We hear a lot of talk about optimism and it is often promoted as a sort of panacea, a cure for social as well as personal ills. Despite the banter between optimists and pessimists, (an optimist sees the light at the end of the tunnel, a pessimist sees only the dark of the tunnel), research in the last couple of decades shows that optimists do tend to have significant advantages over their more fatalistic fellow men and women.
There are compelling reasons to consider optimism as a key factor in wellbeing. These go far beyond the usual simplified ‘glass half full’ ideas or the claims of the positive thinking movement. There are now thousands of studies that attest to the value of optimism at all stages of our lives. From childhood to old age, an optimistic outlook confers all sorts of advantages.
An optimistic outlook
Optimism has been shown to improve the immune system, prevent chronic disease, and help people cope with unfortunate news, and hasten recovery after illness or surgery. Optimistic people tend to be happier, enjoy life more, and see opportunities that others might miss. If you have an optimistic outlook you typically receive more social support, deal with stress better, and are less prone to depression. Optimism is a key factor in resilience, and research indicates that optimism is linked to persistence in pursuing goals and overcoming adversity. In short, optimists operate from the hope of success, rather than from fear of failure.
This is easily said, but what can you do if your mind seems intent, automatically, to seek out the negative in any situation? Not that this is all bad. Being able to spot the weak points in a theory, or, when planning an event, to anticipate what could go wrong, are useful attributes and the sign of an enquiring mind. But if your mind’s default position is pessimism, then the negativity can become a problem.
Pervasive negativity is not good for mental health, it saps your enjoyment, assails you with worry, and can even feed into anxiety. Constant negativity can also be alienating, particularly in many of today’s working environments where positivity is encouraged. When the general tone of discussions is expected to be upbeat and positive, a negative outlook can misread as being out of step with the team spirit.
Optimism training for the mind
Think of optimism as a strategic choice. Some people seem to be naturally optimistic, while others are the complete opposite; naturally pessimistic. Between these two extremes, there is a wide range of individual thinking styles and attitudes.
Where you fall within this range isn’t important, but it is important to understand that, whatever your natural thinking style, you can teach yourself to use the tools of optimism to give you more freedom in how you think and respond. Choosing how you react, particularly in stressful or demanding situations, brings huge benefits in terms of your flexibility and resilience.
Like any training, re-training your mind in this way takes a little effort and persistence. Progress will be automatic and change will happen without you noticing it. Typical responses are “I’ve just noticed I don’t do ‘X’ any more!”
Reasons for Optimism
“There is reason to be optimistic about the future”. How does the phrase strike you? What reactions do you notice in yourself? Not the intellectual reactions that we use to judge truth and accuracy, but the subtle inner responses like emotion, body sensations and comfort.
We all have automatic tendencies in how we think, and they can result in a kind of intellectual wrestling match as our inner pessimist vies for supremacy over our hopes and aspirations. While this is going on, our ring-side emotions are what really matter. Emotions have a big impact on our feelings, on how we engage with life, and the outcomes we create for ourselves.
Learning optimism and teaching ourselves to use it by choice can have far reaching consequences that reach deep into our unconscious processes and create emotional and physical resilience. Even if it doesn’t suit you to take a positive outlook, becoming more resilient should still be of interest for its proven advantages when dealing with the unavoidable setback and adversity that life throws at us.
First, optimism is about the future, by definition, and thinking about the future makes some people uneasy. But since we are all going there, that in itself should be enough to make optimism worth consideration.
Second, optimism brings real and tangible benefits. There are now thousands of studies that confirm that optimism and hope contribute to resistance to depression in the face of negative life events, better performance at work, and better physical health. You may not be one of nature’s natural optimists, you can still reap the benefits of optimistic thinking.
Optimism can be learned
The good news is that optimism can be learned, it is not a birthright. Sure, some people are more gifted with an optimistic outlook due to their natural disposition and upbringing, but this merely confirms the point; optimism might be partly due to character, it can also be nurtured socially.
There are two key ideas which are essential to grasp when it comes to developing a more optimistic outlook:
1) The basis for optimism lies in the way we explain events to ourselves –how we think about CAUSES (see table).
2) When bad things occur we tend to ask ourselves what WHY it happened – we look for an explanation.
Our outlook in life is governed by how we think, and how we explain events to ourselves. This is called ‘explanatory style’. There are three crucial aspects in the way we think about events that happen to us and the causes we attribute to things: internal versus external, stable versus unstable, and global versus Local.
Optimists use an Unstable, External and Local style of explanation.
Whereas pessimists tend to use a Stable, Internal and Global style when attributing causes.
How to think like an optimist
There are well documented and effective methods – taken from positive psychology and cognitive therapy – for building optimism.
These work by countering the mind’s less helpful habits and, quite literally, training it to think differently. This will take a little practice as the mind does what it knows best and returns to its well-worn habits until it has learned new ones. Stick at it and resist the temptation to judge your progress.
Developing new thinking styles means doing the exercises and changing habits using a trusting and non-judgemental attitude. You’ll find this easier if you just do it routinely without trying to figure out how well you are doing.
Forget any ideas about ‘positive thinking’. The exercises and ideas here are about HOW to think and HOW you shape your thinking habits. You do not have to change your beliefs, just your habits (belief will come when you see it working). Positive thinking, on the other hand, tells you WHAT to think, and it openly challenges belief (which can set up resistance if you don’t really believe it).
