Hope on the tarmac: How I practiced optimism and why and how you can, too

hope on the tarmac: how I practiced optimism and why and how you can, too

Ever get stuck in a seemingly hopeless situation?

Ever get stuck in a thinking funk?

Today, I’ll share my story of how I experienced both, and what I did to get unstuck and see the bright side. Plus, I’ll show you why and how to get yourself in a more optimistic mindset to produce better results.

First, my story...

Hopeless in Houston: How I got my thinking unstuck and got my plane to take off (well, sort of…)

Setting: Houston’s Bush International Airport.

Having just facilitated client workshops for two days, I am eager to go back home.

But the weather seems to have other plans for me. Severe thunder storms all day (and night) in Houston caused the airport to shut down and stop all incoming and outgoing flights.

(At least I’m able to sit at the bar and enjoy a beer to pass the time.)

Meanwhile, many of my colleagues who worked with me at the client conference, who have been stuck on the tarmac for more than two hours, are being returned to their gates.

Some flights are delayed, others cancelled. It’s a mess.

Finally, the airport reopens. My flight begins to board.

While hoisting my very heavy bag up into the overhead bin, SNAP - my sandal strap rips out of the sole. Oh, great! 

Next, I discover there is someone sitting in my seat. Oh brother!

As I shuffle past my seatmates, I realize that my phone is missing. Had I dropped it in all the hullabaloo trying to get on board and in my seat? Oy vey!

(My mind says: this is terrible. Nothing is going my way! My naturally pessimistic self-talk is in full swing.)

The woman sitting in the middle seat next to me is friendly and kind. She offers to call my phone from hers. It rings from the crack behind my seat... Phew.

The rain, thunder, and lightning continue outside. We're stuck, motionless at the gate.

6:10 pm: The captain announces that the ground crews are grounded until the thunder storm passes. He also tells us that the crew on board has an expiration time of 7:38 pm. If they don't get airborne by that time, they have to get off the plane due to FAA regulations.

We wait. And wait.

Some planes are taking off now. Yet we're immobile.


6:55 pm: The captain comes out of the cockpit and into the middle of the plane. Calmly, he explains the situation and the options.

The way I read between his lines, he's telling us we're screwed. (There goes that pessimistic self-talk again!)

Myoa, my seatmate, is hopeful.

I'm texting with David, my eternally optimistic husband, who is concerned.

I'm seeing the worst case scenario, but there's a little glimmer of cautious hopefulness in me.

Chances are slim that we’ll be able to be airborne by 7:38, and the captain just wants to manage our expectations and explain to us what we're up against and what might happen.

He describes how the lines for takeoff are 25-plane-deep and that if we don't get in line for takeoff by 20 minutes before that dreaded 7:38 deadline there's a strong chance he'll have to turn the plane around and return to the gate. 

I'm feeling a dark hopelessness in this moment. It's seems inevitable: I'm going to get stuck. (How’s that for raging pessimism?)

David is waiting by for more info on the other side of the WhatsApp app.

Myoa is still hopeful.

Tick tock…

7:00 pm: The pilot is standing in the aisle. So even if they open up the bridge, how will he be ready to navigate this thing out of here?!

I tell Myoa that I think there's no chance.

Myoa is hopeful.

7:05 pm: Word comes to the captain that the bridge has been reopened. He says he'll give it a shot, and walks back to the cockpit.

We're all tense with anticipation.

I'm texting David a blow-by-blow account of the developments and status. He has snapped back into his usual positive outlook: ‘Hands together in prayer’ emoji 🙏.

7:07 pm: We are pulling away from the gate!!!

David sends a ‘thumb up’ emoji 👍.

I'm stingy with my optimism. After all, I tell Myoa, this could all be a big charade. He warned us about how he's just going to drive down the runway only to have to turn back around when the time has elapsed. There's no use.

Looking out from the tiny window, Myoa remarks, "I can see the sun between the clouds on the horizon. This is a hopeful sign."

I think, "yeah, sure, right..." (and the cynicism in my head reigns supreme).

We start taxiing slowly toward the runway. Really?!

And we stop.

7:25 pm: We're sitting on the tarmac in the same spot for what seems like eternity.

7:27 pm: We inch forward, and stop again.

7:28 pm: We slowly roll forward, rounding a corner on the runway!

David texts me two emojis: a smiley 😊 and a ‘plane taking off’ 🛫. He is hopeful, I should be too.

I make a decision: I need to shift my outlook. I resolve that I'll set up a text message with the word "YES!!!" and some smiley faces. I'll tee it up but I can't send it yet.

Keyword: YET.

(My cautious optimism is strengthening.)

I tell Myoa about my little trick. "I decided to intentionally shift from cynicism to optimism," I explain. I show her David's emojis. She's excited. We can do it!

Everyone, including me, is counting down the minutes. The seconds.

It's 7:31...  7:32...  7:33...  Tick tock…

We're stopped again.

Please, please, captain. Make it work! Do it. do it!

7:34 pm: We start down the runway. The plane ahead of us takes off.

Oh my gosh, will we make it?

7:35 pm: We are accelerating. Everyone on the plane is clasping hands and clenching teeth.

We’re gonna do it! We’re gonna take off!... ?!?!

OMG! I hit ‘send’ on the optimistic text message to David - the one that's been ready for several minutes.

