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How to Think Like an Optimist, Even When Times are Tough

09.07.2020 — Dr. Deepika Chopra

As a kid, my curiosity led me to ask about a million questions all the time (sorry to my parents ha, I get it, I have a very inquisitive toddler now!) I have always been drawn to the “why” of pretty much everything—I certainly didn’t get to where I am now through a straightforward path. During undergrad, I worked at a punk record label, and after college, I worked as an Investment Banker, in the Public Health sector, and finally in Business Development for a telehealth company. I sort of had an early Eat Pray Love moment and quit my job and flew to Japan somewhat on a whim to find out what my true calling was—although I didn’t necessarily find all the answers.

I did, however, come back with the clarity that I wanted to help people on a macro level but even more so on a micro, personal level. I wanted to work within the space of change, growth, and well, science. I knocked on every single door at my alma mater UCLA Neuropsychiatric and tried to persuade anyone to give me a job as an intern while I got my prerequisites done to apply to the grad program. It’s funny, looking back now, I can pinpoint aspects of every single one of my past careers and various other life experiences that have led me to what I am today.

To make a long story short, I ended up completing my Master’s degree and then my Doctorate in Clinical Health Psychology, and a double post-doctoral fellowship at UCLA and Cedars Sinai. I have been studying the science behind optimism, resiliency, and joy for a decade or so now. During my graduate career, I became pretty passionate about the brain and so much of what I was studying and uncovering was pointing toward the brain being this amazing anticipatory organ—this organ that is future-based, so many parts of the brain act in future tense and it was confusing to me that so many of the theoretical practices I was learning to work with patients were past-focused.

“So much of what I was studying and uncovering was pointing toward the brain being this amazing anticipatory organ—this organ that is future-based.”

[Photo: Instagram/@drdeepikachopra]

I always found value in my patients and clients coming to me after years of therapy being able to pinpoint why and how they’re a certain way due to a past relationship or a certain experience. However, something wasn’t working anymore, and I was obsessed with finding ways to help them tackle the “now, what?” part of it all—the real mindset shifts and belief changes. It was clear that I was very into positive psychology and cognitive-behavioral techniques but, after some time I decided that I wanted to go out on a limb and do my own thing, I sort of left the “traditional world” and started my own type of practice. 

Along the way, it became clear that my modalities were different from some of the work clients had been doing and after long drawn out explanations of what we were going to do in our sessions together (I know what I’m good at and can admit where I’m not so strong—being concise isn’t one of my strengths). A client had nailed it; he said, “So, you’re basically a “doctor of optimism.”

Of course, I thanked him because that’s exactly what I was doing but didn’t have a concise or easy way to get that across. I became the Optimism Doctor® and it stuck, so I trademarked it!

I think it’s sort of an intervention in itself, recognizing that if you created something that doesn’t currently exist and doesn’t quite fit into a neat label or box, you have to make it exist. I specialize in blending holistic practices with real evidence-based science.

I’m very passionate about helping people cultivate practical, every day, self-mastery tools to increase happiness and resiliency. I’m also the founder of the Things Are Looking Up Optimism Deck of Cards and the host of the newly launched podcast, Looking Up. 

Looking towards the future

Really, the way to look forward is to be self-compassionate with ourselves and validate and honor losses, fears, grief, frustration, anxieties, anger, and so forth that many of us are feeling right now. At the same time, we must be able to hold space for the hope that things will change, even if we don’t know how or when. Focus on your own resilience and competence of what challenges you’ve already faced. 

People often mistake optimism for this idea of everything being perfect and positive 24/7, so it’s no wonder that some have critical views on the idea of optimism as being devoid of reality. The true definition of optimism is much more rooted in resiliency, duality, and curiosity. I define an optimist as someone who’s very aware and mindful of the setbacks and less than ideal situations, but the caveat is that they see them as temporary and something they have the power to overcome. 

We’re definitely in the middle of a very real and dangerous phenomenon right now: Toxic Positivity. I know it seems strange for an Optimism Doctor to be educating people about toxic positivity, but it’s very real and something I’ve been pretty vocal about. I think so many of us are pressured to just “get over it” or just “be positive” or to not allow a feeling that is anything other than joyful to enter our space (a phrase like “good vibes only” for example).

I think that (while well-intentioned) this drive and pressure to be “positive” all of the time can actually be detrimental and harmful. It disregards and almost vilifies the normal range of human emotions and ends up standing opposite to validation, hope, and resiliency.  It’s so important to note that as humans we’re made to experience a full range of emotions and working through those emotions head-on is what increases our optimism. 

