Do you have a friend who seems like she is positive all the time? When your favorite restaurant is closed, she volunteers to host a dinner at her place. When you’re going through a bad breakup, she’s there to remind you of your best qualities.
Wish you could bottle up even a fraction of her unfailing optimism for yourself?
If you don’t, you probably should. Having a positive outlook on life has many benefits. Among these, the Mayo Clinic lists lower rates of depression, increased life span, greater resistance to the common cold, increased coping skills, and reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Not too shabby, right?
Martin Seligman, a psychologist famous for pioneering the study of positive psychology, found that being optimistic can help you sustain motivation. In his study, he asked a group of swimmers to choose their best stroke. He timed them. When they finished, he told them they swam at a slower pace than they actually had. He noted whether their self-explanatory styles were optimistic or pessimistic. Then he asked them to swim a second trial. He found that the swimmers who were optimistic had the same time in the second trial as they did in the first. The swimmers who were pessimistic swam slower.
Seligman’s research shows us that attitude greatly affects our daily performance. You, too, can cultivate an attitude of optimism for yourself with a little bit of time, introspection, and intentional practice.
01. Recognize the difference between idealism and realism.
The skeptics out there might be thinking, “This sounds all well and good. But wouldn’t it be unrealistic to expect to be like Pollyanna all the time?” Yes, being happy all the time is an unrealistic expectation to put on yourself and others. But looking for opportunities to cultivate a positive outlook while acknowledging the reality of the situation is achievable. Telling yourself that you will do well on your presentation at work is fine. Telling yourself this even though you haven’t prepared and need to present in fifteen minutes will only result in disappointment.
Amy Morin, LCSW, a social worker and author, says that unrealistic expectations can be harmful in the long run. Instead of relying on false optimism to get you through a project, give yourself plenty of time to prepare for it. Visualizing your success based on the effort you put in is an example of having positive but also realistic expectations. To prevent falling prey to unrealistic expectations, Morin suggests acknowledging the real work that must go into achieving your goals, identifying potential obstacles ahead of time so that you will be ready to address them, and resolving to be positive throughout the whole experience. This way, you will be able to view the situation in ways that allow you to be optimistic about achieving your goal without deluding yourself.
02. Watch your language, young lady!
The way you think and talk about a situation or goal influences how you interact with it, much like the swimmers in Seligman’s experiment. Without even realizing it, you might be engaging in what therapists call negative self-talk. Negative self-talk is a maladaptive pattern of thinking that focuses on the sour aspects of a situation.
There are many different types of negative thought patterns. A few of the common ones include black-and-white thinking, catastrophizing, and filtering.
- With black-and-white thinking, people tend to make all-or-nothing statements, such as, “My boyfriend and I had a fight. Our relationship is doomed.” The situation is either completely positive or completely negative.
- Catastrophizing is jumping to the worst possible conclusion. For example, you’re home alone on a Friday night and see that a friend posted about the amazing time she’s having, and you think, “Everyone is out without me. As usual, I’m home alone. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life like this, being lame while everyone else is having fun.” What a depressing way to think!
- Filtering happens when a person chooses to focus on the negative aspects of a situation and completely ignores the positive ones. After a predominately positive annual review, a person who filters will ignore the positive comments from their supervisor and focus exclusively on the one negative comment.
If you’re not careful, these patterns of thinking can become your primary way of thinking, squashing the possibility of injecting joy and hope into your view of the world.
03. Give the situation a positive spin.
Now that you are aware of the enemies of positive thinking, how do you avoid these pitfalls? The key is to catch yourself before you fall into the old habit of negative self-talk. Replace negative statements with more realistic and positive ones. For example, “My boyfriend and I had a huge fight. Clearly this is a sensitive subject for us both. It might take a little time, but we’ve worked through tougher issues in the past. We can definitely work through this one.” Or, “I miss spending time with my friends. I’m going to make sure I schedule something social tomorrow.” By intentionally phrasing your thoughts to focus on positive possibilities, you’ve taken an enormous step toward cultivating an optimistic outlook on life.
04. Positive practice makes perfect.
Reframing your thoughts toward the positive isn’t something that will happen overnight. There is a reason psychologists call negative self-talk maladaptive thought patterns—this way of thinking has become habit. And habits can be really challenging to change.
To make a lasting change, be aware of those times when you get stuck in a cycle of negative self-talk. Journaling is a useful way to help identify negative patterns of thinking. If a conversation or situation is bothering you, take some time to write down your reactions and thoughts. Then review what you’ve written, and highlight any negative self-talk. Try rephrasing what you wrote to focus on the positive. Identify room for growth and opportunities you can look forward to.
Visualize the goal you are working toward. What will it look like when you reach your goal? How will you feel? How will you get there? Remind yourself that you can achieve your goal, and keep your eye on the end result. This will help keep you motivated when you’re tempted to throw in the towel.
05. Manage your stress.
Taking care of yourself—in particular, managing stress—is an important part of cultivating a positive outlook on life. Stress wears us down and makes us more vulnerable to negativity because it impacts our physical and emotional health in quite tangible ways. The National Institute of Mental Health describes how the effects of stress can range from the occasional headache and irritability to a suppressed immune system. Practice self-care by following the American Psychological Association’s recommendations for managing stress. These include getting enough sleep, eating a healthy balanced diet, exercising, and spending time with friends and family. When you feel physically and mentally on top of your game, it is easier to be optimistic.
06. Be intentional with gratitude.
Another effective way to stay attuned to the positive experiences in your life is to practice gratitude. When we’re lost in the negative aspects of an experience, it’s all too easy to ignore all the good things happening. One of the best ways to practice thankfulness is to start a gratitude journal. Even if it’s as simple as taking a few minutes at the beginning or end of each day to list what you are grateful for in your life, it will go a long way in helping you focus on the good. Your list can be as simple or as profound as you like. Being thankful for no injuries after a serious accident belongs on your list as much as enjoying a perfectly made cup of coffee does. In his research on positive psychology, Seligman found that those who intentionally practiced gratitude were more likely to be consistently happy. After all, an appreciative heart is one of the seven secrets of happy, healthy women.
07. Surround yourself with uplifting friends.
Have you noticed that it’s much easier to be positive when you are spending time with other optimistic people? The APA’s 2014 Stress in America survey found that having a strong support network is linked to being emotionally healthy. Surrounding yourself with supportive and uplifting friends, coworkers, and family will make being optimistic more effortless. On the other hand, when you are surrounded by negative people, it can be incredibly draining, both physically and mentally. Of course, that’s not to say that you can’t be friends with someone just because they have a more negative outlook on life. Just be aware of how their negativity may affect your own outlook.
Practice incorporating some realistic optimism into your life. Remember that it takes time to break the negative habits you might have been engaging in for years. Being mindful of your reactions and expectations along with managing stress, practicing gratitude, and surrounding yourself with uplifting friends will help you add sweetness to the lemons that life sometimes throws your way.
Author’s note: This article is not intended to be a substitute for or serve as professional counseling or treatment.