The discipline of optimism

This year, I’m holding onto good thoughts.

I spent the majority of 2020 feeling anxious. 

Like many of you, I was anxious about COVID. I worried about friends and family getting infected, whether various strangers stood too close to me, and the lasting effects of all of this isolation. I was anxious about money—about whether freelance opportunities would dry up, and how my musician partner would make up for lost gigs. I was anxious about all of the problems facing our country and world—racial inequality, financial insecurity, climate disasters, and so on. I was anxious throughout my pregnancy and after giving birth. I worried about whether the baby would be healthy (she is) and whether we’d be good parents (the jury’s still out). For most of the year, I worried. For most of the year, I was low-key miserable.

I don’t want to feel that way this year.

I’m under no illusion that 2021 will magically erase the pain of 2020, but I’m nonetheless optimistic about the year ahead. I’m not particularly hopeful that COVID will go away anytime soon, that politicians will put citizens’ interests first, or that there will be fewer extreme weather events. On a personal level, I anticipate stress around money and time, and all of the other difficult adjustments we’ll have to make as new parents.

Still, I’m feeling optimistic. The truth is, I don’t know any other way forward. For me, not having hope is not an option. I have always approached each new year with optimism, and this one isn’t any different. What I do hope is different, though, is how long I hold onto that feeling.

The optimism I felt at the start of 2020 quickly gave way to fears about the pandemic and impending parenthood. And while many of my anxieties were understandable, the way I let them rule everything in my life was damaging. Instead of appreciating what I had in the moment, I focused instead on what I might lose in the future. I missed out on opportunities to be present with my partner, my friends, my family, myself, and—this might be the most painful admission of all—my newborn, all because my sweet dumb brain was caught up in a web of scary what-ifs.

I don’t want to repeat that this year, no matter what 2021 throws our way. 

There are two lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “Little Gidding” that I’ve been thinking about lately:

For last year's words belong to last year's language

And next year's words await another voice.

So many of my words and thoughts in 2020 were rooted in anxiety and fear. This year, I want to use different words. I want to speak a language of confidence, compassion, and calmness. I want to appreciate the present, instead of dreading the future.

Of course, wanting to be more positive and actually being more positive are two different things. I can fantasize about being more optimistic all day long, but in order to truly become more optimistic, I must take action. My mistake in 2020, as in years past, wasn’t how I initially approached the year. It was that, once things got hard, I abandoned my optimistic mindset. I slipped into old habits, and let my anxieties take over.

Last year was difficult for practically everyone I know. It was a year of sadness, pain, discomfort, and reckoning. And as COVID cases skyrocketed, so did anxiety and depression. For many of us, optimism was incredibly difficult to muster.

Unfortunately, most of the same problems we faced in 2020 will still exist in 2021. COVID will still exist, as will racism, climate change, and countless other injustices. Life will still have its hard moments. Disappointments will still happen. The people who frustrate us will likely still do frustrating things. 

So how do you stay optimistic when things feel bleak? Like any other habit, you practice it. 

Mariame Kaba, a prison abolitionist and freedom fighter, often says, “Hope is a discipline.” It’s something that must be practiced—a daily promise that we make to ourselves. 

Like hope, optimism is a discipline, and it’s a good mindset to invest in. Research suggests that optimistic people have better relationships, earn more money, and live longer than their pessimistic counterparts. Plus, it’s just a lot more fun to live life with a sunny outlook. 

There are several different ways to train your brain to be more optimistic. For starters, you can simply think happy thoughts. Taking time at the end of the day to revisit happy moments, for example, is an effective exercise. As Brianna Steinhilber explained in an article for NBC News, “the more we consciously reframe scenarios in a positive light, the more we train our brains to fire up circuits in different regions, eventually altering our response to negative experiences.”

Experts also recommend surrounding yourself with positive-minded people, limiting how much time you spend consuming news, and keeping a gratitude journal. I plan to experiment with all of these tactics throughout 2021 (and to write about them along the way).

My favorite approach—and the one I need the most practice with—is to allow yourself to dream. 

We tend to ruminate on worst-case scenarios as a way to protect ourselves against pain. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. Negative thinking doesn’t protect us from bad things; all it does is prevent us from appreciating the present moment. Positive thinking, on the other hand, can work wonders. Dozens of studies have shown that visualizing ideal scenarios can boost your levels of optimism, thereby positively affecting all the other areas of your life.

I know this won’t fix everything. Just like 2021 won’t magically erase the pain of 2020, optimistic thinking won’t magically heal my anxiety, or yours. But it’s a place to start. By interrupting negative spirals with happy thoughts, limiting my news and social media intake, and allowing myself to visualize best-case scenarios, I’m setting myself up for success. I can’t control the events of this year, but I can control how I respond to them.

If I could do 2020 all over again, I’d spend a lot less time being mired in the negative what-ifs. Thankfully, a new year gives me a fresh opportunity to do just that. 

What if 2021 is ... my best year yet? I could get used to this kind of thinking.



Making room for the good stuff

I’ve always loved New Year’s Eve, not necessarily for the celebrations—I can barely stay awake past 10:00 p.m. these days!—but for what it represents. It marks an end and a beginning all at once—an opportunity to let go of the past, and make room for the future.

For the first subscriber-only post of 2021, I want to hear what you’re letting go of and making room for. You can hit reply, leave a comment, or send me an email.

If it’s helpful, you can format your response like this:

I’m letting go of:

I’m making room for:

And if you’d like to expand on your answer, please do! I’ll share some of your best replies in Friday’s subscriber-only newsletter.*

Leave a comment

If you’d like to receive Friday newsletters, all you have to do is become a paying subscriber. It’s $5/month or $35/year. Each newsletter includes related articles and recommendations, updates on life and past issues, and an exercise for the week ahead.

*I’m sending subscriber newsletters out on Friday this year! That gives you more time to respond to prompts like this one, and me more time to write. Win-win.

My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who is feeling (cautiously) optimistic about seeing friends and family in the not-too-distant future. Hooray, science! Photo by Carlos on Unsplash.