How Do You Stay Optimistic?

Dear Sarah Von,
How do you stay so optimistic even though the world around us has so
many problems?  Everyday I see awful things on the news (war, famine,
class inequality, etc), and even my work is slowly taking a toll on me.
I work in the environmental justice field, and it’s just sad to see how
unfair the world is.  I used to be a much happier person when I
was younger and more oblivious to these sorts of things!  Is this just a
normal part of growing up?
– Maya

Girl, I hear you.  Just like a lot of people, I spent several years feeling certain that bad things only happened to Other People and that what happened in those dirty, war-torn countries didn’t particularly apply to me.Then I started watching the news and paying taxes and paying attention to someone other than myself.  And stuff got real preeeetty quickly.  Here’s how I try to stay positive and optimistic in the face of a world-wide recession and an impending six-month winter.

1) I pick my battles.
I have three causes
that I actively donate to and support: marriage equity, reproductive rights, refugee resettlement.  This is not to say that I ignore
all the other problems in the world, but these are the issues that
speak to me.  I find it’s a lot easier to feel good about the world and
the difference I’m making when I narrow my scope.

2) I choose my news sources carefully.
News melts my brain as does any radio or television show in which people raise their voices
or call each other names.  Nope, not interested.  I read headlines
on The Morning News, I read Slate and Salon, I listen to public radio on the weekends.  That’s it.  I also make an effort to read things like People Are Awesome and 1,000 Awesome Things to level things out a bit.

3) I deal with worldly issues in a way that works for me.

Sometimes  I donate money.  Sometimes I donate my time and skill set.  Sometimes I donate products
or ad space on this blog.  Sometimes I say “that’s totally, totally
awful” and then I turn off the radio.  I donated money to earthquake relief in Japan, but knowing exactly how many died and exactly how much radio active waste is leaking into the ground isn’t going to change anything or make me feel better. (Please note: I’m not advocating putting your head in the proverbial sand in regards to current events but I don’t think knowing every.last.detail about every.single.catastrophe is productive or beneficial.)

4) I surround myself with positive people.

This isn’t to say that my friends and I ignore current events or never
complain about anything (we live in Minnesota, there are six months of snow to gripe about.) But we try not to snipe or to let
conversations deteriorate into negative commentary about our
jobs/bodies/relationships/the state of the world.  Because why talk about that stuff when there operas to go to and fried green tomatoes to eat?

5) I realize that the world has been going to hell in a hand basket since ever.
My grandparents grew up during The Depression and had to drop out of high school to support their families. My mom grew up with neighbors who built bomb shelters in their backyard.  My dad and uncle were in the military during the Vietnam war.  All of those things are scary and challenging and fairly horrible.  But you know what?  All of those people now lead happy, healthy, productive lives.

Again, this is not to downplay the scary things that are happening in our world today, but scary things have been happening since time immemorial.  Lovely, wonderful, amazing things have been happening for that long as well. 

How do you stay positive and optimistic?

image credit: Jennifer Charlotte Saul

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  1. Molly

    I'm naturally a bit of an optimist but I'm also very empathetic, so it's hard for me to hear about all the maddening things in the world. It sounds cheesy but I start with myself and try not to place judgement on others or bring more negativity into the world. I'm human, so it doesn't always happen, but I make a daily conscious effort to find the good in a situation.

  2. Samantha

    These are all really great points. For me it was changing on how to react to people. Sometimes I have to tell myself it's okay to have a difference of opinion and an open debate can teach me something. Or if someone says something completely and utterly insane I have the choice to walk away or use that moment to tell that person why they are wrong in a constructive way (if they are wrong). What I realized was that it was my approach to things change my outlook.

  3. Sarah

    What a perfect read for me today!

    I have lately (within the past week or so) realized that reading, hearing, or watching the news really bums me out. I am so incredibly sick of hearing about all the horrible things that happen just around the city, let alone the entire world and I hate feeling scared or worried or paranoid about doing basic things in fear of rapist or murderers or child abductors.

    So, I had just decided to cut that stuff out of my life. I'm sure I'll hear about anything important on Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me or on Facebook (where news travels ridiculously fast) but I'm not going to go out of my way to read/watch/listen to depressing shit.

    The world can be a scary place, and while it's important to help each other and support one another I don't think it's necessary to be consumed with all the nasty bits. (As an incredibly empathetic person I can let that stuff get to me pretty bad…)

    From now on I'm choosing to be a more positive thinking person. My new mantra is to 'Dwell on Joy'!

    By the way, thanks for drawing my attention to People are Awesome and 1000 Amazing Things, I can already tell that they are making me appreciate the good in the world even more!

  4. Kaitlyn


    Thank you thank you for this wonderful post. I consider myself to be a member of the Eternal Optimist Club and try to make having a sunny disposition part of my identity. I've found that maintaining a positive outlook can often change social dynamics for the better and can make those tending toward pessimism have a little bit of a brighter day. Like everyone else who posted above me, I am empathetic and feel things very strongly. When I got a PETA pamphlet handed to me on my campus I read it cover to cover and cried (hard) over the horrific treatment of animals. The next day I became a vegetarian and haven't looked back since. This was my way of making my little corner of the world a little better. So what did I do when I followed your link to People are Awesome? Cried my eyes out about just how awesome people are, but was oh so happy about it. Thanks for giving be a great cry today!! I mean that in the best possible way.