"YES!!! 😊 😊 😊"

 7:36 pm: Take off!!! WE. ARE. AIRBORNE!!!

Claps, cheers, hoots and hollers erupt throughout the plane. We did it!!!

Myoa and I are giving each other a high five. We were hopeful. I became hopeful to match her hopefulness and David's optimism, and I talked myself into believing it could turn out for the best, against the odds and against the clock.

Learned optimism: Yes, we can!

Is it possible to become more optimistic even if it’s not your instinctual response style? Research says YES!

Could changing from a more pessimistic to a more optimistic thinking or self-talk style help you be happier, more resilient, and even healthier? Research says YES!

(Will it make planes take off? Well, not so sure about that, but how could it hurt?)

So in the rest of this blog post, I’ll show you both WHY and HOW to become more optimistic.

Why should you care about becoming more optimistic?

It can help you be more resilient and recover faster from adversity. “Far from being delusional or faith-based, having a positive outlook in difficult circumstances is not only an important predictor of resilience -- how quickly people recover from adversity -- but it is the most important predictor of it. People who are resilient tend to be more positive and optimistic compared to less-resilient folks; they are better able to regulate their emotions; and they are able to maintain their optimism through the most trying circumstances.” (source)

Being more optimistic can even significantly improve your cardiovascular health according to researchers at the University of Illinois. “Individuals with the highest levels of optimism have twice the odds of being in ideal cardiovascular health compared to their more pessimistic counterparts. This association remains significant, even after adjusting for socio-demographic characteristics and poor mental health.” (source)

And according to recent Harvard research, there are associations between optimism, hope, and overall satisfaction with life with reduced risk of heart disease and stroke. (source

Aren’t these good reasons?

Yeah, but can I actually change to being more optimistic?

Yes, you can!

Good news: If you’re not naturally very optimistic, extensive research by Dr. Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania, shows that optimism can be learned and increased.

Seligman’s research shows that the ‘explanatory style’ we use to talk to ourselves (and others) about good and bad events that happen to us can indicate whether we are using an optimistic or pessimistic lens.

Our goal is to adopt a more optimistic explanatory style.

Here are key difference in how optimists and pessimists describe bad and good events in terms of their prevalence, pervasiveness, and source.

(c) Halelly Azulay, TalentGrow LLC. Seligman's Explanatory Styles

(c) Halelly Azulay, TalentGrow LLC. Seligman's Explanatory Styles

Prevalence means how permanent or temporary you think the particular event is. Seligman’s research shows that optimists tend to see bad events are temporary (“this bad thing happened just this time”) while pessimists tend to think they’re very prevalent (“bad stuff ALWAYS happens to me”). The opposite is true about how they explain good events: optimists think that “good stuff always happens to me” while pessimists are more likely to think this one good event is just a fluke.

Pervasiveness means that when a bad event happens, optimists tend to think it’s something that is really specific to this one context, whereas pessimists tend to think that the bad luck is pervasive to many other areas or contexts beyond this event. Again, the opposite is true about good events: optimists think “I’m great at this skill as well as many others” whereas pessimists think it’s a really specific situation that caused the good fortune.

Finally, they see the source as totally different: optimists think they are the source of good stuff and attribute bad events to a more external source (outside themselves). Pessimists think bad stuff happens to them because they are unqualified, or unlucky, or not smart enough, but if something good happens, they’ll say “it’s something weird in the air today”, or “the boss must’ve been in a random good mood today to give me a compliment”.

So How Do I become more optimistic even if it’s not MY natural thinking style?

You must change your self-talk to change your thinking

When you have pessimistic self-talk, you have to

  • catch it,
  • intercept it, and
  • argue with it!

Now that you’re aware of these ‘scripts’, I think you’ll start noticing them more as they’re happening. Catching yourself in the middle of your explanatory style is the first step to changing it.

If your intuitive, knee-jerk explanatory style is more on the pessimistic side, what you need to do is to intercept it and argue with it. (Take this test to see your default level of optimism.)

Yes, I am telling you to actually argue with yourself inside your head. In fact, if you’re alone, go ahead and do it out loud! (It’s okay, no one will know…)

Tell yourself: “Now, self, that’s not actually *true* that these bad things ALWAYS happen to me. What about the [good thing #1 that actually happened] and the [actual good thing #2]? See? You’re just exaggerating unfairly, so STOP IT!”

(Yes, just like that!)

Or, tell yourself: “Now, self, why do you think the boss was just under some weird spell when she said those nice things? You deserved that compliment – you really DID do a great job on that project!”

Or, say, “Now, self, why do you think this good thing is just a fluke? You work hard and it’s very likely that it will happen again if you put your mind to it!”

Are ya kiddin’ me? That’s just weird, I can’t do that!

Yes, you can.

Yes, it’s going to feel awkward at first, but trust me, the more you consciously practice this kind of reframing, the more it will actually become a new habit that will shift from needing your conscious attention to being a habitual, unconscious explanatory style.

By intentionally practicing optimistic self-talk, you will become more naturally optimistic. I didn’t make that up – that’s what the research shows. But I can tell you that I’m working on it and it’s working. Slowly, but it’s helping.

Your turn

So – are you with me? Will you take this up as a challenge to shift your own explanatory style and become more optimistic? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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