A growing body of research over the past decade has expanded the understanding of optimism and its potential long-reaching benefits. Finding greater personal happiness and even longer life expectancy has been shown more likely among optimistic-leaning individuals. Psychologically, optimism is also associated with stronger mental health and improved coping abilities in times of emotional difficulty.
Optimism is the disposition or tendency to look more favorably on events, conditions, oneself, or the future. Not everyone is naturally optimistic, and some self-described pessimists may even mock an optimistic outlook, but optimism is often a way of thinking coveted by many.
For those less inclined to be optimistic, is there a path to finding a sunnier perspective?
From Pessimism to Optimism: Adjusting Your Outlook
A study led by researchers from the University of British Columbia found a genetic marker may play a significant role in determining whether someone sees a glass as half empty or half full. A gene variant was shown to cause a more vivid retention of mostly negative responses following an emotional event, suggesting many people may intuitively steer toward pessimism.
However, according to two prominent psychologists who have each taken a career interest in the concept of optimism, the practice can be learned, but—like many skills—may need to be maintained through exercise.
Suzanne Segerstrom is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky. Her years of research reflect an interest in how self-regulation can potentially improve mental and physical health. Through behavioral adjustments, she believes even longtime pessimists can slowly rewire how they approach life and its many challenges.
Likewise, psychologist and self-help author Martin Seligman has long been intrigued with how perspective can have a significant impact on everyday life. He has devoted decades of energy and research to understanding how personality, outlook, and disposition play a pivotal role in shaping individual happiness. According to his research, finding a more positive outlook can effectively reduce depression symptoms while also boosting the immune system.
So how do the experts advise people to locate their optimism? Here are some steps to becoming more optimistic.
1. Practice Your Optimismmotivation, people may be able to shape their outlook and lives in a more positive direction. Optimistic people generally handle problems more directly and are less likely to give up looking for a viable solution. By trying to adopt those traits—along with the presumption that everything will work out in the end—we can affect how we feel, how we respond, and how quickly we recover from setbacks.
2. Focus on Positive Inner Dialogue
Rewriting your own internal script can be a real game changer. By learning to reflect on things more positively, we develop new patterns for responding to challenges. Simple reinforcements about keeping things in perspective and putting a more positive spin on the interpretation of your own behavior can help reframe the view.
Sport psychologists routinely use both inner dialogue and self-talk techniques to keep athletes in the best possible mindset for competition. The actual thoughts or language used are often general in nature, aimed at maintaining a more positive, confident, and serene attitude. They can also be more specific and goal-oriented, directed at overcoming certain challenges or replacing existing negative thought patterns.
“The brain does not resist new messages from our own voice as strongly as it resists new messages from elsewhere,” Wingert said. “Even if we are not used to saying positive, affirming things to ourselves, over time, the brain becomes trained to think in this way.”
Instead of letting thoughts veer into a negative space, try to fill your thoughts with affirmations. Research shows positive words and thoughts are more likely to contribute to positive feelings, while negative thoughts can bring about negative emotions.
3. Chase Specific Goals
Research points to how optimists spend more time and energy focused on their goals, making them more likely to achieve them. By defining your wants and plotting a course of action, you can begin to take positive steps toward your goals rather than dwelling on how things might fall apart.
Whether you’re aiming for a better job or learning to speak a new language, approaching each step in the process with hopefulness and a good attitude can set you up well. Visualize reaching your goal, anticipate success, and you may find yourself closer to achieving it.
4. Don’t Give Up
Much of the research into optimism has focused on the habits and behaviors of those who demonstrate it. One recurring trait they tend to share is a more dogged pursuit of what they want. Maintaining motivation and perseverance may be why optimistic people are more likely to succeed in reaching their goals. They are able to maintain their focus and recover better from setbacks, rather than succumbing to a defeatist attitude.
Another trait shared among optimistic types is a stronger ability to seek out creative solutions to problems. By reminding yourself, in advance, that setbacks are not going to define your success, you can become better positioned to deal with them should they arise.
Is Optimism Really Better?
Despite some research suggesting pessimism may offer its own competitive advantages, most studies squarely land on the side of optimism. Whether the metric is health, wealth, or happiness, a sunnier outlook has been shown to have many positive effects. In a 2015 study of more than 1,000 participants from Europe and the U.S., researchers from Germany’s University of Cologne found optimistic types earn more income and were more trusting of others versus cynics in the study.
Wingert believes each person is born with a specific temperament and some may be more naturally cheerful, hopeful, and optimistic than others.
Aside from the physical and mental health benefits and improved chances at success and happiness, many people practice optimism for a simpler reason: it just feels better.“These differences are noticeable in infants, and personality traits are fairly stable over the life span,” Wingert said. “The human brain is hardwired to pay more attention to the negative, and this so-called ‘negativity bias’ has allowed humans to survive, evolve, and climb to the top of the food chain.”
Wingert recommends mindfulness meditation and the use of a daily gratitude journal to detail the more positive aspects of life. Sometimes, this shift in perspective can make a big difference in how a person feels.
“Two people can go to the same party, and one of them will think it was a blast and another will think it was a bomb,” Wingert said. “Oftentimes, their experience was based on what they expected would happen and what their brain was trained to look for and notice.”
Self-help books and professional journals often promote positive thinking as a way to effect positive change. Looking to the future with a hopeful outlook is widely accepted in professional and clinical circles as both a healthier way to live and a more beneficial psychology to maintain.
Aside from the physical and mental health benefits and improved chances at success and happiness, many people practice optimism for a simpler reason: it just feels better.
“There are no overnight miracles with these practices, but they all do change the mind and the brain over time if we stick with them,” Wingert said. “We have nothing to lose but our negative outlook.”
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