When I was struggling with anxiety and depression at the end of last year and the beginning of this one, I found myself being very negative and developing a very pessimistic view of the future. I was convinced things (I) would never get better and spent a lot of time wallowing in self pity and believing I couldn’t make myself well no matter how hard I tried. Now I’m feeling well, I’m happier and full of optimism and any challenges I face don’t feel like mountains that I’m unable to climb. I’ve always known that being optimistic is a key part of wellbeing but how can we remain that way all of the time, even when things are a little (or a lot) shitty? Today’s Monday Matters post looks at the psychology of optimism and how we can foster it no matter what life throws at us.
What is optimism?
According to the Oxford dictionary, optimism is ‘a feeling that good things will happen and that something will be successful; the tendency to have this feeling’. The exact opposite of this is ‘pessimism’ which is described as ‘a feeling that bad things will happen and that something will not be successful; the tendency to have this feeling’. Further to this, an optimist is ‘a person who always expects good things to happen or things to be successful’, whereas a pessimist is someone who ‘always expects bad things to happen’. I do think these are oversimplified definitions, however, as most people realistically know that over time, good and bad things will happen to us all and that it is our reaction to events and thoughts and feelings which can be described as mainly optimistic or pessimistic.
Why are some people optimists and others pessimists?
Early research into the subject tends to suggest that an optimistic or pessimistic view is largely an inherited biological trait, but more recent works have shown that environmental factors can influence us too. In other words, we are born one way or the other but our life experiences can impact on us too so, for example, we may learn to have a positive outlook from our childhood if we have an optimistic parent who encourages associated traits such as self belief, resilience and acceptance. Conversely, being surrounded by pessimists who believe they are hard done to, always see the worst in a situation and have a tendency to be negative overall can influence our thoughts and feelings about life too.
So, even if you are a ‘glass half empty’ type of person, it is possible to learn to be more optimistic or reduce pessimism by working on challenging and changing your thought processes. This does mean that if you have always been described as an optimistic, there is a chance that, with certain life experiences, you may develop a more pessimistic view (sometimes temporarily) but there are many ways of of combating this.
What are the benefits of being optimistic?
There are so many benefits of being of being an optimistic person in terms of physical and mental health. Optimists:
- have healthier lifestyles, for example they exercise more, have a balanced diet, are less likely to smoke or binge drink and just generally make better choices with regard to their health
- have better quality relationships with family, friends, partner or co-workers
- have more life satisfaction, happiness and high levels of psychological and physical wellbeing
- are good problem solvers and tend to strive for what they want as they believe themselves to be capable of high levels of achievement
- are more motivated
- have better self esteem
- are generally more successful
- accept their failures and learn from them
- have a better immune system
- have lower cortisol levels (stress hormone)
- actively pursue their goals
- recover from physical illnesses more quickly
- take less time to recover from surgery
- less likely to have a stroke or cardiovascular diseases
- have lower blood pressure
- emerge from difficult circumstances with less distress than pessimists
- see setbacks as temporary events caused by circumstances
- are more likely to engage in health related self care activities such as regular check ups
How can we learn to be more optimistic?
The idea of learned optimism is a concept developed by a leading American psychologist called Martin Seligman.
learned optimism involves developing the ability to view the world from a positive point of view.Seligman
He believes that the positivity associated with being an optimist can and should be cultivated and that being optimistic is a key part of good health and wellbeing. So, pop on your positivity glasses and read my suggestions on how to train or rewire your brain.
Shift your focus – instead of thinking about what you can’t control, focus on what you can instead. In any situation, there are things that can’t be changed and things that can. If you spend your time obsessing over the former, you will quickly become stressed and frustrated. However, if you look at what you do have control over, you can control the controllables and forget about the rest.
See setbacks as temporary – it’s not the end of the world if something goes wrong or doesn’t go the way you expected, it’s something to be learnt from. Resolve to come back better and stronger!
Regain your sense of control – focus on what you can do to improve a situation and believe in your ability to make things better rather than focusing on the barriers. This is in contrast to ‘learned helplessness’ associated with pessimism.
Watch out for unhelpful phrases – talk such as ‘I never…’, ‘I can’t…’, ‘I always mess up…’ etc is not helpful and can create a negative mindset. Try to catch yourself saying them and come up with some alternatives which are more positive – ‘I might be able to…’, ‘I could…’ etc.
Think about the company you keep – some people seem to complain about everything and never have a positive word to say. After so many minutes of talking to them, you might find you start being negative too. It’s almost like the pessimism is contagious. Conversely, spending time with a optimist, can encourage feelings of optimism and make life seem much more rosy. I’m not saying cull everyone from your life who isn’t a ‘glass half full’ kind of person, but you might want to think about who you spend most of your time with.
Avoid overgeneralising – After something has gone wrong for you, have you ever found yourself thinking or saying that the world is conspiring against you, or everyone has got it in for you? Remember that one set back in one aspect of your life does not mean that everything is going wrong. Neither does it mean that you are unlucky or any of those other things that might pop into your head or out of your mouth!
Take a balanced approach – In every situation there are positives and negatives. Unfortunately, the society that we live in often encourages us to focus on the more negative side and ignore the many positives. I like to do some gratitude journaling each evening to focus on the positives in my day. I might also have a few negatives that become problems to work on solving, but I try not to dwell on what I can’t change or those minor irritations which we all have.
How can we stay optimistic during tough times?
As I said earlier, when I was struggling with my mental health for so many months, I found it very difficult to be optimistic in relation to the present moment and the future. But there are ways of remaining positive, even during periods of difficulty. So, what could I have done differently? Some of my online reading has suggested that optimism doesn’t require you to brush aside anxious and negative feelings, but rather to accept them whilst being hopeful about what the future will bring. Obviously, this is easier said than done when you are consumed with difficult emotions, but the idea is that you work super hard to acknowledge that things are difficult right now, but try to hold on to the belief that things won’t always be like this. Here’s some ideas of ways that this can be made easier (not easy of course, but having an I can get through this attitude is a big part of it):
- try to practise self compassion – accept that things are a struggle right now, but also remind yourself that you’ve got through difficulties before and you can do so again
- disrupt the negative thought cycle – focus on the breath, change your environment (go for a walk in nature), confide in someone you trust about how you are feeling and seek a fresh perspective
- jot down some coping statements e.g. I can take this one day at a time, this is frightening and I can handle it, I am a resilient person and I can get through this etc.
- practise gratitude – even when things are hard, there’s always small things to be grateful for – the friend who texted to say she’s thinking of you, the tranquillity as you sit drinking your coffee in your sunny garden, your warm coat on a chilly day etc. At certain times, it might be difficult to focus on the positives, but it’s not completely impossible and taking the time to be grateful has been shown to really help.
I hope today’s Monday Matters has been helpful in some way and that you will give at least one of the ideas a go. Lockdown is beginning to ease now but there is still a little uncertainty around about the future making things difficult. As I type this, I’m feeling positive and optimistic, yet whilst I was unwell, things looked bleak. So, it just goes to show that things can and will get better.
Take care until next time,