Look, this year hasn’t exactly been wonderful for anyone. We’re in the midst of a global health crisis that’s killed hundreds of thousands in the US alone. We’re embroiled in massive political division and strife. Wildfires have ravaged the country. We’ve seen the death of historical figures and role models alike.
And things don’t seem like they’ll be letting up in the near future.
In the face of all of that, no one could blame a person for becoming a bit jaded. When the hits keep on coming, it’s natural to perpetually brace for the next punch.
But according to experts, a number of factors can actually determine how optimistic or pessimistic our outlook on the current situation is.
“People seem to be looking for more bad news all the time—even those little things that don’t impact them directly,” says Amy Morin, LCSW and psychotherapist. “They’re often looking to reinforce their beliefs that 2020 is the worst year ever. So stories about murder hornets, wildfires, and natural disasters take on new meaning.”
Is 2020 Actually the Worst?
Honestly, I remember feeling the same way in 2016. It was also a time of huge political division. There were widespread riots over police brutality. And we lost many legendary figures that year–like David Bowie, Prince, Carrie Fisher, and Alan Rickman. It, too, felt like the worst year of all time.
Granted, a global pandemic makes this year a lot tougher. But when you’re in the middle of a tough time, it’s hard to maintain any sort of objectivity or perspective. It makes you more sensitive to bad news, and less likely to recognize good news even when it happens.
“Even though bad things happen every year, during the pandemic those bad things seem to serve as proof that this year is the worst year ever,” Morin says.
“When anything good happens, people seem to be afraid to celebrate,” she continues. “They’re ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop’ and they expect their good fortune to be taken away from them. It’s almost as if some people are afraid to let their guards down and be happy, even for a minute.”
But Not Everyone is a Pessimist
It turns out, a person’s ability to remain optimistic in the face of such widespread awfulness depends on their world view before the awfulness hits. It can also be influenced by their financial situation, mental health, and the type of support they receive from their social circle.
People who have worked in politics or social justice also seem to have a better chance of keeping up a more optimistic perspective.
“For those people who are able to channel their frustration, their sadness, their anger into collaborations and movement work, their perspective is positive,” says Lourdes Dolores Follins, PhD, LCSW. “Those who can’t find those opportunities or don’t have those opportunities [are] a little less optimistic, much more despairing.”
And while there’s no doubt that this year has taken its toll on our mental health at large, there are some factors that help individuals to weather things a bit easier. Like spirituality or religion, or strong social support.
“If you had a fairly good level of support before the pandemic, that might make it easier to… stay optimistic about the future,” Follins says.
Follins also finds that people of color often come from a cultural background that helps them to cope.
“For example, some African Americans who are really connected to their cultural heritage have been able to remain optimistic because they’re like, ‘Listen, my ancestors went through worse. We can get through this,'” she says.
How You Can Cope
Recognizing that you have a problem is the first step. If you find yourself dwelling so much on the negative that it’s impacting your life or your work, or if you catch yourself searching for bad news (we’ve all done it), flip that thought process on its head. Deliberately seek out the positive in a situation. Or write a list of things in your life that you’re grateful for.
And since socialization seems to be a huge part of how people cope in times of stress, make an effort to reach out to a friend or family member to talk things through.
Just make sure that once you’ve gotten those thoughts out of your head and spoken aloud, you try to steer that conversation towards something that makes you happy. End the encounter on a high note. For both of your sakes.