Have you ever been so worried about something that just being around an upbeat person really pissed you off?
How can they be so positive when things are going so crappy for you? What do they have to be so happy about?
It does appear that some people are born optimists. The world can be falling down around them, but they still have a smile on their face and a spring in their step.
Studies published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology suggest that positive and negative attitudes might be hardwired in our brains. The researchers found a brain marker that distinguishes negative thinkers from positive thinkers. That’s good news for optimists, but what about the other people out there who swing to opposite end of the attitude continuum? Are pessimists doomed to negative thinking, worry, and anxiety forever?
Fortunately, the answer is no, and if you do tend toward pessimism, there are plenty of inspiring reasons to work on creating a more optimistic attitude. Optimists do better in almost all areas of life.
- They are more successful in work, school, and sports.
- They have happier relationships.
- They get depressed less often than pessimists.
- They make more money.
- They are healthier in general than pessimists.
- They live longer than pessimists.
Just a bit more optimism can make you healthier, wealthier, and happier. It’s well-worth taking a good hard look at yourself and taking action to tip the scales more in the favor of a positive attitude. Think you might tend toward pessimism? Here’s a mini-quiz to help you decide:
1. Do you tend to view everything as your fault? For example, if a friend doesn’t call for a few days, you assume you’ve done something wrong.
2. Do you have “all or nothing” thinking? If you fail at one thing, you view yourself as a complete failure.
3. Do you “catastrophize” problems? You tend to assume the very worst possible scenario or outcome.
4. Do you focus on the negative minutiae? Rather than looking at the big picture, you zero in on one small thing that bothers you, negating all other positive aspects of a situation.
5. Are you a perfectionist? You expect perfection from yourself and others, which is impossible to achieve. You set yourself up for disappointment and then blame yourself for failure.
6. Do you have a hard time accepting compliments? You deflect them or feel embarrassed or unworthy of kind words.
7. Do you need a lot of outside reinforcement and approval? You don’t feel confident in yourself or your abilities, so you seek the approval and opinion of others before acting.
8. Do you tend to over-generalize? For example, you have one bad experience camping, so you swear off ever doing it again.
If you answered “yes” to four or more of these questions, you have some valuable work to do on your outlook. Fortunately, you don’t have to accept negativity as your fallback mindset. You can take action to push yourself to the happier end of the optimism scale. It doesn’t happen overnight, but with consistent action, you’ll find yourself transforming into a positive, optimistic person.
Here are 6 simple ways to become an optimistic person:
1. Get Engaged
No, I’m not talking about proposing to someone. I mean get engaged with an activity that interests you and occupies your mind. The biggest enemy of positive thinking is rumination. When you allow yourself to focus on negative, worrisome thoughts, you can blow up even the smallest problem into gigantic proportions. But when you’re busy, and your mind is focused on something, you don’t have room for ruminating.
Try to find activities that require your full attention, whether it’s a sport, a chess game, or a complicated project. Simply taking a walk or mowing the yard won’t cut it. You need your brain fully occupied to escape those insidious negative thoughts.
2. Counterattack Catastrophic Thinking
When you find yourself ruminating about worst case scenarios, take a moment to recognize what you’re doing. You’re allowing your thoughts to spin out of control. Even though you might feel overwhelmed by the small possibility of a negative outcome, use your logic to determine the actual probability of this bad thing actually happening.
When I lost a friend to ovarian cancer, I went through several weeks of catastrophic thinking, worrying that I’d get this cancer too. Finally, I did some research on risk factors and odds and learned how slim that possibility was. It helped tremendously in breaking the cycle of thinking. I looked at those statistics every time I started ruminating.
Another counterintuitive way to attack worst case thinking is by allowing yourself to exaggerate the situations you envision to point of ridiculousness. This gives you a sense of control over your thinking and diffuses your anxiousness. Maybe you’re worried you’ll lose your house because you’re a day late with your payment. Take it even further, and think about being on the street, sleeping in the back of your car, and dumpster diving. You’ll begin to realize how truly silly and unlikely it is that any of these things will happen.
3. Change Your Explanatory Style
Researchers have found the positive people take credit for good things happening in their lives, and they don’t assume they’re at fault when bad things happen. Pessimists react differently. They take the blame for bad things, and assume when good things happen, it must be a fluke.
Having a positive outlook in difficult situations and assuming you have what it takes to create good outcomes makes a huge difference in the actual results you experience. For example, cancer patients who assume that everything will be OK tend to report significantly greater emotional well-being during treatment than pessimists.
When good things happen in your life, reflect on all you have done to lead up to and contribute to this situation. Mindfully look for the ways you’ve been responsible for your success. When something bad happens, don’t assume you are at fault, that people are out to get you, or you’re always the victim of “bad luck.” Rather be proactive in finding ways to address and correct the situation in a positive, hopeful way.
4. Practice Persistence
Optimists tend to work longer and harder at a problem than pessimists. Persistence pays off in better grades, larger paychecks, and more success at school or on the job. Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD, an optimism researcher at the University of Kentucky and author of Breaking Murphy’s Law, learned how profoundly optimism can impact your bottom line.
In a study of law students, she discovered that a student’s level of optimism in the first year of law school corresponded with their salary 10 years later. On a 5-point optimism scale, for every 1-point increase in optimism they enjoyed a $33,000 increase in annual income.
If you want to practice persistence and enjoy the rewards of your tenacity, simply start “acting as if” you’re an optimist. Assume that the longer and harder to pursue something, the more successful you’ll be at it. Assume that persistence will pay off, even if you don’t feel that level of confidence. Simply changing your mindset this way will actually change your feelings in time so that optimism comes more naturally.
5. Phone a Friend (An Optimistic One)
Start hanging out with optimistic people, and spend less time with those who fuel your pessimism. Optimism is contagious, and it’s far more fun to spend time with happy, positive people than with downers.
If you are married to an optimist, you’ll have a healthier, happier relationship, and your partner can inspire you to practice optimism in your own life. Watch your optimistic friends and notice how they talk, how they handle problems, and how they view the world. Try to emulate their behaviors and outlooks, even if it doesn’t feel natural at first.
6. Reframe Disappointment
Ok, so pessimists (and optimists) do experience real disappointment and failure from time to time. Maybe your worry and negative thinking proved to be legitimate. But now you have another opportunity to shift into optimistic thinking.
Rather to going over and over all of the reasons why you screwed up or how you were a failure, shift your thoughts to the lessons you can learn from this failure. There are plenty of take-aways for personal growth and practical change in every challenge and mistake. Don’t leave this valuable information on the table because you’re clouded by self-blame and negativity.
Optimistic people recognize that failure is inherent in any endeavor, and that failure is often a necessary stepping stone to ultimate success. They don’t view it as the final judgement of their character or abilities, but rather as an important detour on the road to success.
Do you consider yourself more of an optimist or a pessimist? How has your attitude impacted your experience of life, your success, and your relationships? If you are more pessimistic, what actions are you ready to take to turn your attitude around? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.