How to start
- Apply these ideas regularly and consistently
- Keep at it. Start small and avoid discouraging yourself by judging
- Do the exercises on page seven, choose the one or two you feel most comfortable with
- If any negative thoughts occur, acknowledge them with, “and what next”, and move on. Always look forward.
7 Steps to New Thinking
We get into habitual patterns of thinking and the way we think shapes our experience of the world, which means that by changing our style of thinking we can alter the unpleasantness of some events, or at least make them more bearable by seeing them from a different perspective.
- Understand that your thoughts do not define who you are, they are just thoughts. Observe them but don’t believe them.
- Look for evidence to counter your negative thought. For example, if you feel that you never do anything right, you could list several things you have done successfully.
- Deliberately choose to focus on what you do right, congratulate yourself on making good choices.
- Understand your explanatory style and see if you could usefully change your way of thinking. Putting experience into rigidly defined boxes, overgeneralising and assuming you are at fault when things go wrong is debilitating and limiting.
- Seek out inspiring stories. There is a limitless supply of films, TED Talks and. Youtube videos, books, blogs and speaking events.
- Review your successes daily (see Exercises).
- Remember that things are fluid. Don’t allow yourself to generalise bad events as fixed, permanent your ‘fault’.
This is about teaching your mind to change its automatic habits. We don’t usually give much thought to how we go about the business of thinking, and so our thoughts do what they will. Choose the way you think habitually – replacing unhelpful patterns with more productive ones – and you’ll start to re-train yourself to a more optimistic default outlook.
Retraining your mind means getting it to act in a way you want it to, rather than letting it run on autopilot where it does its own thing. Use these exercises as simple steps to establish your new thinking habits:
Review your successes
Take five minutes a day to list your successes over the past 24 hours. A ‘success’ is anything that went right, even small and seemingly inconsequential things. This is about teaching your mind to recognise and value the small day-to-day events.
We can be overly-focused on the prospect of huge achievements. This leads us into a fixed success/failure dichotomy. Appreciating that dozens of small daily things we get right are examples of success, helps to counter the unconscious habit of focussing on the few things we get wrong (and we all do), rather than the myriad examples of what we do right. If ‘failures’ start to creep in as you do this exercise, ignore them and return to compiling your list of successes.
Creative visualisation is the practice of using your imagination to focus on a desired outcome by creating strong and believable imagery. There is nothing new or strange in this. You use negative imagery to achieve the opposite all the time. To learn to use visualisation to focus on positive outcomes it is best to set some time aside for practice.
Get into a comfortable position where you can relax completely but remain awake. Close your eyes and clear your mind (it gets easier with practice). When any thoughts come, simply put them aside. Keep letting go of thinking this way. It can help to visualise, say, a clear blue space with no details. At first, your mind will be busy, with practice the quiet spaces will expand, enjoy the internal silence. Avoid judging yourself, just keep at it for a few minutes a day, extending the time in a way that seems right as you get more proficient.
Writing three pages on waking each morning helps empty the mind of unwanted detritus and clarify thinking. Julia Cameron, the originator of the idea, says “Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages– they are not high art. They are not even ‘writing.’ They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind – and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritise and synchronise the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.”
Use this exercise if you find that, initially, you have trouble shifting from a negative outlook. Think of a future event or aspiration which you find it hard to think positively about. List the negative prospects that you naturally envisage. Next to each negative, write a positive counter-example that COULD result (you don’t have to believe it will, this is just practice). Do this at least once a day. It will help open your mind to possibilities without you having to commit fully to the ideas. Over time your thinking should become more flexible.
Make a list of activities and achievements that define who you are (e.g. your values, what motivates you, favourite activity or pastime, qualities that others see you in, etc). Then, re-write it and hone it until you have a snappy strap-line. Remind yourself of it regularly.
Look forward and plan
Give shape to your ambitions by clarifying them and writing them down. Do one thing each day that takes you in the right direction, towards you ambition. Very small steps are fine, it’s about direction, not the outcome.
Go for it!
But before you do, some final points:
Becoming more optimistic is a matter of choice. We are all born with a certain disposition, and our upbringing and early life experience will build on that, but we are not stuck with it. We can learn new ways of thinking that affect our outlook and attitudes to life.
Nobody is wholly optimist or a total pessimist, these are neat categories but we all have some of both and between the two extremes is a wide range of degrees. Where we are on that spectrum is something we can change, if we think it necessary and we choose to.
Though the modern world (especially the world of work), seems to place a high value on thinking positively and a ‘can do’ attitude, this should not eclipse the value of more cautious styles of thinking and acting that can get people labelled as ‘pessimist’. There is no value judgement implied here. It is not morally ‘good’ to be an optimist any more than it is ‘bad’ to be pessimistic.
The main message here is that optimism has its advantages, and we can choose how we view the world and our experience. So, begin today by looking forward and seeking out possibilities in whatever you are doing.
Reading and references
Cameron., J., (2007), The Artist’s Way: Workbook, Souvenir Press Ltd. London.
Goleman., D., (1997), Emotional Intelligence, Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Bloomsbury, London.
Norem., J., (2001), The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, Basic Books, New York.
Seligman., M., (1995), The Optimistic Child; A Revolutionary Program That Safeguards Children Against Depression and Builds Lifelong Resilience, Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
Seligman., M., (2006), Learned Optimism, How to Change Your Mind and Your Vintage Books USA, New York.