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How to stay optimistic during tough times
Tree of Hope inside the lobby of a hospital. New Delhi, India.

There are 1 billion search results for the phrase, “How to be positive” on Google. A close second is “How to be optimistic at work”.

It makes me wonder: Does it help to be optimistic in times of change and uncertainty? And if so, how do we stay optimistic during tough turbulent times?

Does it help to be optimistic?

I believe the answer is YES.


Here’s why: Being optimistic allows us to get up and try again.

Like most of us, I’ve been on both sides of the fence. Sometimes pessimistic, other times optimistic. And even the middle path of a realist who often struggles with trying to be hopeful in the face of brutal facts.

In all of those experiences I’ve had, I have realized that being an optimist has helped me more than being a pessimist because optimism leads to hope.

And hope has always given me the impetus for action. For going on. For moving forward.

Despite how bad the situation was, having optimistic thoughts allowed me to persevere through the adversity I was facing, which either made me stronger or helped me achieve some level of success to overcome the problem.


“Optimism gives us breadcrumbs of hope. Whether they lead to a rainbow is not the point. What matters is that we are given enough crumbs to keep going.” -Martin Seligman


Charles Kenny in Bloomberg magazine wrote recently about, The Economic Power of Positive Thinking. He points to research that suggests that “optimistic people tend to work harder, get paid more, get elected to office more often and win at sports more regularly. They even live longer. The effect of optimism spills over into business decisions.”

I don’t think he’s suggesting that we will find riches simply by being optimistic during tough times.

What I do think he is saying is that we get a better shot at it than the pessimists, “Self deception is precisely what makes them more willing to take risks and invest in a better future, while the pessimists slouch toward self-fulfilling failure.”


How do we stay optimistic during tough times of turbulence, change and uncertainty?


Here are 4 ways how we can stay optimistic during tough times:

1. Identify Heroes of Optimism

All around us there are stories of people who have managed to overcome tough times through an optimistic mindset.

Heroes of optimism are everywhere. In books, on the radio, on YouTube, in homes next door to yours, in your family tree and in your workplace.

From our friends and colleagues to athletes to people of faith to survivors of concentration camps, our world is full of people who have found that spark of inspiration and hope in the dark cave of adversity. They’ve done it. They have been able to stay optimistic during tough times. So can we.

Some years ago, when my wife and I learned that we couldn’t have kids, we were devastated. It’s emotionally difficult to stay optimistic when we’re presented with such facts.

Fortunately, we live in times of profound scientific advances and in close proximity to where we can connect with others who faced similar challenges. Living in NYC at the time, we found other couples who were able to conceive with modern advances in medicine and so did we.

We were fortunate to have kids and got through those tough times. If we weren’t optimistic or at least somewhat positive, would we have kids today? I don’t know. But what I do know is that being optimistic during those tough times by having others to look to helped us move forward and try.


2. Change the Internal Dialogue in Your Head

It’s not about repeating positive affirmations to ourselves.

It’s deeper. It’s about giving ourselves a chance not to slip down the spiral of self doubt and pessimism.

Don’t give into the often default dialogue of pessimism.

I believe that in order for us to stay optimistic during tough times, we have to learn to move from thoughts of impossibility to thoughts of practical possibility. And we cannot get to those helpful thoughts when all we think about is how bad our situation is. Without an optimistic approach, we can get stuck.

How do we shift to optimistic thinking when faced with tough times?

One of the best books I’ve ever read is “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life” by Dr. Martin Seligman, a renowned psychologist.

In his book, Dr. Seligman suggests from his research that we can go from a state of helplessness to a state of optimism where we feel like we have some level of control. It is possible to learn optimism. And make it useful for us when we face adversity.

What happens to many of us when we do face tough times is that our way of explaining our misfortune to ourself reinforces learned helplessness. But if we can change our “explanatory style” we can shift from feeling helpless and hopeless about our situation to moving past it, getting over it faster and persevering on.

In Seligman’s book, he cites 3 crucial dimensions to changing the dialogue in our head: Permanent, Pervasive and Personalization.

It’s not PERMANENT: When adversity strikes, don’t think your bad time will be last forever.

It’s not PERVASIVE: Don’t think that it happens all the time.

Don’t PERSONALIZE it: Can’t take all of the blame

Instead of blaming yourself for a character flaw you think you have that has always been around, give yourself a break and shifting from ‘Always’ and ‘Never’ to ‘Sometimes’ and ‘Lately’. Those who fall into the dark cave of helplessness tend to explain tough times as: “I’m all washed up” which is permanent and personalized instead of “Tough day today” which is not personalized and is temporary.

When adversity strikes, it helps if we use an explanatory style or inner dialogue that doesn’t give us such heavy responsibility for making bad things happen to ourselves.

“People who give up early believe the causes of the bad events that happened to them are permanent: the bad event will persist, will always be there to affect their lives. People who resist helplessness (or are optimistic) believe the causes of bad events are temporary.”

“Optimism matters because it produces persistence. Permanent explanations for bad events produce long lasting helplessness and temporary explanations produce resilience.” -Martin Seligman


Drinking the optimistic Kool-Aid?

Now in some respects, Seligman is suggesting that optimistic people distort reality in a self serving direction.

“If tough times happen, you did it to me, it’ll be over soon and it’s only this situation. If good times happen, then I did it; it’s going to last forever and it’s going to help me in many situations. “

So should we become delusional with our own grandeur?

