How to be an Optimist

Posted On July 16, 2008

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Written by Counsellor al-Muhandis

What are the best strategies for people to stay positive and optimistic?

In order to address this question, one must first seek to understand, how people end up being negative and pessimistic, in the first place. Once we understand this, we can then hope to understand how to change ourselves into being positive and optimistic.

Speaking from experience, negative emotions and a general negative outlook in life comes from bad past experiences. More often than not, this negativity remains lingering, in quite substantial ways, even after those experiences are over. It is precisely this negativity that affects the rest of our lives.

There are various kinds of experiences that can lead one to possessing negative emotions and pessimism. One of the most common problems is the problem of “love.” Majority of “love” stories have a tragic end. No one can doubt for a second that such so-called tragic ends end up leaving both parts psychologically damaged. Some people move on. Many, however, don’t. Often times, your job may be the worst in the world, and you just can’t seem to get out of the rut. Maybe your parents forced you into becoming a doctor, while you wanted to study anthropology. In any of these situations, the end result is the same. You end up feeling negative. This negativity is the result of a feeling of victimization (the “Why me?” attitude) and a self-pity that results from that feeling of victimization. This self-pity often leads one to enter into a pseudo-obsessive-compulsive mode, wherein one keeps thinking about their bad experiences over and over again. Since the majority of the time that they’re awake is overshadowed by thoughts related to their experiences, they lost their ability to function effectively. This affects their work, their education, their relationships, and whatever else they may have connected to them.

So what does one do? Let’s take this step by step. The first thing, as I mentioned earlier, is drive and motivation. When one engulfs themselves in their feelings of victimization and self-pity it becomes very hard to possess any drive or any motivation that may help them move forward. Students of physics know that energy is expended if an energetic potential develops between two bodies. This is why objects gravitate towards the earth; magnets are attracted to each other, and positive charges attract negative charges. If one is able to develop this same kind of attraction towards a goal, that potential is created whereby one is able to propel themselves forward towards that goal. The importance of goal setting cannot be stressed enough. Clear and thoughtful goals about one’s mission in life are essential to bringing oneself out of the murky waters of negative emotions.

Off course, for us Muslims, this job is rather easy. Our purpose is defined by Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala in the Quran. Allah says, “wa ma khalaqatal jinna wal insa illa liya’budun,” which means, “And I have not created the demons and mankind except for My worship.” One could take this one extra level by combining this verse with the words of the Prophet alaihissalatuwassalaam from the Hadith of Gibril alaihissalam (in response to his question about what Ihsan meant), “an ta’abullah ka annaka tarahahu,” which means “To worship Allah as though you see Him.” In other words, as Muslims, our goal in life is not just to worship, but to worship with Ihsan or excellence. In rather plain words, this means that our goal is to worship Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala with the most excellent of worship. As one of the `ulema put it, one must become single minded about this idea. Off course, once one understands with complete clarity that our purpose is the excellent worship of Allah, one strives to find out what that entails. This principle will be expounded upon subsequently.

Once when our purpose is clear, one must accept reality. Not being able accept reality and see things as they really are tends to obscure one’s vision, and hinders one from one’s goals. So as mentioned in the examples above, if one meets a tragic end in their “love story,” or one find himself in a crummy job, or one finds themselves in an educational program that they don’t like, they’re response should not be, “I am so helpless!” The appropriate response is, “Allah willed it, and so I am in this situation, now what can I do to get out of it?” Accepting the reality of the situation is not merely to affirm that your particular situation is crummy. Accepting the reality of the situation is to affirm that Allah willed for you to be in that situation. Thus, being angry or disappointed, at what Allah has willed is really being disappointed at Allah Himself, wal iyadhubillah. Thus, tawakkul is a very real part of being able to accept reality.

When one begins to see things really are, one must now begin to take certain actions, and one must avoid taking certain other actions. When one finds themselves in a crummy situation, acknowledges that their sole purpose in life is the worship of Allah and also begins to see things as they really are, then one cannot but help take action. When Allah puts one in a situation, one must act in accordance with the Sacred Law that is decreed for that particular situation. For someone who’s just realized the two principles mentioned above, he or she faces two situations: (1) They’re stuck in a mire of victimization and self pity and (2) they do not have the appropriate knowledge of Sacred Law to be able to respond to most situations in life. Thus the actions that should be taken at this point are: (1) removal from the muck of self-pity and (2) learning the Deen.

