decision, it is better to make the decision right. Choose a plan and then do everything needed for the plan to work. Regretting a decision makes no sense because you can never know if the choice not made would have been better.

Events don’t cause stress. Having a negative view of events causes stress. We often stress about daily hassles. When you feel stressed, ask yourself if it is a tragedy or just an inconvenience. And if you are worried about something, remind yourself that it may not happen and, if it does, it won’t be all negative.

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