A Pessimist’s Guide to Hope

alabama biscuit

It’s a cold and rainy Monday morning and I’ve been up since 4:30 a.m., so if there was ever a day to focus on turning my mood around, this is probably it — but optimism doesn’t exactly come easily to me. I thought that was because I grew up on a particularly pessimistic household: that classic self-preservation strategy, “Hope for the best; prepare for the worst,” was pretty much our battle cry.

Thinking that way has served me well in some ways. I’m good at anticipating problems, and that helps me prevent them. Preparing for the worst has helped me be an asset at work, and it’s helped me protect my career. So I’m certainly not knocking being prepared. But the funny thing about that phrase is that it’s really easy to forget the first part of it. I realized a few years ago that I was good at preparing for the worst, but not so good at hoping for the best. And, as it turns out, living your life without hope is a pretty good recipe for crippling anxiety.

It’s hard for a pessimist like me to cultivate hope. But I’m learning that it might not just be me — social scientists are finding a lot of evidence that most all of us better at recognizing and focusing on the negative than the positive. It’s easier for us to wallow than to celebrate. Expecting the worst comes naturally; hoping for the best definitely does not.

Embracing hope is easier said than done, but one way to do it in a safe-ish way is to cultivate gratitude. Being thankful is more about the present and the past than it is about the future, so I don’t find it as scary — but that doesn’t mean it comes naturally.

This weekend, I listened to a podcast with the author A.J. Jacobs. I’m a fan of his work already, and his book Thanks a Thousand, about being grateful, comes out tomorrow. In the book, he attempts to thank everyone who participated in making his morning cup of coffee possible — and everyone includes not just his barista and the coffee farmer, but the man who invented the to-go lid for his cup and the woman in charge of pest control at the plant.

In the podcast, he talks about some strategies to try in order to be more thankful. One of them is this: When you can’t sleep, instead of counting sheep, count things you’re grateful for. You don’t just think of anything, though — you do it in alphabetical order. “A is for Alabama Biscuit, where I got a really tasty goat cheese and pecan biscuit yesterday. B is for barista, and my barista at Caveat Coffee yesterday was really kind, C is for coffee …” That kind of thing. (I’m clearly a little hung up on my coffee shop visits from yesterday.)

The exercise didn’t help me sleep, but it was surprisingly nice anyway. It was harder than I thought it would be to come up with things for each letter, but finding new things made me think of things and memories I’d forgot about. And when I was driving into work this morning, I was still in a mindset of gratitude — instead of being irritated by other drivers, for example, I was thankful that I have access to a car today and don’t have to ride my Vespa in the rain.

A little bit of gratefulness probably isn’t going to turn me into an optimist; I’m not even sure I’d want it to. But it does make a gloomy, rainy Monday just a little brighter.

Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist, a book about buying from locally owned stores. She’s Communications Director at Infomedia, a web development company in Birmingham, Alabama. Find her as @crollwagen on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and most other social media platforms.

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