Is your glass half-empty or half-full? How you answer this question may reflect your outlook on life, your attitude toward yourself, and whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic — and it may even affect your health..Every life has its ups and downs, but having an optimistic outlook on life has been found to have a significant positive effect on quality of life, such as one’s mental and physical well-being. Optimism is also considered a key component in managing stress. Optimism doesn’t mean ignoring the hard or challenging things in life, but it does mean changing how you approach them. If you’ve always had a pessimistic worldview it can be difficult to re-orient your perspective, but it is possible to highlight the positive in your life with a little patience and mindfulness.
Recognize the good and bad in your life and examine how you’ve been affected by each.
Optimism doesn’t mean you have to feel “happy” all the time. In fact, trying to force feelings of happiness during potentially traumatic experiences can be unhealthy. Instead, attune yourself to the full range of emotions in your life, accepting that the negative as well as positive feelings are a natural part of human experience. Trying to repress a certain type of emotion can cause severe emotional distress. Not focusing more on one type of emotion than the other can actually help you become more adaptive and proactive in future unexpected situations. This will increase your ability to be optimistic and resilient in the face of uncertainty.
Negative feelings can become a conditioned habit over time. Avoid blaming yourself for negative emotions and associations. Blame is unhelpful because it doesn’t look forward to how you can grow; it looks backward at what has already happened.
Instead, focus on being mindful of when these negative emotions occur. A journal could help you do this. Write down when you experience negative feelings or thoughts, then examine their contexts and explore alternative ways of responding to them.
For example, imagine that someone cuts you off in traffic. You respond by feeling angry, honking your horn, and perhaps yelling at the driver even though s/he can’t hear you. You could write in your journal what happened, how it made you feel, and what your immediate response was. Don’t judge yourself as “right” or “wrong,” just write down what happened.
Next, take a step back and think about what you’ve written. Was your response in accordance with your values and the type of person you want to be? If not, what could you have done differently? What do you think you were really responding to? For example, perhaps you weren’t really angry at the driver; maybe you had a stressful day and allowed your stress to explode on that one person.
Look forward when you write these entries. Don’t use them just as a place to wallow in negative feelings. Think about what you can learn from the experience. What can you use to grow as a person? Can you use this experience to inform other experiences? If you encounter a similar situation next time, how might you respond in a way that is in line with your values? For example, perhaps realizing that you responded with anger because of your stressful day could help you realize that everyone makes mistakes and encourage you to feel more empathetic with other people the next time someone shows anger toward you. Having a pre-existing idea of how you want to respond to negative situations can also help you in the tough moments.
Mindfulness is a key component of optimism because it encourages you to focus on acknowledging your emotions in the moment without judging them. Often, negative reactions arise when we try to struggle against our feelings, or when we allow ourselves to become so blinded by our emotions that we forget that we can control how we respond to them. Focusing on your breathing, accepting your body and your feelings, and learning from your emotions rather than denying them can help you become comfortable with yourself, which is important when those negative emotions arise.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown by many studies to help with feelings of anxiety and depression. It can actually reprogram the way your body responds to stress.
Look for mindfulness meditation classes in your community. You can also find guided meditations online, such as at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center or BuddhaNet. (And of course, there are several great tutorials on Wikihow.)
You don’t have to commit a huge amount of time to meditation to see its effects. Just a few minutes a day can help you become more aware and accepting of your emotions.
Identify whether your inner monologue is an optimist or a pessimist.
Our inner monologue is a great indicator of whether we naturally take a positive or negative outlook on life. Pay attention to your inner monologue over the course of a day and see if any of the following forms of negative self-talk (that is, your inner monologue) are appearing regularly:
Magnifying the negative aspects of a situation and filtering out all of the positive ones.
Automatically blaming yourself for any negative situation or event.
Anticipating the worst in any given situation. The drive-through coffee shop gets your order wrong and you automatically think that the rest of your day will be a disaster.
You see things only as good or bad (also known as polarization). In your eyes, there is no middle ground.
Look for the positives in your life.
It’s important to re-orient your inner monologue to focus on the positive aspects of both you as an individual and the world around you. Although positive thinking is only one of the steps towards becoming a true optimist, the effects of positive thinking for both your body and mind can be significant, such as:
Increased life span
Lower rates of depression
Lower levels of distress
Improved immune system
Better psychological and physical well-being
Reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease
Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress
Remember that true optimism is different from blind optimism.
Blind optimism occurs when an individual believes that nothing bad can happen. This can lead overconfidence and naivety, and it can lead to disappointment or even danger. True optimism doesn’t just ignore challenges or pretend that negative feelings and experiences don’t exist. It acknowledges those challenges and then says, “I can work through those!”
