How To Become More Optimistic
Professor Martin Seligman, Ph.D., author of Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness has conducted extensive research on optimism and pessimism. His research has demonstrated that there are significant advantages to being an optimist.
“Pessimists are eight times more likely to become depressed when bad events occur; they do worse at school, sports and most jobs than their talents would suggest; they have worse physical health and shorter lives; they have rockier relationships.”
Pessimism is an unhealthy thinking pattern that will increase your stress level. When you put a negative interpretation on events and imagine dire future outcomes, your brain activates your body’s fight-or-flight response more often than necessary. In contrast, adopting a more optimistic mindset will result in less stress and more joy and vitality.
I have not always been an optimistic person. However, as the stress in my life continued to grow, I saw how the choices I was making in order to cope with stress were decreasing my happiness, peace of mind and health. As Dr. Abraham Maslow observed, “What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.” As I saw optimistic co-workers handling stress much better than I, it became obvious that optimism was a better way to live. I had been resistant to optimism because I prided myself on being a “realist.” I thought that optimistic people were naive and were setting themselves up for disappointment. However, when I began studying the scientific research, I realized that I had an incorrect understanding of optimism.
Being an optimist does not mean that you “sugarcoat” situations. Optimistic thinking does not mean that you ignore reality or talk yourself into believing unlikely conclusions. Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., author of the book Emotional Intelligence, defines optimism as “a strong expectation that, in general, things will turn out all right in life despite setbacks and frustrations… It is an attitude that buffers people against falling into apathy, hopelessness, or depression in the face of tough going.”
If you are not naturally optimistic, you can change. Dr. Seligman and other researchers have found that optimism is something that can be learned. With practice you can get into the habit of focusing on the best in every situation. As you deal with every set-back and challenge you grow more resilient and resourceful. Rather than get angry or frustrated in the face of obstacles, you realize that problems are simply the price you must pay to reach your goals and become the person you were meant to be. If you are not facing challenges, you are not growing. As Theodore Rubin observed, “The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.”
The first step to becoming more optimistic is to begin noticing when you are thinking negative thoughts. Begin monitoring your self-talk and make a conscience choice to think positive thoughts. Get in the habit of challenging pessimistic thoughts and determining whether or not you need to think so negatively about a situation. It can be helpful to ask yourself, “Is this thought really true or is it only my interpretation or assumption?”
Whenever you are stressed or feeling anxious, you are more prone to interpreting events in a negatively distorted way. What should you do when negative thoughts “pop into your head?” Always remember that you have a choice not to dwell on the negative thought. As Martin Luther wrote, “You can’t keep the birds from flying overhead, but you can keep them from making a nest in your hair.”