In uncertain times, it’s easier than ever to feel gloomy about the world.
Even more so if you’re human—did you know we’re evolutionarily hard-wired to spot—and zoom in on—negative information?
But challenging your ‘glass half empty’ thinking is entirely possible, and by learning to be more optimistic, a wealth of evidence suggests we actually can unlock some very real benefits.
This post takes a closer look at how some people stay hopeful about the future (despite the rain clouds) and will show you a few science-based strategies for countering your inner pessimist.
Optimism is a psychological attribute that has been defined in a few ways.
Broadly, it’s the term often used for: “...the general expectation that good things will happen, or the belief that the future will be favorable because one [i.e. you and I]can control important outcomes” (Lee et al., 2019, p. 18357).
In positive psychology, it is considered an explanatory style—which describes how we choose to interpret events, other people, and the world. And consequently, it can impact the way we feel (Peterson & Steen, 2002; Seligman, 2007).
If you get hit by a flying object, for example…
You might adopt a pessimistic explanatory style, reasoning that “I’ve always been hopelessly clumsy,” or
You might use an optimistic one, thinking “What an unlucky one-off.”
In other words, it’s a little more than being born with rose-tinted glasses, and by choosing to adopt an optimistic explanatory style, we do have some control over how we feel about and react to events.
As we’ll see, changing our explanatory style can often give us a good chance at more positive outcomes, too.
How Can We Become More Optimistic?
The understanding that optimism is an explanatory, or attributional style, is at the heart of learned optimism, an important concept from Martin Seligman, one of the founding fathers of positive psychology (Seligman, 2011).
Put simply, learned optimism premises that because optimism is a strategy, we can develop our ability to use it.
By doing this, we can cultivate our ability to see the world, and the things that happen to us, in a more positive light.
It’s a theory that’s been tested with ‘optimism interventions’ lasting as little as 5 minutes, with participants describing (Meevissen et al., 2011):
Higher expectations of good outcomes from the future
A general shift toward a more hopeful and positive mindset, and perhaps unsurprisingly,
A more positive mood.
With this in mind, here are some practical ways to start strengthening your optimism muscles so that you can start to see less cloud, and a little more silver lining.
3 Ways To Become More Optimistic
Using a more optimistic explanatory style, more often, can have huge positive impacts on our motivation, persistence, productivity, goal achievement, and even our physical health (Peterson, 2000; Peterson & Steen, 2002; Lee et al., 2019).
As with any kind of training, seeing results can take practice—so you might find it helpful to create a reminder for yourself.
1. (Re)learn Your ABCs
If you’re particularly prone to looking on the dark side, the ABC Technique is a well-known exercise for changing the very building blocks of your explanatory style.
Developed by psychologist Albert Ellis, the ABC acronym stands for:
Adversity—the negative event that has you down (maybe you failed a test)
Belief—how we explain or think about it (“I’m useless at school, why bother studying”), and
Consequences—the outcomes from the said event (shaped, quite importantly, by our beliefs, e.g. making less effort to study).
By changing our beliefs, Ellis argues, or the path from A to B, we can start to become more optimistic.
In choosing an optimistic explanatory style, in other words, we can start to develop a more positive mindset, which in turn, can have an impact on our outcomes. To turn it into a habit, it’s useful to have some kind of mental cue that can remind you to challenge automatic negative thoughts more frequently in the moment and think more adaptive thoughts instead.
By envisioning a hypothetical future where things turn out favorably, research shows that we can learn to develop a more optimistic mindset.
A 5- to 10-minute ‘Best Possible Self Exercise’ is as straightforward as imagining a future in which you are living your ideal life, but to practice realistic optimism, as psychologist Sandra Schneider puts it, it’s important to be realistic (Schneider, 2001; Meevisen et al., 2011).
Clear 5-10 minutes in your schedule and set a stopwatch. During this interval, focus exclusively on imagining what your life might be like if everything turned out just as you’d love it to.
You’ve used your strengths to their full potential
Achieved all the things you want to achieve, and
Are surrounded by people you care about, have the relationships you want.
You might want to write it all down as you go, and later, you can pick out important aspects that you’d like to turn into positive affirmations.
3. Create the right cues
As we’ve seen, optimism is more than just ‘thinking happy thoughts,’ but with a little self-encouragement, we can learn to focus on the positive more often.
By creating little reminders to combat negative beliefs when they pop up, we can keep the goal of ‘learning optimism’ in our consciousness, and build a habit of practicing different exercises more regularly.
You might want to remind yourself to:
Consciously spot the positive aspects of an event—like asking“What’s right?” instead of“What’s wrong?”
Fact-check your pessimistic thoughts—“Is there evidence for that?”or
Identify an open door for every closed one...
But to start changing your mindset, it’s important to practice.
With a little time and effort, there is very real evidence that you can develop a more optimistic mindset.
We’re sure you’ll be great at it!
About The Author Catherine Moore
Catherine is an avid surfer, MBA, and Positive Psychology researcher and advocate. Working remotely around the world, her goal for 2021 is to catch the wave of her life.
She holds an MBA at the University of Bradford and a BSc in Organizational & Industrial Psychology from the University of Melbourne, including studies in neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, behavioral psych, personality, and social psychology, quantitative & qualitative research methods, positive psychology.
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Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2010). Optimism.Clinical Psychology Review,30(7), 879-889.
Lee, L. O., James, P., Zevon, E. S., Kim, E. S., Trudel-Fitzgerald, C., Spiro, A., & Kubzansky, L. D. (2019). Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in 2 epidemiologic cohorts of men and women.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,116(37), 18357-18362.
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Peterson, C., & Steen, T. A. (2002).Optimistic explanatory style. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.),Handbook of positive psychology (p. 244–256). Oxford University Press.
Meevissen, Y. M., Peters, M. L., & Alberts, H. J. (2011). Become more optimistic by imagining a best possible self: Effects of a two week intervention.Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry,42(3), 371-378.
Schneider, S. L. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: Meaning, knowledge, and warm fuzziness.American Psychologist,56(3), 250-263.
Seligman, M. E. (2011).Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.Vintage.
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