For example, deciding to go skydiving without ever taking a lesson or reading up on the subject because “it’ll all work out” is an example of blind (and dangerous!) optimism. It isn’t realistic, and it doesn’t acknowledge that you have to work to overcome obstacles. A decision like this could put you in real danger.
A true optimist would look at skydiving and recognize that it’s a complex sport that requires a lot of training and safety precautions. Rather than getting discouraged by the amount of work required, an optimist would set a goal (“learn to skydive”) and then begin working toward it, confident that s/he can achieve it.
Write yourself daily positive affirmations.
Writing down short statements can help us believe in the potential of an action we want to accomplish. Jot down a few affirmations that remind you of what you’re trying to change about the way you see the world. Put them in places where you’ll see them every day, such as on your bathroom mirror, the inside of your locker, on your computer, and even taped to your shower wall. Examples of positive affirmations can be:
“Anything is possible.”
“My circumstances do not create me, I create my circumstances.”
“The only thing I can control is my attitude towards life.”
“I always have a choice.”
Avoid comparing yourself to others.
It’s easy to be envious, but this can often lead to purely negative thinking (“They have more money than I do.”, “She runs faster than I do.”). Remember, there’s always someone who has it worse. Avoid negative comparisons with others, focusing instead on the positive. Studies suggest that complaining about one’s problems may be linked to depression and anxiety.
Practicing gratitude in your daily life can be a great way to get out of the cycle of negative comparisons. Write letters thanking the people in your life or tell them in person. A focus on these positive elements in your life can dramatically increase your mood and feelings of well-being.
Consider keeping a gratitude journal. Research has found that men and women who wrote a few lines each week about things that had occurred recently that made them feel grateful tended to feel more optimistic and better about their lives overall.
Work on improving your perspective in 1 or 2 areas of your life.
Pessimism often stems from feelings of helplessness or lack of control. Identify one or two key aspects that you’d like to change in your life and work on improving them. This will help restore your faith in your own power and ability to effect change in your daily life.
See yourself as a cause, not an effect. Optimists are known for their tendency to believe that negative events or experiences can be overcome by their own effort and abilities.
Start small. Don’t feel you have to take on everything at once.
Positive thinking can lead to positive results. In one study, training male basketball players to attribute positive results—for example, making a free throw—to their ability and negative results to their lack of effort was found to significantly improve their subsequent performance.
Smile as often as you can.
Studies have shown that putting a cheerful smile on your face can actually make you feel happier and more optimistic about the present and future.
In one study, subjects who were asked to hold a pen in their mouth (causing them to make the facial muscle movements characteristic of a smile) rated cartoons to be funnier than other subjects did, even though they were unaware that it was only the smile that was boosting their reaction. Consciously changing the facial muscles to reflect a positive emotion sends a similar message to your brain, elevating your mood.
Realize how you are connected with the world around you.
Optimism isn’t something that simply originates inside your own brain and emanates outward; it grows between you and the world in which you live. Learn to recognize those aspects of your environment that you aren’t happy with and invest your time and energy into changing them.
Work toward changing the world for the better in concrete ways, one interaction at a time. This could take the form of joining a social justice movement or political cause that is important to you.
Remember, however, that there is a wealth of diverse cultures in the world, of which yours is only one. Don’t get caught up in the idea that your culture or way of doing things is superior or the only way. Embracing the diversity in the world and working to help others on their own terms can teach you to see beauty and positivity in many things.
On a micro scale, even rearranging concrete things like your furniture can help break up old, unhelpful patterns of behavior and allow you to form new ones. Studies have shown that breaking a habit is easier if you change up your routines, because this activates new areas of your brain.
This goes hand in hand with learning to accept and work with a broad range of emotions, as it’s impossible to experiment with what you never have to encounter. Instead of trying to micro-manage your emotions by living out the same habits every day, experiment with each interaction and try to find ways to improve things about the environment you share with others.
Build goals and expectations for the future from your concrete interactions with other people and the environment. In doing so, you can avoid creating unrealistic expectations for yourselves and others.
Try thinking about what your life would be like without the positives.
This exercise comes from researchers at Berkeley, who recommend that you take 15 minutes once every week to practice. Thinking about how your life would be different without something you love or are grateful for can help you cultivate optimism by countering the natural tendency to assume the good things in life are “givens.” Remembering that we are lucky for every positive thing that has occurred, and that those things were not inevitable, can foster an attitude of grateful positivity.
Start by focusing on a single positive event in your life, such as an achievement, a trip, or anything that’s meaningful to you.
Remember the event, and think about the circumstances that allowed it to happen.
