3 Practices to Boost Your Optimismon July 24, 2019
A growing body of evidence suggests that optimistic people are higher achievers and enjoy greater physical and emotional health than their pessimistic counterparts.
So what is a natural-born pessimist to do with that information?
Is optimism something that can be learned or acquired?
The short answer appears to be yes.
A recent meta-analysis (Malouff & Schutte, 2017) revealed that interventions designed to increase optimism generally do show significant positive effects.
Translation: Optimism is trainable.
Of course, as with changing any well-entrenched habit or attitude, becoming more optimistic requires deliberate practice.
In this article, I present 3 evidence-based practices that will help you learn to look on the bright side so that you can enjoy the well-established benefits of optimism.
1. Watch your Language
Words can inspire. And words can destroy. Choose yours well.
The words you use when speaking and thinking have a dramatic impact on your mood and motivation, particularly negative words. The word “no,“for example, triggers the release of dozens of stress hormones and neurotransmitters that increase feelings of anxiety, depression, and irritability.
Unfortunately, we are hardwired to attend more to such negative language – the residue of our evolutionary heritage from ancestors who faced frequent threats to their survival. Overcoming this negativity bias requires vigilant effort and an attempt to cultivate as many positive thoughts as possible.
The first step to changing your internal dialogue is gaining awareness of your explanatory style. Pay attention to the way that you typically narrate your own experience. Do you frequently complain, blame or belittle yourself, imagine the worst, or play the victim role? Such a pessimistic explanatory style is associated with depression and other forms of psychological distress.
Try to notice when you are thinking pessimistically and write down your thoughts. If you find it difficult to notice your thoughts, set reminders on your phone to check in with your thoughts at random times. Establishing a regular mindfulness practice can also help with the task of paying closer attention to your thinking.
Once you have a sense for the specific content, dispute the thought by highlighting evidence to the contrary and then try to replace the thought with a more optimistic (but still realistic) version. This disputation and reframing step is critical. What we are aiming for is to increase the relative frequency of positive to negative thoughts. By regularly using more positive language, either out loud or just to yourself, you can train yourself to have a more optimistic explanatory style.
Remember, with your words you create your reality.
2. Count your Blessings
The roots of all goodness lie in the soil of appreciation for goodness.
Optimism is intimately linked to gratitude. Defined as a state of thankfulness or appreciation for what is valuable or meaningful in one’s life, gratitude implies a focus on the positive and can be developed by establishing habits that involve deliberately looking out for the good things in life.
Perhaps the best way to cultivate gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal.
Try to notice at least 3 positive things that happen to you or that you observe throughout the day. What did you enjoy? What felt validating? Did someone offer you or someone else a kind word or gesture? At the end of each day, record the three things along with a parenthetical note that explains why you are grateful for each experience.
Another way to cultivate gratitude is to start each day with a positive affirmation. A zen master named Soho is famous for her nontraditional teaching method of asking students to frequently make the following statement of gratitude:
“Thank you for everything. I have no complaints whatsoever.”
If Soho’s mantra feels a little too contrived for you, or perhaps the slightest aroma of spirituality turns you off, you can try the following mantra instead:
“To whatever is behind all of this, or even if my experience is all an accident or dream, nevertheless I am grateful.”
Remember, the goal is simply to set a positive tone for the day in an effort to combat the natural tendency to focus on the negative.
3. Consult your Best Possible Self
Your future self is watching you right now through memories.
The Best Possible Self (BPS) practice, developed by Laura King (2001), aims at increasing optimism and other positive emotions by asking you to visualize an ideal future. In its original formulation, you are simply asked to respond to the following prompt:
‘‘Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all your life dreams. Now write about what you imagined.”
Athletes and performers can modify this prompt to reflect more specific goals related to training or competition.
Once you have envisioned your ideal future self, try to act (or perform) as if you are already that person. Adopt the psychological qualities and behavioral habits of that future self right NOW.
A recent review of over 30 studies revealed that the BPS intervention produces statistically significant increases in state optimism and is flexible with respect to method, showing similar effects whether responses are handwritten, typed, spoken, or drawn.
How does it work? The mechanism is not entirely clear, but the prevailing hypothesis is that visualizing an ideal future increases the importance individuals place on intrinsic rather than extrinsic goal pursuits, thereby increasing motivation and commitment.
Repeating the BPS activity periodically enhances its effectiveness. Most importantly, the positive effects do not appear to depend on an individual’s dispositional optimism. In other words, even pessimists can derive benefit from this practice.
Collectively called “positive activity interventions,” the strategies presented in this article have been shown to effectively increase optimism if practiced regularly. Again, the strategies are:
- Watch your Language: Monitor negative thinking and reframe positively.
- Count your Blessings: Notice and express gratitude for the goods in life.
- Consult your Best Possible Self: Envision and emulate your ideal future self.
Positive psychology researchers Fredrickson and Losada (2005) found that a ratio of at least 3 positive thoughts to each negative one is predictive of subjective well-being or “flourishing.” If that ratio seems too far out of reach for you at the moment, don’t be alarmed. Simply begin to move in that direction by cultivating more positive thoughts using the strategies presented above.
By becoming better at narrating your own experience in a constructive way, acknowledging the good things that happen to you, and visualizing positive outcomes for your future, you can slowly shift your view of the glass from half-empty to half-full.
With you in the pursuit,
Can psychological interventions increase optimism? A meta-analysis, by Malouff & Schutte, 2017
Words can change your brain: 12 conversation strategies to build trust, resolve conflict, and increase intimacy, by Newberg & Waldman, 2013
How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves, by Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006
The Health Benefits of Writing About Life Goals, by Laura King, 2001
The Best Possible Selves Intervention: A review of the literature to evaluate efficacy and guide future research, by Loveday, Lovell, & Jones, 2016
Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing, by Fredrickson & Losada, 2005