For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a terrible fear of being stuck in an elevator. I always assumed if it happened to me, I’d surely have a panic attack—or, of course, die from eventual suffocation. Well, last April it happened (click here to read all about it). And not only did I make it out alive, but I managed to keep my wits about me and stay relatively calm to boot.
I was with my family at the time. We were stuck between the 16th and 17th floors of a Baltimore hotel. My husband, who’s calm as a cucumber, didn’t even react. The kids and I, on the other hand, were scared. They started asking me questions that I, quite frankly, was beginning to ask myself: Will we ever get out? Are we gonna run out of air in here? What if they can’t find us? What if the elevator drops 16 floors and we fall to our death?
But I quickly put those thoughts out of my head and made the best of a rotten situation. In attempt to calm the three of us down, I simply told my kids (and myself) that we’d be out in no time. I encouraged us all to focus on how great it would feel when we finally got outside and breathed in the fresh air we so often take for granted. I told my kids they’d have a cool story to tell their friends when they got back to school. And I breathed—deeply and continuously—for more than 30 minutes, until we were eventually freed.
Though frightening at the time, I now look back on that experience with fondness. I somehow managed to take on a positive outlook in an angst-ridden situation. In that moment, I was an optimist!
Here’s the thing about optimism: it can be learned; it can be achieved.
When I was younger, I was a bit of a debbie downer: always assuming the worst; complaining when things didn’t go my way; constantly being annoyed and…. well, you get the point. But that was no fun. And let’s face it, who wants to be around someone like that? I got to a point in my life when I decided that I no longer wanted to be weighed down by my own negativity. From then on, I set my sights on becoming an optimist.
It’s not always easy. Sometimes Mr. Optimism falls asleep on the job and let’s the negativity creep right on in. But as I continue to work on taking the higher, more productive emotional road, I anchor myself on the following key ideas:
There is always a silver lining: If you look hard enough, you can usually find some gem of greatness during a time of challenge. Difficult as it may be, it’s there—somewhere. You just have to open your mind up to it and look. If you want to find it, you will.
This, too, shall pass. Life, by nature, is always moving … evolving … changing. Nothing stays the same. The sun rises, the sun sets; we breathe in, we breathe out; people come and go; money passes hands; our children grow up; our bodies age and our minds mature. Life is free flowing. When you are in the throes of something unpleasant and feel discouraged at any prospect of a better tomorrow, remember that this, too, shall pass. This is where you are now; it doesn’t mean it’s where you will be later. When you look at life through a wider lens, you will be better equipped to handle tough situations with a positive outlook.
Make a change. Accept the things you cannot control and change the things you can. Maybe it’s your diet; maybe it’s your job; maybe it’s your relationships. Or maybe it’s even something simple like the paint color in your bedroom . There’s always something you can do to make a positive change to your current situation—to add a new dimension to your life. With a proactive approach, you’ll feel more empowered to take on life’s challenges. You’ll feel more in control and, therefore, more hopeful.
Understand that you are where you are meant to be. Even if you’re not a spiritual person, try to embrace the idea that everything happens for a reason. Very often, bad experiences will lead to positive outcomes. When I think of this sentiment, Today Show host Hoda Kotb, comes to mind. Around five years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. But she emerged from her difficult ordeal a new person and took a risk that would ultimately change the path of her career: She put herself in the running for an exciting new, high-profile position with NBC. “At the time I finished my surgery, [the network] was starting up the fourth hour of Today. I did something I never dreamt I would ever do–go to the big boss and ask for the job.” said Kotb in an interview for Coping Magazine. She added, “Without cancer, I don’t think I’d be sitting next to Kathie Lee Gifford right now, because I wouldn’t have had the guts or the moxie.” For her, cancer was the catalyst for positive change in her life. It was the path she was meant to take.
Surround yourself with other optimists. It’s contagious. You’d be amazed at just how much an optimistic person can influence your own attitude. Not only will you feed off their positive energy, but you’ll find it easier to emulate their behavior.
Smile. It works. Ever heard of the facial feedback hypothesis? I’m guessing no. Here’s the deal: The facial feedback hypothesis states that facial movement—a smile, for example—can influence emotional experience. So next time you find yourself in a bad mood or stewing over something undesirable, force a smile. See what happens. You may be able to turn your negative attitude around.
Is the glass half empty or half full? Whether I’m stuck in a a stuffy elevator or happily frolicking through a field of fragrant flowers on a perfect Spring day, my goal remains the same: to focus on the positives, regardless of the situation. Is it always easy? No. Will I keep trying? Yes.