Consider the ways in which those circumstances might have been different. For example, you might not have learned the language that led you to take that trip, or you might not have read the paper the day you found the announcement of the job you now love.
Write down all of the possible events and decisions that might have gone differently and kept this positive event from occurring.
Imagine what your life would be like if this event had not happened. Imagine what you would be missing if you did not have all the other positive things that have been created by that event.
Come back to remembering that the event did happen. Reflect on the positives it’s brought to your life. Voice gratitude that these things, that did not have to happen, worked out to bring you this joyful experience.
Find the silver linings.
It’s the natural human tendency to focus on what goes wrong in our lives rather than what has gone right. Counter this tendency by examining a negative event and finding the “bright side.” Research has shown this ability to be a key component of optimism, and it also helps with stress, depression, and your relationships with others. Try it for ten minutes a day for three weeks, and you’ll be surprised how much more optimistic you’ve become.
Start by listing 5 things that make you feel like your life is good in some way today.
Then, think about a time when something did not go as expected, or caused you pain or frustration. Briefly write down what that situation was.
Look for 3 things about that situation that may help you see the “silver lining.”
For example, you might have had car trouble that made you late for work because you had to catch the bus. That isn’t a pleasant situation, but you might consider the following as potential bright sides:
You met new people on the bus that you don’t normally interact with
You were able to catch the bus, which is much cheaper than having to take a taxi to work
Your car is fixable
Even if they’re small things, make sure to find at least 3. This will help you become practiced in changing your interpretation and response to events.
Spend time on activities that make you smile or laugh.
Give yourself permission to laugh. The world is full of humor: immerse yourself in it! Watch TV comedies, attend a stand-up comedy routine, buy a joke book. Everyone has a different sense of humor, but focus on finding things that make you laugh. Go out of your way to make yourself smile at least once a day. Remember, laughter is a natural stress reliever.
Adopt a healthy lifestyle.
Optimism and positive thinking have been closely connected to exercise and physical well-being. In fact, exercise has been shown to be a natural mood enhancer, helped by the endorphins produced when you engage in physical activity.
Engage in some kind of physical activity at least three times a week. Physical activity doesn’t have to be a workout at the gym. Go for a walk with your dog. Use the stairs at work instead of the elevator. Any amount of physical movement can help to improve your mood.
Limit mood-altering substances, such as drugs or alcohol. Studies have found significant links between pessimism and the abuse of drugs and/or alcohol.
Surround yourself with friends and family who lighten your mood.
For example, play dress up with your kids or go to a concert with your sister. Spending time with other people can often be a great way of lessening isolation and loneliness, which can produce feelings of pessimism or skepticism.
Make sure those in your life are positive and supportive people. Not everyone you encounter in life will have the same orientation and expectations for life as you, and that’s entirely okay. However, if you find that another person’s attitudes and behaviors negatively affect your own, consider detaching yourself from that person. Humans are extremely susceptible to “emotional contagion,” in which the feelings and attitudes of those around us affect how we feel ourselves. Negative people may increase your stress level and make you doubt your ability to manage stress in healthy ways.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with your relationships. You never know whether someone, even if s/he is very different from you, may bring something valuable to your life. Consider the process a kind of chemistry. It’s important to find the right combination of people in order to cultivate an optimistic outlook towards the future.
A change of mood doesn’t mean a change of personality. Being an optimist is not the same as being an extrovert. You don’t have to be an extrovert to be an optimist. In fact, trying to be someone you’re not could leave you feeling depleted and sad, not optimistic.
Be positive in your actions toward others.
Optimism is infectious. Showing positivity and compassion in your interaction with others not only benefits you, it can create a “ripple effect” where others are encouraged to be positive towards even more people. This is why charity work or volunteer activities have long been associated as a significant factor in mood improvement. Whether it’s buying a stranger a cup of coffee or serving earthquake victims in another country, positivity in your actions toward others pays off in increased optimism.
Charity work has been cited as a natural boost for self-confidence and self-esteem, which may help battle feelings of pessimism or helplessness.
Serving or giving to others can also make you feel good about your contribution to the world. This is especially true if you can make your contributions in person, rather than anonymously or online.
Volunteering can help you make new friends and contacts, surrounding you with a positive community that can boost optimism.
Smiling at strangers is a cultural behavior. For example, American culture generally considers it as friendly, but Russian culture views it with suspicion. Feel free to smile at others in public, but be aware that they may have different traditions than you do, and don’t get offended if they don’t return the gesture (or even seem disturbed by it).
Realize that optimism is a cycle.
The more you engage in positive thinking and action, the easier it will be to maintain the trend of optimism in your daily life.