What the Ancient Spartans Can Teach You about Optimism
Daily life for the ancient Spartans was filled with adversity, but that didn’t dampen their optimism. As they learned quickly, a hard-knock life is better managed with a positive outlook. By not sweating the small stuff, these fearsome soldiers trained themselves to have regard for life and how to be optimistic, and not—like others—be timid about it, according to Plutarch, a Greek biographer who wrote the definitive history of Sparta.
Still, loving life is one thing, but keeping upbeat when you’re having a day from hell is quite another. How did the Spartans, who were known more for badassery than buoyancy, manage to keep the faith? Here are three tricks they taught themselves then, and us now.
"How to Be Optimistic" Trick #1: Shift Your Frame of Reference
You worked flat-out on a project that’s been sidelined. You traveled all day for a meeting that was canceled. You marketed like a mofo and your business still stalled.
Do you lose your cool? Call it quits? Neither. Shifting your frame of reference can help you spot the silver linings.
The Spartans practiced this from a young age. When plans went to pieces, they had the strength to stay positive. According to Plutarch, Spartans intentionally slept on pallets, wore no shoes, owned one piece of clothing, and followed a near-starvation diet. All of this and they were still awesome on the battlefield. When you’re used to life in the tough lane, you’re better built for challenging surprises and can adjust your approach accordingly.
*Spartan Up Today: *Take the hard way at least once today. Stand during a meeting. Leave something off your plate. Say no to happy hour. After you finish your workout, instead of hitting the showers, do 30 burpees.
"How to Be Optimistic" Trick #2: Practice Deliberate Adversity
Think your life is difficult? Make it even more so. The Spartans purposefully put themselves through tough situations to increase their resilience.
In the agoge, the training system that Sparta’s would-be warriors entered at the age of seven, brawling between boys was encouraged. So was stealing food. They only got one measly bowl of soup a day—who wouldn’t be tempted to supplement with stolen snacks? The catch: If you were caught, you got a thrashing.
Yes, it was unforgiving. But if the kids could carry on without food, Plutarch wrote, they’d figure out how to fight on an empty stomach and be grateful of any grub they got. By deliberately making their lives harder, they built resilience and learned to appreciate small things.
These days, we take our comforts for granted and still relentlessly pursue more. Putting yourself in the way of adversity will help you see the bright side of things more clearly.
*Spartan Up Today: *Take a cold shower, fast for 24 hours, or train outdoors in the rain. Was that so bad? Of course it wasn’t.
"How to Be Optimistic" Trick #3: Build Obstacle Immunity
For the ancient Spartans, every day was an exercise in crushing difficulties. The more obstacles they overcame, the less daunting the task of beating them.
In times of war, Plutarch wrote, the Spartans never asked how big an enemy force was—just where it was. They embraced obstacles head-on and with confidence; no problem was ever viewed as too big.
You can do the same. There will always be obstacles in life. Some you’ll crush; others will crush you. But if you view your defeats as opportunities to learn and grow, you’ll always be eager to charge into battle.
Spartan Up Today: Think about the last time you lost. Maybe it was a job or significant other. Now think about how different your life would be if it hadn’t happened. Failures are the levers that propel us in new directions. They force us to find a new path—one that, more often than not, leads to a cooler destination.