If the water in your glass hovers around the midway point, would you tend to describe it as being half-full or half-empty?
Beyond the cliché, your cup is as full as you believe it to be. Your perceptions impact the way you see and interact with the world around you. They also determine whether you are an optimist or pessimist.
Barbara Fredrickson, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory (aka PEP Lab) at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has conducted extensive research in the area of optimism. Among her findings: People can cultivate optimism.
Like being an introvert or an extrovert, being an optimist (or a pessimist) is a personality trait, according to Dr. Fredrickson. As such, optimism is the result of genetics, environment and experience. What sets optimism apart from other personality traits is that, like a skill, it can be learned.
Granted, some people are intrinsically optimistic. They see the positive side of every situation, the silver lining in every cloud, the opportunity in every challenge. The majority of us, however, have to work on developing a sense of optimism.
The first step: Wanting to be optimistic. Some people are content in their pessimistic thought patterns. Constantly complaining, worrying, looking for the negative side of the coin seems to suit them. If a person chooses to be pessimistic, the black cloud is in place, following overhead. Just like an addiction, that person may need to “hit bottom” before finding the motivation to change their thoughts or behaviors, or may continue through life like Eeyore, Winnie the Pooh’s perpetually gloomy pal.
On the other hand, some people — particularly those who are (or who become) more self-aware — may notice that negative thought patterns are holding them back from leading a healthy, fulfilling life, and opt to change them. If that desire hits a familiar note with you, that’s great! Use it as your first exercise in your journey to cultivate optimism: learning to see the positive in all situations. Your self-awareness just served as an impetus for change. Congratulations!
LEARNING OPTIMISM: WHY BOTHER?
Another factor that differentiates outlook — optimism versus pessimism — from many other character traits is that one of them has been proven to be better for us. Can you guess which one?
In Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Dr. Martin Seligman says, “Literally hundreds of studies show that pessimists give up more easily and get depressed more often. These experiments also show that optimists do much better in school and college, at work and on the playing field. They regularly exceed the predictions of aptitude tests. When optimists run for office, they are more apt to be elected than pessimists are. Their health is unusually good. They age well, much freer than most of us from the usual physical ills of middle age. Evidence suggests they may even live longer.”
Pretty compelling, isn’t it?
As if that weren’t enough, Dr. Fredrickson and her colleagues have found that pessimists get caught up in the idea of perfection, which leads to its own set of challenges. They worry about doing things perfectly, which often makes them incapable of making a move. Often, they are idealists who think that life should be unflawed, or the way they always envisioned it to be.
Pessimists are pros at catastrophizing, envisioning the worst-case scenario, and then ruminating about what might happen if x, y or z. They conclude that these situations are so likely and their effects so hopeless that there is no reason to act. And so they don’t, and often remain unnecessarily stuck in positions they could escape if they were to adjust their attitude.
Learning optimism is a worthwhile strategy, so long as you keep your feet on the ground. Some people are overly optimistic in that they are described as seeing life through rose-colored glasses. Being too optimistic can be equally unhealthy as being pessimistic if it causes you to make decisions based on a false sense of reality.
The bottom line: One of the most important aspects of well-being is your ability to become — or remain — positive and optimistic, striving to maintain a balanced sense of reality.
10 WAYS TO CULTIVATE OPTIMISM
MASTER YOUR MOOD STATES
Most of us spend a significant portion of our days draining and depleting ourselves of energy, stuck in states of stress, overwhelm and frustration when it’s completely unnecessary. At JMA, we’ve created an emotional mastery workshop, based on proven neuroscience methods.
Through the workshop, you will learn how to experience more positive, productive mood states and embody more resilience to quickly rebound from perceived setbacks. You will also be given access to our proprietary app which helps forge a neurological shift in the brain. Contact us to learn more.
1. Focus on the present moment — It’s easy to ruminate about the past or worry about the future. Focus on the present by developing mindfulness. Meditate … pray … breathe.
2. Look within — People often attach their happiness to external sources they think will make them happy. “I would be so much happier if only I could … find a better job, buy a new house, afford a nicer car, meet my soul mate, go on that vacation, etc.” The problem with associating happiness with something you hope to have — or even someone you hope to meet — in the future is that true happiness comes from being, not having. We can only achieve true fulfillment from within.
3. Develop gratitude — Notice all the good in your life. Ask yourself: “What’s right — right now?” Keep a gratitude journal; once a day, whether before going to bed at night or as you start your day, reflect. Jot down three to five things for which you are grateful in your life. When you focus on the positive, optimism comes naturally.
4. Be kind to others — Altruism has a boomerang effect. When you shovel the sidewalk for a neighbor or donate to a cause, your goal is to help others, but researchers have found that you benefit as well from what’s called a “helper’s high” or “giver’s glow,” terms coined by Dr. Stephen Post, author and professor at Stony Brook University School of Medicine. Being on either side is a reminder of the good in the world, which lends itself to optimistic thoughts.
5. Embrace optimism — If you’re not an optimist by nature, you may first learn to recognize optimism. See the positive side of the coin. Give yourself some time to become comfortable with it. Be aware of the realistic chances for a positive outcome in every situation, and consider what steps you can take to achieve it.
6. Conquer catastrophization — If you find yourself in a pessimistic or worried state, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Then assess the likelihood of that outcome. If the chances are slim, then release the worry. Just let it go, replacing it with more realistic, optimistic thoughts.
7. Change your words — Cognitive restructuring, reworking your thoughts to put things in a new perspective, is a very powerful tool that can begin with the words you use, even in your thoughts. One effective method you can try is called “stop-think-change.” When you notice a negative or pessimistic thought, stop. Think about how you can transfer that same scenario to a positive one. Then change your words over to make it a positive thought. Another word to eliminate from your vocabulary is “failure.” Try substituting the phrase “learning experience.” By changing your words, you will slowly notice that you are beginning to cultivate optimism.
8. Visualize the positive — In the most literal sense, positive visualizations can help you picture your dreams. What will the view look like from the top of the mountain you hope to climb, or in the fitting room mirror after you reach your weight loss goal? Seeing it, whatever “it” may be, makes it that much more tangible and within reach.
9. Use positive affirmations — Like mantras, affirmations are short, powerful statements that you can use to remind yourself to be positive, strong and to persevere. Whether you prefer sticky notes on your bathroom mirror or Pinterest, find what sparks optimistic thoughts for you.
10. Act like an optimist — Fake it till you make it. It’s okay; think of it as practice. When your co-worker asks you about the new, younger manager, focus on the positive: She seems very personable; her qualifications are certainly impressive. If someone starts engaging in negative gossip based on speculation, it’s time to leave the conversation. Whiners and pessimists bring the conversation down. When you stay focused on the positive, that’s where the scale — and your outlook — leans. Practice, practice, practice. Before you know it, you will be an optimist.