Optimism: The Last of the Human Freedoms

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning

On April 27, 1945 near the end of World War II, Viktor Frankl was liberated from a German Nazi concentration camp. These camps were made for people of Jewish decent and others deemed “undesirable” to the Nazis.  Most prisoners were killed, and others were forced into horrific conditions of labor and degradation.

Frankl survived the awful holocaust, but like other survivors, he was stripped of everything including his human dignity. In the end he lost virtually everything meaningful in his life, including his wife, his parents, his brother, and his career as a neurologist and psychiatrist. Frankl’s family and 6 million other Jews and 5 million other non-Jews  were killed by the Nazis. 

Like anyone who experiences such horrors, Frankl suffered greatly while imprisoned.  But, at some point during the depths of his suffering, Frankl made a decision. He decided that there was a part of himself the Nazis could never touch.

Frankl discovered the last of the human freedoms: the ability to decide what those painful, inhumane experiences would mean to him. 

Frankl decided to use his concentration camp experiences for something good. He decided to use his professional psychiatric skills to help other prisoners in the camp, and he even helped some of the guards. He also imagined what it would feel like should he ever get out to share his experiences and lessons with the larger world.

Although Frankl’s reality seemed bleak and hopeless, he created hope for himself by this powerful decision. He was able to transform his suffering into something that had meaning.

Optimism = Freedom

Another word for this last of human freedoms is optimism.  Optimism is often misunderstood as positive thinking or deceiving oneself into believing life will get better. Optimism is actually very different from self-deception.

To Frankl, an optimist acknowledges and accepts external reality, even at its worst. But importantly, the optimist then says “yes” to all of life, including its problems. The optimist decides to harness and use the difficulties to create something more positive and meaningful for himself and for others.

A pessimist, on the other hand, is more likely to allow fate to control not only the external reality but also the internal one.  A pessimist is disgusted with reality, and as a result, gives away his ultimate power: his state of mind.  The consequence is that he gets tossed around by the events of life-like a small vessel in a stormy ocean.  

Another quote from Frankl’s excellent book, Man’s Search For Meaning, describes the power of optimism:

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

This concept when really internalized is one of the most uplifting and empowering ideas imaginable.  All of us have the power in each moment to choose our response. We may be victims of circumstance, of cruelty, or of unfairness, but we are not victims within our own minds. Short of certain real psychiatric conditions, we have a power that can never be taken from us.

If we acknowledge and act on this power, we experience growth and freedom.  If we ignore it, we experience stagnation and an imprisonment of our own making.

Optimism may have been Frankl’s only form of freedom in the concentration camp, but Frankl’s broader message to the world was that we can embrace optimism and make our lives, our relationships, our careers, and our finances more liberated right now.

How to Become More Optimistic

I have found optimism to be a lot like a muscle. The muscle is our mental ability to increase the size of that gap between a stimulus and our response. Like any other muscle, you have to strengthen and stretch your optimism over time in order to realize its full benefits.

So, here are a few very practical exercises and practices that I have picked up over the years that help me to flex my optimism muscles.

Play the Equanimity Game

I got this idea from fellow entrepreneur and teacher Brian Johnson, and he got it from the book Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and philosopher who made a cameo appearance in the movie Gladiator.

The game is to basically pay attention and notice anytime during the day when you get mentally off-balance. This could happen, for example, when someone cuts you off in traffic, and you get angry. After you notice this, see how fast you can bring yourself back to a normal state of mind.

You will not be able to avoid the negative events or the emotional impulses themselves, but you can get better and better at your actual response. In this way you can practice and train your brain to return to a more desirable state of equanimity.

This is better than playing Monopoly, right?! 🙂

Use Deep Breathing

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from practicing some Eastern meditative practices like Yoga and Tai Chi is that our breath and our thoughts are intimately connected. If you want to control your thoughts or the gap between your thoughts, learn to control your breathing.

A simple way to practice this daily is to once again notice when you are mentally unbalanced. For me this is easy to find during any of the dozens of times daily when my young children press my emotional buttons!

Instead of immediately reacting to the stimulus of my children breaking something, whining, or stealing a toy from the other, at my best (which is certainly not always) I decide to take some deep breaths.

I might just step away, close my eyes, and take 3 deep breaths (count to 4 breathing in, count to 6 breathing out). At first your kids might think you’re building up your anger to REALLY let them have it, but if you’re like me, just those breathes will provide enough of a gap to allow a better, more intelligent response in that moment.

Exercise Regularly

If the effects of regular exercise on the brain could be bottled up into a pill, it might be the best-selling drug on the planet. But luckily for you and for me, exercise is free and available every day.

There are numerous scholarly medical articles that document the positive mental and physical effects of exercise, but this summary by Harvard Medical School does a nice job of explaining how exercise can alleviate depression and other mood disorders.

Getting started after a long hiatus from regular exercise may be difficult, so get with a buddy or even with a personal trainer to help you get going. Start slowly so that you don’t hurt yourself, and focus on consistency over intensity.

The long-term effects on your mood and your mind will be WELL worth it. As any regular exerciser will attest, the “high” experienced for hours and days after exercising are real and can help you become much more optimistic.

Keep a Gratitude Journal

The last tip is another simple yet very helpful exercise that can train your brain to become more optimistic. This exercise is to keep a gratitude journal, which means each day write down at least five things you are grateful for. These can be very simple, like you had a tasty meal, or very large, like you had a healthy child or grandchild.

Psychological studies (and common sense) have found that this simple gratitude practice can boost your optimism, attention, energy, and other positive mental attributes. I have also just found it very enjoyable to “count my blessings” and realize all of the wonderful things that sneak by my radar until I write them down.

Choose Optimism

I hope the story of Victor Frankl has inspired you as much as it has me. Frankl received hope in the midst of despair because he knew those bad experiences could be transformed into powerful lessons for others.

Isn’t it amazing that the decision he made in a concentration camp in the early 1940’s to choose optimism is still positively affecting others like us today?

I hope in your own way, you will make a similar choice to practice optimism. I look forward to practicing alongside you.

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