  5. meme-and-he

    loved this encouraging post. Just what I needed to hear, and just what everyone needs to hear! Choose your battles!!

  6. Alyssa

    oh my, i had the worst bout of this yesterday where i was like hollllly crap life is freakin' sad! i have felt like crying so much lately it's horrible & being a nursing major i've been seeing so much yucky stuff it just is hard to stay optimistic. but that is exactly what i've been telling myself- people are always scared the world is going to end or burst out into war, so I shouldn't waste my time worrying about it! it might not happen and even if it does would I rather have been living a fab life before enduring a nuclear war or being scared about it then being even more miserable?!

  7. Bel

    FYI that illustration is of an actual person and his actual tattoo – POS of the Doomtree crew. Their music always makes me feel good!

  8. kwerk

    For me it's all about the people in my life. Well, not ALL about them, but it makes a huge difference. Especially on Facebook. I'm into being informed, & base my very opinionated ideas off of information that I gather from NPR & other trusted articles, documentaries, etc., but I'm someone that tends to keep them to myself unless I'm taking part in a respectful conversation/debate. As soon as I have a "friend" on Facebook that starts spouting lots of negativity in their status updates or gets too in-your-face about their opinions (which is actually just plain negativity) I hit the "hide" button. I make it a point to filter the things that are coming at me that way among others.

  9. nancy

    this is a wonderful, diplomatic, positive, practical and honest post. I commend you for it! it was a pleasure to read 🙂

  10. Julia H.

    Nicely done with this post! I agree..especially with your 5th point. As much of a bummer as it can be to think that, as you put it, the world has been going to hell in a hand basket since ever, it really does help to keep that in mind. It's just the nature of the world, so the best we can do is stay positive through it all.

  11. Anonymous

    Thanks for posting this Sarah! (I am the person who sent you the email/asked you this question.)

    I suppose what makes it difficult is that I have a lot of activist friends as well, who love to have discussions and debates about every single last detail about every world issue. This is great because I feel well-versed in current events, however it does become overwhelming after a while. I had written my question to you after suffering days of not being able to sleep at night because of my worries regarding the sorry state of the world, and of having the feeling that nothing would ever get better or lead to peace. And so on.

    Things I have been doing since then (after I got your reply!):
    1) Balancing things out by focusing on the little things in my life that are wonderful.

    2) Trying to remind myself that I am doing the best I can to help bring about good things in the world through my work, or even doing small things like holding the door open for someone. If a million people do something small everyday, it might not end something like world hunger, but it is a step closer in the right direction (I guess).

    Thank you so much Sarah.

  12. Sarah Von Bargen

    Gosh, you guys! Thank you so much and I'm so glad you liked this.

    I was actually a bit nervous publishing this. I was certain I'd get multiple comments saying "Sometimes you turn off the radio because you feel overwhelmed?! You don't think that knowing minute details about every depressing current event is helpful?!! BAD PERSON ALERT!"

    Thankfully that has not been the case 😉 High five, team!

  13. Roselie

    This is my one of my favorite posts you've written so far Sarah… Even though I try to be positive it's always useful to know what others do to lighten up. And I want to personally thank you for giving your time and money for marriage equality, it means so much for me even though I don't live in America and in my country (Greece) things are still pretty bad, it makes me feel better to know that in other countries we have hetero allies like you to help us. Thank you so much…

  14. Jill

    Thank you for sharing Good People are Awesome 🙂 It's sad that most news sources only tell us about the crime rates, political conflict, economic depression and the like. Surely there is good news somewhere in the world? Much like everyone else here watching or hearing the news usually depresses me. Sometimes it gets so bad that I don't want to hear what is going on in the world at all. But then when someone says "oh did you hear about….?" I feel bad all over again for tuning out the world.

  15. Morag Lee

    Sarah I have to say: I'm generally the same as you! I don't bury my head in the sand but contribute in ways that I feel I can. I run my uni's cupcake society and we choose a different charity each month for our bake sale and in that I am doing my bit without having to write papers on it.

    But I also like to stay grateful for what I DO have! I take part in Things I Love Thursdays and even if I don't blog about it I still make sure I do it. Realising what I do have has gotten me through so much!

  16. Yelly Efron

    You are right!

    It took several months trying to be more optimistic, during my High school years I always saw the negative side, and believe me these tips help me a lot, I have one, for example do not see too much news.

    I live in Mexico and now the situation is difficult, too much death but this will change someday and I can begin to change from now! in myself

  17. Camels & Chocolate

    Ugh, I struggle with this regularly as I'm not an overly-optimistic person by nature, so it's good reading what other people do to stay upbeat!

  18. Alyssa

    i think your girl wrote in the same thing to
    she just posted the same exact question & her answer.
    what whaaaat

  19. Maria

    I was just gonna say the same thing about She answered to the same letter….

    For Pete's Sake indeed…


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