The first requires a great deal of thought control. Removal from self-pity involves stopping the obsessive-compulsive thoughts about their bad situations. Whenever you find yourself thinking about your awful situation, remind yourself of two things: (1) there are people who are much worse off than you (and hence you should actually be making Shukr to Allah) and (2) that no one other than Allah can take you out of this situation (which should be compelling you to make dua). Many psychiatrists recommend that when one has negative thoughts, one should take a paper and a pen and start jotting down all the thoughts one is having. Then for each thought that one jots down, one should write down a “counter-thought” that negates that thought. Doing this every time one has negative thoughts will lead one to a greater level of thought control. Before long, one will begin to come out of those negative feelings that one was feeling.

The second action requires a great deal of striving. If one performs thought control exercises and succeeds in removing their negativity, but does not take actions to sustain his positive thoughts, chances are that he will slip back into the former negative mode. This will happen because one will not know how to respond to situations when one faces them. Since our goal is to worship Allah, any response that we have to any situation (whether it is a negative situation or a positive situation) must be in line with the Sacred Law. Just knowing how to respond to situations will prevent one from falling back into the same negative mode. It is for this reason that learning about the Sacred Law becomes essential. One begins, with the absolute basics, if one doesn’t know them already, i.e. one must properly learn their aqidah, and must learn their basic fiqh at the very least.

The forgoing necessitates accompaniment with people of knowledge. This is a critical element in one’s ability to maintain their positivity. One must begin hanging out with people who share the same outlook on life that they themselves do. This not only includes accompanying the scholars, but also the students of knowledge. The benefits of this are three-fold: (1) one is able to learn their Deen on a constant and consistent basis (2) one is able to keep the negativity and pessimism away and (3) last but certainly not the least it is a Sunnah to make as many Deeni friends as possible. Having a constant connection with such people provides one with a basis through which one can find out how to respond to situations, when one comes across them, in a way that is pleasing to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.

Another important element, of being able to maintain a positive and optimistic outlook on life, is to avoid negative situations and avoid negative people. If this means avoiding your crush, so be it. (This in fact is the advice of many `ulema when one “falls in love.”) If this means changing your job to something that more suitable to your temperament, so be it. If this means transferring to another degree program, so be it.

However, many times it may not actually be possible to avoid these situations or people. If the girl you have a crush on is in your class and you see her every day, or if you can’t find a suitable job just as yet, or if your parents do not allow you to switch to another degree program, then one must bear that situation with patience (keep making dua to Allah) and one must keep reminding oneself that they are in a situation that is a million times better than the situation millions of other human beings are in. This two-fold approach is in fact a proper response to a given particular situation.

Once this edifice is set-up one must add, what Stephen covey calls, “the sharpening of the saw.” For Muslims, this simply means, adding much dhikr, Quran and other spiritual stuff that keeps one’s mood alive and kicking. This also involves, at least in our times, maintaining one’s health. Regular exercise and a proper diet regulate the hormones in one’s body that affect one’s mood. Often times, negative people face a lot of depression. This depression can simply be alleviated by a daily dose of endorphin. Luckily for us, endorphins are released into the blood by the brain, and we do not need to go to a drug store to buy them. In order to release them, you should be engaging in extremely vigorous exercise at least thrice a week. Or if you want, keep to a moderate level in your work out, but do it daily. Maintain a proper diet and balance your meals. Avoid junk food and avoid restaurants unless necessary. Drink lots of water. And for those of you who can, get rid of your television. (I just might to another article on how television and media in general affect our psychological health.)

Finally, when one has achieved constancy and consistency in the aforementioned approach, one must realize that the empty mind is really the devil’s workshop. Therefore, whenever you find yourself absolutely free, engage in something constructive. Read a book, listen to lectures, play with your kids, spend some time with your wife, or just talk to your siblings or parents. Visiting friends is also a great way to keep oneself busy and most certainly helps to alleviate any negativity.

The key is to realize that one does not exist for one’s own self or for other people. One exists solely for Allah. Once one can settle that thought in the mind, the rest of the steps in this approach are very easy to achieve.