The silver linings playbook for life

“I think of intelligent optimism as a discipline, the rigorous discipline to stay in the state of mind of possibility.” Ben Zander, The Art of Possibility

A few weeks ago I was up in the Boston area for meetings, and visiting my dad in Concord. Today, around 5:30 pm — rush hour — we were driving toward the city to pick up my sister at the airport. There had been quite a bit of discussion beforehand about what time we should leave to take into account the traffic and as we headed in, sure enough, there were lines of cars in every direction.

“Look at all the traffic!” I kept exclaiming (because I’m from New York where, you know, we hardly have any). “There’s only one person in each car! It’s bumper to bumper! How do they do this everyday!?” And then my dad demonstrated why he’s a master of the silver lining. “Well, let’s just be glad that all these people have jobs,” he said.

If you’re someone who believes in looking at things just the way they are, you probably find perennially positive types like my dad annoying and Pollyanna-ish. Come on, be realistic, you’re thinking.

The thing is, there is no one, singular reality. There’s always an alternative view and we get to decide what it is. When you’re driving down the street, you can notice all the potholes — or, just as realistically, how much of the street is pothole-free. You can fixate on the “no thanks” you got from the potential investor/client — or, on the fact that you had a meaningful two-hour discussion.

When you’re able to home in on the brighter side (and it takes practice, for sure), you’re more likely to keep on going in the face of difficulty, to not give up. Studies show that pessimists are more often right — in fact, there is no solution to this problem! — but optimists, by virtue of their persistent nature, are ultimately more successful. (In a study of law students, Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD, found that a person’s level of optimism in the first year of law school corresponded with his or her salary 10 years later. On a 5-point optimism scale, every 1-point increase in optimism translated into a $33,000 annual increase.)

So how can you get better at this “look on the bright side” thing if it doesn’t come naturally? Anytime something unwanted happens, practice finishing this sentence: “Well, at least…”

“Well, at least I didn’t spill coffee on my suit/dress.” “Well, at least I was able to meet with the CEO.” “Well, at least I had the courage to ask for the raise.” “Well, at least I finished the race.”

If you can’t find a positive slant, ask a natural optimist; they’ll find an angle. Like Henry, my four-year-old nephew, said about his classmate: “She’s kind of mean and bites…but she can count to ten.”