How Optimism Affects Us

Column: Aspire Unplugged, by Cheryl Patterson

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

“Is your cup half full or empty?” or “Think positive!” are some of the sayings that many of us have heard, and probably now roll our eyes at, when it comes to hearing about optimism. At the risk of sounding pessimistic, I find phrases like that too fluffy and cliché-like. So, I’m going to try and give it to you straight – without the fluff – about how optimism affects us.

Optimism is a constructive perspective. We can see the best of a situation or the worst, or believe that we can achieve a goal or can’t… Basically, it’s the view that will propel us forward, helping us to get unstuck, or to help keep us out of negative ruts altogether. It doesn’t mean we should be walking around with a forced smile, or to be un-empathetic when someone’s going through a tough time, but it’s an important part of our lives that deserves attention.

In her research on sustainable happiness, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, found that benefits of a positive mindset include an increase in successful marriages and friendships – a stronger social support system – greater work outcomes, including an increase in creativity, productivity, and income. This positive state of mind makes us more likely to experience greater self-control and coping abilities, a healthier immune system, and a longer life.

In contrast, being bogged down with “nothing ever goes right” thoughts of struggle, or putting a negative spin on most of what we do, or having a list of excuses about why we (or others) can’t do things, doesn’t support feeling good about ourselves or our lives, and hinders our efforts at success, fulfillment and well being. We can’t we sustain good emotional or physical health if we’re filled with the stress of chronic negativity, but we can improve it with optimism, with some of the following tips.

Take the spotlight away from dissatisfaction. Re-evaluate what is going right in your life and try and focus your attention on that (vs what’s going wrong). One of the ways you can do this is to journal things that go well each day. This will help switch your daily attention to positive things.

A study by Dr. Martin Seligman, director of positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, found that when participants wrote about three good things that happened each day and why they happened, it contributed to them being happier (and less depressed) up to six months later.

Practice a solution-based focus. Brainstorm ways you can improve situations, rather than dwelling on the problems.

Confront destructive thinking. Counter self-defeating views about yourself and negative views of others and situations… There are two sides to everything, and you don’t have to choose the negative one.

Have faith in your abilities. Faith goes hand-in-hand with optimism. Any effort we make starts with believing that we can. We just have to hold steadfast to that belief as we follow through.

Practice a religion or spirituality.
Research indicates that this keeps you centered by increasing your focus in a positive direction.

Pursue a meaningful goal or cause.  Striving toward important achievements and attempting to reach your potential – from daily tasks to life goals – has been linked to positive moods in studies, and is especially effective when suited to your interests and values.

Take your mind off your problems. Take a mental break with things like hobbies, sports or reading. I like inspirational non-fiction books because they also help keep my focus in a positive direction.

Other “intentional behaviors,” as referred to by Lyubomirsky, can also include exercise, counting your blessings, forgiveness, acceptance and kindness. Being proactive toward lifting negative moods and creating positive meaning in your life is essential, within your control and can have a significant impact. Start with the areas you feel most comfortable with and incorporate them into your daily life.

To move forward in any regard, whether emotionally, in the pursuit of goals, or otherwise requires optimism. It’s a simple, yet essential element to life, especially in light of the alternative. Or as expressed by Winston Churchill, “For myself I am an optimist – it does not seem to be much use to be anything else.”

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