Ah, optimism – the kale of the mental health world. It’s often seen as the solution for everything from work stress to life challenges.
But does optimism really live up to its reputation?
Can it genuinely make your life smoother and you more successful?
And if the answer is yes, how can I become an optimist?
In this article, I’ll explore the science behind optimism, address the burning question, “Does optimism work?” and share some tips on how to cultivate this elusive trait/skill in your life.
The Science Behind Optimism
Well, and if you’re wondering if there’s something to this whole optimism thing, let me tell you, you’re not alone. A lot of research has been conducted to explore the correlation between optimism and various aspects of life. I want to share with you some fascinating findings about optimism and its powerful impact on numerous areas of our lives.
Optimism and Success
So, what’s the deal with optimism and success? Well, a study conducted by researchers Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener back in 2005 found that optimistic people tend to experience more success in their personal and professional lives. In simpler terms, if you’re a glass-half-full kind of person, you’re more likely to do well in both your relationships and your career.
One of the reasons behind this is that optimistic people are pretty good at bouncing back when things don’t go as planned. This ability to bounce back is called resilience, and it helps them stay on track and not get too discouraged by setbacks. Additionally, optimists are great at focusing on their goals and working towards achieving them. In the face of life’s inevitable ups and downs, these positive thinkers are better equipped to navigate challenges and ultimately reach their objectives.
Optimism and Mental Health
Now, let’s talk about how optimism impacts our mental health. It’s not just about reaching goals or enjoying success; optimism has a profound effect on how we feel day-to-day. A long-term study by Segerstrom (2007) looked into this and discovered some fascinating insights. Optimistic individuals tend to experience lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression in comparison to pessimistic people.
So, how does optimism help with mental health? It seems that optimists are better at adapting to life’s challenges and using effective coping strategies. In other words, when life throws a curveball, optimists are more likely to stay calm, evaluate the situation, and find a way to deal with it positively. This adaptability helps them maintain their mental well-being, even in the face of adversity. By staying optimistic, they’re able to keep their cool and navigate through tough times with greater ease and resilience.
Optimism and Perceived Luck
Now let’s talk about luck and optimism, or at least, perceived luck.
At this point, it should not be too surprising that people who are optimistic tend to feel luckier in life. Day & Maltby (2003) conducted a study that showed a connection between believing in good luck and experiencing better psychological well-being. When optimistic people feel luckier, it adds an extra layer of positivity to their overall mental state, which can then ripple out and affect other aspects of their lives.
So, it seems that being optimistic might just make you feel like you’ve got your own personal lucky charm cheering you on from the sidelines!
Strategies to Cultivate Learned Optimism
Now that I’ve established that optimism is indeed a secret sauce worth adding to our lives, let’s explore some strategies that can help us develop learned optimism.
You know the saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”? Well, the same applies to optimism. It’s all about perspective.
Sure, you may think that some people have more to be happy about and you’re quite possibly right in some cases.
But over the last 10 years, I’ve coached people from all walks of life, of various levels of wealth (from broke to buying Rolex as pick-me-ups), and different social situations (from being alone to being surrounded by supportive friends and family).
But what I’ve discovered is that, hard as it may be to believe, external factors had little impact on how happy they felt.
Instead, it all came down to their outlook on life. What truly made the difference was what they focused on and how they thought about themselves, others, and life in general.
And now, let me share with you some strategies that will help you adopt such a positive outlook.
1. Cognitive Restructuring, a.k.a. Reshaping Your Thoughts
Cognitive restructuring is a technique that helps us recognise and break the habit of negative thinking patterns and, instead, adopt a more positive and constructive mindset. It’s like spring cleaning for your thoughts, helping you declutter your mind from self-defeating beliefs and replace them with healthier, more uplifting ones. So, when you find yourself thinking something like, “I’m terrible at everything,” you can pause, reflect, and rephrase it to, “I’m still learning, and I can improve with practice.” This shift in perspective can work wonders in boosting your self-esteem and overall outlook on life.
To make this process more effective, it helps to be aware of the common cognitive distortions that often fuel negative thoughts. These might include all-or-nothing thinking (assuming that if something isn’t perfect, it’s a complete failure), over-generalisation (drawing sweeping conclusions based on a single event), or catastrophizing (expecting the worst-case scenario to occur). By recognising these distorted thought patterns, you’ll be better equipped to challenge and replace them with healthier, more realistic perspectives.
Cognitive restructuring is not about denying reality or engaging in wishful thinking. Instead, it’s about training your mind to see the world and yourself more accurately and objectively rather than being clouded by negative assumptions. This mental shift can help you feel more in control of your emotions and reactions, making it easier to face challenges with confidence and resilience.
One way to practice cognitive restructuring is by keeping a thought journal, where you jot down your negative thoughts as they arise and then work on reframing them into more positive or balanced statements. This practice can help you become more self-aware and develop the habit of changing your inner dialogue over time.
Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is an optimistic mindset. Be patient with yourself as you learn to rewire your thought patterns, and celebrate your progress along the way. With consistent practice, cognitive restructuring can become a powerful tool in your arsenal for cultivating optimism and enhancing your overall well-being.
Gratitude is like the BFF of optimism. You see, by actively practising gratitude, we shift our focus from what’s lacking in our lives to all the wonderful things we already have. This not only bolsters our mental health but also gives our optimism levels a well-deserved nudge in the right direction.
