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We asked, you answered: What's your secret to staying optimistic in gloomy times?

Leif Parsons for NPR

A few weeks ago, we published the thoughts of a few global advocates and activists on how they find the hope when things seem hopeless. We asked our readers to share their optimistic strategies and they really, really did — nearly 100 wonderful responses. Stay optimistic! Here's a selection of the themes and thoughts and thank you to everybody who wrote in.

The humor connection

Humor continues to be one of the things that gives me hope. No matter how hard life can get, there are always people who find a way to make things feel lighter. It could be as simple as silly viral animal videos or the more complex comedy that contextualizes our lives in the broader arc of history. Either way, we as humans tend to know when we need to break the tension and give ourselves a mental reset. -Eric Conrad, Washington, D.C.

I don't think I could live in this world without humor. It's best when it is shared. It connects us to our loved ones but even brings us closer to strangers. Haven't you ever glanced across a room, caught someone's eye and shared a smile with a total stranger over a funny incident? It's understanding the human condition. We're still in this together. -Joy Stephenson, Gainesville, Fla.

A simple grin

I feel like I'm in a chronic state of despair over the various bad situations all over the planet, with my personal struggles on top of them. But several years ago, I walked into a hardware store that I hadn't been to in a long time. One of the cashiers (whom I didn't know from Eve) let out a loud "Welcome back!" and added, "I love how every time you come in our store, you're smiling ... it makes my day." I guess I was smiling without even realizing it and had no idea how simple smiles can affect other people for the better. -Richard Crank, Topeka, Kan.

It's little things that cause that inward smile, like the cloud that swirls up from cream being poured into a hot cup of coffee. It's nice to have simple pleasures. I am thankful. I try to be observant of God's workings in my life and to be aware of His many blessing. Oh, I can get as negative and as angry as the next person, but I try not to stay there long. -Kathy Swanson, Clifton, Texas

Think big thoughts

I have spent over 25 years in prison, more than half my life. The longer you spend in prison, the less hopeful and optimistic you become. At times, it seems impossible to overcome these emotional barriers.

What keeps me motivated with optimism is the genuine love from my mother, Diana. Her unwavering faith in God, her unbroken resilience and fighting spirit to see me prison-free, strengthens my heart. Love can forgive the unforgiven. It is this powerful human emotion which allows me to see in the darkest hour. My mother has taught me that humility in servitude of others, can be a soothing balm to a hurting heart. I have learned that humility is an inward action manifested outwardly for the benefit of others. It is better to help than to point fingers; it is better to encourage than to find fault. I live today with a renewed optimism and faith, believing and striving towards a brighter tomorrow. -Darwin G. Godoy (Pleaded guilty to his role as a lookout and serving a prison sentence at Roxbury Correctional Institution for murder)

I majored in history, which can be a rather depressing subject. There has been so much oppression in so many ways since more or less the dawn of agriculture. On the other hand, we see dramatic change over time and across cultures regarding everything from the role of women to which professions hold prestige to how life should be lived to how people dress. The fact that things were different once means that society need not work as it does now, which I think is quite the empowering thought. -Christopher West, Cincinnati, Ohio

This may sound cynical but I am being earnest: What gives me peace of mind when gloom is looming is to remember that in 5 billion years, the sun will become a red giant and Earth will cease to exist. With that perspective, it puts me more at peace that, for example, salmon may go extinct in my lifetime. It seems less critical to save them (and every other species) knowing that all species will one day share the same fate. (For the record, I hope salmon make it.) -Andrew Murphy, Crescent City, Calif.

I try to keep in mind how little control or influence I have to change the state of the country (and world) and let go of the feeling of responsibility. I do what I can and understand that change is slow. One of the greatest gifts of getting old is knowing how little power you have in the grand scheme of things. It relieves you of the feeling that you have to DO something and the frustration and anger that goes with it. -Mary Theresa McCarty, Halfmoon, N.Y.

Acknowledging sadness can lead to optimism

To remain optimistic I have to deliberately and regularly make room for my grief. If I acknowledge this weight I carry it can be a tool. It will still cripple me occasionally because burying a trans child is just that hard, but I can also fight for change if I bring my grief with me. - Carrie Black, Salt Lake City, Utah

/ Leif Parsons for NPR
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Leif Parsons for NPR

I am Buddhist and there is a meditation that helps me: You elect to feel hopelessness or lovelessness as a way of empathizing with others who feel these things. So when I feel hopeless or sad or overwhelmed, I can think, "I am going to fully let myself feel this because this is what hopelessness feels like, what millions of others have felt, going back millennia." Ironically, framing it this way actually feels more connected, more human, more manageable. -Kristin Harriman, Sacramento, Calif.

I employ what I refer to as "delusional optimism," which involves telling myself things like, "It's going to be just fine!" or "You've been through much worse!" or "Tomorrow won't feel this bad." The words I tell myself don't change the behavior of others. Difficult situations often remain difficult, but it does make it easier to weather the suffering. When the world won't change for us, sometimes changing how we think about the world is the best we can do. -Lisa Féinics, Bend, Ore.

Steer your car wisely

One of my favorite books is Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain. I remind myself, as the book states, "The car goes where your eyes go." It's so important, especially as the news cycle is full of cruelty and suffering, for us to carefully choose what we read, listen to, pay attention to. The car, my brain, goes where my eyes go — so I need to keep looking at hopeful art and look for joy in the children I love and remind myself to keep watching for good things. I see more of them this way! -Naomi Krokowski, Berthoud, Colo.