In some sense, yes.

“Without optimistic moments, we would never accomplish anything difficult and intimidating, we would never even attempt the just barely possible. Mount Everest would remain unscaled, the four minute mile unrun; the jet plane and the computer would be blueprints sitting some financial vice presidents’ wastebasket.”


What should we do?

How do we effectively change this internal dialogue to help us stay optimistic during tough times practically speaking?

Dr. Seligman give us a tool: ABCDE

EXERCISE: Get out a sheet of paper and try it. It helps to do it a few times and then your mind will tend to follow the tool automatically. This exercise helps us tune into the perpetual dialogue that takes place in our mind and record it…so we can modify it.

ADVERSITY happens: Name it. Describe it on a piece of paper.

BELIEF: How do you interpret the tough time? Thoughts not feelings are then written.

CONSEQUENCES: Record your feelings; sad, let down, disappointed, etc.

DISPUTE & DISTRACT: Use logic and reason to argue with yourself about how you’re blowing this adversity out of proportion.

ENERGIZATION: Get excited about moving forward and what you’ll do about it


I did this exercise a few times and I have to say, it works. But you’ve got to write it out not just think about it in the mind.


Some of Dr. Seligman’s other tips for disputing the inner dialogue to an optimistic one:

A. Interrupt the negative pattern but distracting yourself physically. Get up and move around. Seligman cites examples people often use: ring a loud bell, snap a rubber band on your wrist or go for a walk.

B. Draw your attention elsewhere. Concentrate – really focus your mind and action towards something else. Some of us vaccuum and clean. Others go for a run or play a competitive sport.

C. Schedule a later time for thinking it over. Delay it so as to reduce the potency of the sting.

D. Write down the troublesome thoughts the moment they occur so as to dispose of them from your mind. “If you write down and set a time to think about them, they no longer have any purpose and purposelessness lessens their strength.”

E. Dispute the negative and pessimistic dialogue with Evidence. “Go on the attack” Seligman tells us. Negative beliefs usually lack evidence so go after them using logic and reason and proof to argue with ourselves. Point to facts not how you interpret them with heavy emotion.

F. Dispute the dialogue with Alternatives. Let go of the one negative belief that is making you feel stuck. Instead, find other causes for the adversity and what you can do about it.

G. Dispute the dialogue with Implications. What does this adversity really mean to me? Really? Is it the end of humanity as we know it? Just because you didn’t get that promotion doesn’t mean your career is over!

H. Dispute the dialogue with Usefulness. What good will this negative belief do for me if I spend all day thinking about it? Is this inner dialogue I am having useful to me right now? Usually the answer is no.

What I found to be the most useful is to: DISPUTE my explanatory dialogue with evidence. Forcing myself to act as my own defense attorney shifted my thinking almost immediately.


3. Reinforce the Optimistic Inner Dialogue with Outside Voices

Gathering around the tribal fire was a way for our ancestors to share the heavy burdens of life. It can serve a similar purpose in our modern times. Having a community of friends, colleagues or family members to speak with face to face can be powerful.

Become social. Talk to people. Attend a seminar or conference in your field of interest. Go to a meetup. Find others who are optimistic and talk to them. Sometimes their voices can feel more credible than our own. Even if it’s only a video on YouTube, complementing your own optimistic dialogue with other optimistic voices can help you stay the course during tough times.

Socialization helps us feel less alone.

From alcoholics anonymus to support groups for caregiving and cancer, the problems may not go away but joining groups or social circles help to calm us, inform us and make us feel better. The power of different voices singing from the same sheet, sharing the same journey and providing support can help to reinforce our new optimistic dialgoue so that we can weather the tough times.

I do 4 things: 1) Read optimistic books and blogs 2) Speak with optimistic friends or colleagues 3) Turn off / ignore the news 4) Go to an event or forum where I can learn and meet new people


4. Move the Body – Exercise, Go for a Walk, Run

Sitting around overthinking about the adversity we face doesn’t do us any good.

When we move our body, blood starts flowing to an important area: the brain! Providing much needed nutrients, we feel energized to a point where new ideas start popping up replacing negative thoughts.

What we gain from exercising our body is two things. First, we get much needed nutrients and energy, reducing our stress and boosting our levels of happiness and creativity. Second, we begin to realize the consequence of taking action.

Action leads us to feeling less helpless and more in control. This is key: to feeling like our actions matter. Good or bad…action creates consequences. Consequences which can signal to our brain that we are not helpless, reinforcing our optimistic dialogue during tough times.


I know this is a long article but I wanted to share as much as I have learned on how to stay optimistic during tough times. Especially the piece from Dr. Seligman’s book which took me a long time to finish.

Let me summarize:

I believe in order for us stay optimistic during tough times, we must be proactive about who we look to for hope, how we explain adversity to ourselves and whom we interact with as well reinvigorate the body. Remember:

Tough times don’t last. Tough people do. Most of us are tougher than we think.

May 2015 | How to stay optimistic during tough times | Bob Miglani

By Bob Miglani

Bob Miglani is the Author of the Washington Post Bestseller, Embrace the Chaos, which is about learning to move forward in times of change, uncertainty and disruption. He grew up running his family's Dairy Queen store, the subject of his first book, Treat Your Customers. He worked in corporate America for 23 years. Left to pursue a life of passion working in a startup, writing, motivational speaking and learning how to live a life of contribution.

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