Strangely, it seems like gratitude doesn’t come naturally to us. Perhaps because we tend to constantly compare ourselves with others which leave us focusing on how we are not good enough yet and how better others have it. It can be hard to feel grateful then.
So practising gratitude is important and necessary.
A simple but powerful practice is to think (or ideally write down) one thing you’re grateful for and why every day. It won’t take you more than a couple of minutes. It will instantly make you feel a bit happier, and over time, it will reshape your mind to see more clearly what you have rather than what you are missing.
Additionally, expressing your gratitude for others is also a great way to boost your happiness.
A simple “Thank you for helping me” or “I appreciate your support” can go a long way. When we voice our gratitude out loud, we’re not only making someone else’s day better, but we’re also making the sentiment more tangible in our own minds. So don’t hold back.
I have a saying: When you don’t know how to appreciate what you have right now, there’s no point in getting more.
3. Growth Mindset
Let’s talk about the growth mindset. Growth mindset is often regarded the cornerstone of personal development, but less so in relation to optimism. Yet, it’s a powerful tool in your optimism toolkit.
Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck introduced the world to the idea of the growth mindset, which emphasises embracing challenges, seeking learning opportunities, and believing that we can develop over time. Adopting a growth mindset can work wonders for our optimism levels, as it helps us view setbacks and obstacles as stepping stones rather than roadblocks.
Personally speaking, adopting growth mindset has changed my life. I remember, in my early days of diving into personal development, I realised that I can infinitely grow and become more valuable and competitive through learning and adopting new skills. I became inextinguishably burning to learn. And since then, I look at everything as valuable lessons. I literally ask myself all the time: What can I learn from this? How can I use this to be better?
This way, no matter what is happening, there’s something positive in it.
4. Mindful Self-Awareness
When it comes to cultivating an optimistic outlook, being more in tune with our emotions and thoughts through mindful self-awareness is a game-changer. It’s a bit like turning the volume down on life’s noise and tuning in to our own personal radio station, where we get to decide the playlist.
One way to enhance mindful self-awareness is by incorporating meditation into your daily routine. Setting aside just 10 minutes a day can help you quiet your mind and become more aware of your thoughts and emotions. It’s a bit like sitting on a park bench, watching your thoughts go by like passersby, without getting too involved in their stories. I’ve found this practice to be incredibly beneficial in my own life.
Another helpful technique is deep breathing exercises. Whenever you feel overwhelmed or stressed, take a moment to focus on your breath. Inhaling deeply through your nose, and exhaling slowly through your mouth, bring your attention back to the present moment. This simple yet powerful practice can help you regain balance and perspective.
Incorporating these mindful self-awareness practices into my life has had a profound impact on my optimism. By tuning in to my thoughts and emotions, I’ve been able to create a more positive and resilient outlook on life. And as they say, when the mind is calm, the heart is open, and optimism can flourish.
Kristin Neff’s idea of self-compassion encourages us to treat ourselves with kindness and understanding, much like we would a close friend. Practising self-compassion can lead to improvements in mental health and optimism. After all, it’s much easier to be optimistic when we’re not beating ourselves up over every little mistake.
One practical tip for cultivating self-compassion is to set aside time each day to reflect on the kind things you’ve done for yourself or others. This simple act of acknowledgement can help strengthen feelings of self-worth and reinforce an optimistic mindset.
If you find that you haven’t done anything, well, then you know what to improve.
Visualising success can have a powerful impact on motivation and confidence.
Techniques like guided imagery and mental rehearsal, where you imagine achieving your goals or overcoming obstacles, can help you feel more optimistic and ready to tackle whatever life throws your way.
A practical tip on how to use visualisation is to set aside a few minutes every so often to mentally rehearse a desired outcome or visualise yourself overcoming a challenge. This practice can build confidence and reinforce a sense of optimism.
While this may sound a little wishy-washy, visualisation is used by many athletes like divers, skiers, or gymnasts because it has a positive impact on their performance.
7. Positive Affirmations
Positive affirmations are like little pep talks we give ourselves to reinforce our strengths and qualities. Creating and using personalised positive affirmations, such as “I am resilient” or “I am capable” can help maintain an optimistic mindset throughout the day.
A practical tip for using positive affirmations is to write them down on Post-it notes and place them around your home or workspace. This way, you’ll be reminded of your strengths and positive qualities throughout the day, which can bolster your optimism.
8. Aligning with Personal Values
Identifying your core values and living in accordance with them can lead to a greater sense of authenticity, purpose, and optimism. Understanding what’s truly important to you can make it easier to stay optimistic, even when life gets a bit bumpy.
A practical tip for aligning with your personal values is to make a list of your top 3-5 values and reflect on how your daily actions align with them. If you notice a discrepancy, brainstorm ways to better align your actions with your values. By living in accordance with your values, you’ll foster a more authentic, purpose-driven, and optimistic outlook on life.
So, does optimism work?
The science and numerous personal experiences both point to a resounding “Yes!”
By practising the strategies shared in this article, you, too, can cultivate an optimistic mindset that has the potential to make a tangible difference in your life. Optimism is a powerful tool for personal growth, well-being, and success, and we encourage you to give it a try. After all, the glass is always half full if you choose to see it that way!