Do unto others

Doing something for someone else is my all time high — it always lifts me. -Dianne Oelberger, St George, Maine

Each morning I start my day by saying, "God, how may I serve?" I am a registered nurse working at the VA Medical Center in Washington, D.C. I believe that people are here to be of service to each other — to help, guide, comfort and support those we encounter along the way. Whatever the act of service I provide, the return is so much more. -Christine Grant, Washington, D.C.

Be grateful for goodness ... and tea

I ask myself two simple questions:

First, what are you enjoying right now? For example, at the moment, I am enjoying a cup of strong black tea while I perusenpr.org.

Second, what are you looking forward to? Some of the things I'm looking forward to are finishing today's chores, walking by the ocean this weekend, tutoring my adult learners next week and seeing my children and grandchildren in the next month or so. I'm also looking forward to my next cup of tea! -Susan Levine, Monrovia, Calif.

It is easy to get swept up in the doom and gloom which permeates the media and online environment. Having lived in Ukraine, [I feel that] the war there is another source of potential despair. Escaping from a victim mentality starts with gratitude: Every night before I go to sleep, I name at least three big or little things I am thankful for on that day. -Douglass Teschner, West Lebanon, N.H.

I read a single poem every morning. There is hope in the verse or between the lines, something else to drift on, beyond the headlines. -Mark Karason, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Music soothes and energizes

Music in particular kickstarts me and really helps me articulate my feelings in both subconscious and conscious ways. I like to have active listening sessions throughout the day. But what helps me the most is listening to music in bed in the early morning before doing anything else. It puts my mind in a place of zen and allows me to be the best version of myself that day to radiate positive energy not only within, but to the surrounding world as well. -Sean Nguyen, Seattle, Wash.

My favorite technique for getting happy is definitely playing loud techno music (or other very rhythmic dance songs), and freestyle dancing in my living room. -Robin McMillan, North Port, Fla.

Mother Nature and her creatures are there for you

/ Leif Parsons for NPR
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Leif Parsons for NPR

I snuggle with my precious rescue cat Tobago and give her belly rubs and listen to her purr contentedly. I feel stress melting away and joy and optimism filling my heart. Months after the loss of Joey, my cat companion of 16 years, a friend took me to Waterville Humane Society. I was overwhelmed until a sweet black and white cat grabbed me and wouldn't let go. She helped me heal and helped my husband and me survive the pandemic. There's just one thing I don't know: who rescued who. -Jules Hathaway, Veazie, Maine

When I'm feeling stressed, I take a walk outside in the sun or in a green space like a park or a forest. Despite the noise in my head, the sounds of nature, including those of birds, wind and rain, comfort me. -Whayoung Cha, Seoul, South Korea

Early spring walk under blooming cherry trees with daughter Analesa, beloved pup Rosko and warmth of the sun on my face. -Cassandra Zimmerman, Portland, Ore.

Analesa (left), Rosko and Cassandra Zimmerman
/ Analesa Zimmerman
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Analesa Zimmerman
Analesa (left), Rosko and Cassandra Zimmerman

Laughing and playing ukulele with friends. Planting native plants and taking photos of all the pollinators that come to them. -Rosemary Woodel, Athens, Ga.

The way I stay optimistic is waking up early to watch the sunrise and meditate on where I find light in the darkness. There are great things of beauty and peace in this world. -Michelle Middleton, Reno, Nev.

For 30 years, I have volunteered with a nonprofit whose mission is to teach gardening to home gardeners throughout our community. I feel constantly renewed by the generosity and energy of the people I volunteer with. While I often feel overwhelmed by the magnitude and variety of troubles in our world, I am also mindful of the abundant blessings that fill my life. I cannot stop war or famine on a global scale, but I can teach a family how to grow food — and flowers. -Robbie Cranch, Fresno, Calif.

I find my source of joy in nature. I salute the sun every morning and affirm the blessings of the five elements: the earth, space, sun, air and water. When I recognize that my body was born from these five elements, I feel a deep kinship with nature, our womb. I talk to the trees, recognizing their generosity and strength. -Pankaja Cauligi, Mysore, India

A glance at sunlight through a leaf, or dew on the grass will send me a charge of energy that lifts my spirit. I am in my 50s now, and have learned how to rebalance, to hit the reset button when patterns became unsustainable. I garden, and learned that life is very much like gardening. That pain, like dirt, is invaluable to growth. That insect pests and garden weeds, like illnesses and bad choices, are things to look out for, to understand and to manage. We can't keep them out completely and simple routines work well enough. -June Pham, Sacramento, Calif.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carmen Drahl
Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.
Ben de la Cruz is an award-winning documentary video producer and multimedia journalist. He is currently a senior visuals editor. In addition to overseeing the multimedia coverage of NPR's global health and development, his responsibilities include working on news products for emerging platforms including Amazon's and Google's smart screens. He is also part of a team developing a new way of thinking about how NPR can collaborate and engage with our audience as well as photographers, filmmakers, illustrators, animators, and graphic designers to build new visual storytelling avenues on NPR's website, social media platforms, and through live events.
Gisele Grayson
Gisele Grayson is a deputy editor on NPR's science desk. She edits stories about climate, the environment, space, and about basic research in biology and physics.
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