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How to Win the Battle of Negative Expectations to Achieve Happiness

Some people have been cultivated in a life of pessimism and so, end up being pessimists. To achieve happiness, you may have to battle some negative emotions. Take Joe, for example. Joe, a middle-aged mental-health professional, is a closet pessimist.

On the outside, Joe looks and sounds like an optimist. He’s quick to offer advice to his clients, as well as friends and family, like: “Hey, it’ll work out — you’ll see.” But when it comes to his own future, Joe is much more pessimistic. He says, “Every time the phone rings, my first thought is ‘Oh Lord, what’s wrong now?’ I can’t help it — it’s just automatic.”

Joe thinks like a pessimist. Like millions of others, he was raised in an alcoholic, abusive home. Joe likes to put it this way, “In our family, we were always just one beer away from chaos. The future was very tentative.” As a kid, Joe learned to hope for the best but expect the worst — it’s how children of alcoholics survive.

The problem is, the pessimism of Joe’s past has persisted, and now it just complicates his present mental and emotional life. What was adaptive for the child is now a problem for the adult!

If you see yourself in Joe’s story, the good news is that you can win the battle of negative expectations. Remember: Anything that is learned can ultimately be unlearned. You learned to expect the worst, and you can unlearn it, too. Here are five simple rules to help you do just that:

  • Accept the fact that you’re a pessimist at heart. You don’t have to go around sharing that information with just anyone, but you should be honest with yourself about the challenge you face in becoming a more positive-thinking person.

  • Accept the fact that your first thought is always a negative one — that’s just a given. But don’t go with this thought, don’t dwell on it, and certainly don’t let it guide your behavior at that moment.

  • Remember that it’s the second thought that counts. Learn to counteract your initial pessimism by substituting an optimistic thought. So, for example, “I’m not sure I can do this” becomes “Wow, what a great opportunity!”

  • Separate the past from the present (and the future). Start saying, “That was then; this is now.” No longer link the chaos of your early years (or whatever negative experiences you had in the past) with the expectations you have for things that come up in today’s world.

  • Reward yourself for this self-initiated change in thinking. Give yourself a pat on the back, or head to your local coffee shop for your favorite drink.

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