“I define an optimist as someone who’s very aware and mindful of the setbacks and less than ideal situations, but the caveat is that they see them as temporary and something they have the power to overcome.”

 

The ‘Glass Half Full’ Perspective

  • Step outside and be in nature (while socially distancing and remaining six feet away from anyone else, and preferably while wearing a mask if you encounter others): Research shows that spending at least two hours on average per week outdoors increases a positive mood and reduces cortisol levels. This could literally mean stepping out of your front door or onto a balcony!
  • Seek out positive news and content that inspires you: I love to share “#HappyHeadlines” and “#OptimisticContent ” during this time on my Instagram feed. Happiness is contagious and there are so many incredible stories of kindness and people coming together that will bring a smile to your face. If something can bring a smile to your face, then that’s one step closer to a more optimistic mood.
  • Trust yourself and focus on your strengths: We’re all facing circumstances that we have no control over, and aside from acceptance, practicing small amounts of control can be beneficial. Try and focus on what you’re good at, the things that you’re doing well, and the skills that you have. Make ‘ta-da lists’ instead of ‘to-do lists,’ focusing on what you accomplish rather than what you have to do. At the end of the day, try jotting down all the things you got done, no matter how small!
  • Be compassionate with yourself: Give yourself the kind of compassion you’d want others to give you. There’s no right way to feel right now and it’s important to lean into empathy when it comes to feeling all the feels. Some level of anxiety can even be helpful, driving us to run through scenarios and take more self-preserving actions. The key is to mindfully channel the anxious emotions to help us navigate rather than get stuck in a state of dwelling, rumination, or paralysis. This definitely takes practice and the first step is to be compassionate with our fear and anxiety rather than shame it. 
  • Create small rituals that are accessible to you and try to stick to them: We’re going through uncertain times right now, so consistency and stability might not exactly feel the same they did pre-pandemic. Try to keep one or two rituals from your ‘regular’ life, and add some new ones now that best suit your current state of being amid a pandemic. Rituals help center us by keeping us connected to what we value most. I pull a card every morning from my Things Are Looking Up Optimism deck of cards and each card has a holistic or science-based prompt or suggestion that works to shift your mindset and promote resiliency.

Shifting Your Mindset

It’s necessary to remind yourself often that the things that are happening right now, and the places (mentally or physically)  that you’re in, are only temporary. There’s a sense of peace in knowing that this is temporary and it will pass. Remaining present and grounded to your current self and permitting yourself to move on from things, good or bad, is essential in overcoming obstacles and adversity.

There can sometimes be sadness in this notion and that is okay. Good moments or experiences sometimes end to make room for happier experiences and life lessons. 

THE FRENSHE FIVE:

 

What’s something toxic you’re trying to get rid of in your life? My family and I are moving soon and I’d love to get a water filter for my shower/all taps and some air purifying systems for our home. I’m pretty particular about what I ingest and have pretty much moved towards using nontoxic skincare and products, but I haven’t really taken a look at the water I shower with every day. I want to look more into that and things I can do to make sure the air that my family is breathing is of way better quality.

I’m also always on the hunt to find and support companies and businesses that are helping to make nontoxic living more accessible and inclusive because I think these things shouldn’t only be available to a small percentage of the population. Lastly, I’m always working on taking an emotional sweep within my life and eliminating emotionally toxic things I give my energy to. I started to work on removing myself from situations or conversations where women tear down other women—you’d be surprised how hard it is to remove that type of toxicity, but it’s something that I’m always working on.

How do you keep yourself balanced? Honestly, that word sort of makes me shudder. I don’t really believe in the word “balance” anymore. It can often bring up shame, pressure, and this unrealistic or impossible ideal we’re all constantly chasing. I’m much more into another B-word—boundaries. So, I have been teaching more “boundaries over balance” these days.

One health or beauty trend you’ll never do again? Tweeze my eyebrows super thin (Hi, ’90s!), and the “Master Cleanse.”

Top 3 favorite skin products? This one is so hard! So, I’ll say right now at this very moment, BeautyCounter Countermatch Cleanser, Corpus Naturals Deodorant, and Osea Malibu Atmosphere Protection Cream.  

Quote you live by? “Things Are Looking Up” (it’s also the name of my brand!) 

[Lead photos: Instagram/@drdeepikachopra]

Dr. Deepika Chopra