Thinking woman
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You know that life isn't sunshine and roses all the time, but you don't want to be Debbie Downer either. So, when is the glass less than half full and how positive is too positive? Dr. Joan Borysenko reveals how to become an optimistic realist and why it might just be the best way to live.
I'm an abject failure when it comes to practicing the law of attraction. At 5'4" and somewhere in the vicinity of 120 pounds, I complain loudly and often about thunder thighs and the sad state of my once flat belly. Looking in the mirror and repeating affirmations about being svelte feels ridiculous. The shape of my nether regions affirms the naked truth. I am a pear with cellulite. Without miracle surgery, I will never be a model for either skinny jeans or, God forbid, swimwear.

Optimistic friends lecture me on the dangers of such negative thinking. But here's the bottom line: It works just fine for me. I still wear the same size jeans that I did in college. Rather than labeling my attitude negative, I call it realistic, and realism rocks because it makes the next necessary step more obvious. "You've gained 5 pounds, Joan, better cut down on those carbs. Now."

My favorite quote is by the mysterious William Arthur Ward, whom Google does not identify: "The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails." Realists who look circumstances in the eyeball without flinching—even if we're just talking about 5 pounds—take necessary action. Working with the forces of the moment, they consciously co-create their own best future.

Why it's good to be a realist

Dr. Joan Borysenko
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While writing my most recent book, It's Not the End of the World: Developing Resilience in Times of Change, I came across some fascinating accounts about the merits of realism, which is one of the three major keys to resilience. When the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, financial giant J.P. Morgan Stanley faced the reality that the highly symbolic building they occupied was a prime terrorist target. They responded by implementing escape drills, which they expected everyone to attend and take seriously.

This heads-up attitude proved to be lifesaving nine years later on 9/11 when two airplanes destroyed the iconic twin towers and killed nearly 3,000 people. Luck was also on J.P. Morgan's side because its 2,700 employees were all in the south tower, which was the second to be struck. The first tower went down at 8:46 a.m. By 8:47 a.m., J.P. Morgan Stanley's employees were evacuating. Within 15 minutes, the offices were almost empty. In spite of receiving an almost direct hit, they lost only seven employees. Realism helped save the day.

Unfettered optimism that's based on the denial of reality, on the other hand, can spell trouble. Think housing bubble and bank collapse. When I questioned the sanity of an enthusiastic friend who bought five houses with 0 percent down circa 2004, she pulled the optimism card on me. Her positive attitude would guarantee success, while my negativity would result in missing the boat of opportunity. Unfortunately for us all, and especially for "Donna," the boat of opportunity turned out to be the Titanic.

The very hip Princeton professor of African-American studies and religion Cornel West warns of the dangers of "cheap optimism," while Wellesley College professor of psychology Julie K. Norem lauds the value of "defensive pessimism." For some of us—and I'm obviously one—thinking thoughts like, "I'm going to blow that presentation," helps reduce anxiety by motivating us to work harder. Work, in turn, reduces anxiety and cuts down worry.

3 tips to become an optimistic realist

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But optimism isn't all bad. It's a necessary and uplifting attitude toward life, as long as it functions hand-in-hand with realism. In times of change, we're challenged to let go of the old and create a future different from the past. That transition involves surrender to, and trust in, the unseen. If I'm realistic and give up a job that is seriously stressing me out, for example, it helps to trust that I'll be able to find something better. Otherwise, I'll start to feel helpless and hopeless, which is when defensive pessimism turns into crippling depression.

The ability to surrender to the unknown and to live with trust in the times between "no longer" and "not yet" is optimistic realism. With your feet on the ground and your mind open to possibility, every experience has the potential to deepen your wisdom and connection to the richness of life.

3 Tips for Becoming an Optimistic Realist

  • Identify a realistic action step to help you through change. When the recession hit, I called the phone company and saved $40 a month by asking them to suggest ways to trim costs. I became more involved in the day-to-day running of my business, and almost instantly new opportunities emerged.

  • Stoke the fires of spiritual inspiration. The Sufis say if you take one step toward God, God takes a hundred steps toward you. Meditation, music and time outside keep me spiritually optimistic and present to the beauty of the world and this life.

  • Be accountable to a friend. Just as people who have dogs get more exercise because they are accountable to their animal companions, you can exercise your resilience muscles by identifying a step—either practical or spiritual—and telling a friend what your intention is.

New York Times best-selling author Dr. Joan Borysenko is a world-renowned expert in stress management and mind-body medicine. Her gracious presence, sense of humor and ability to combine the latest scientific research with personal stories and riveting anecdotes make her a popular speaker in venues ranging from hospitals and corporations to conferences and retreat centers. Her most recent book, It's Not the End of the World: Developing Resilience in Times of Change (Hay House), is available now.

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