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Happiness Habits: Is it Possible to Learn Optimism?

08 Jun 2022 | Written by By Miriam Akhtar MAPP, author of The Little Book of Happiness

Is your glass half full or empty? Whether you’re an optimist or a born pessimist, it’s worth knowing about the link between optimism and mental health and that you can learn to think optimistically even if you’re more Eeyore than Tigger.

 

Always look on the bright side of life.

– Monty Python

 

Optimists enjoy greater psychological and physical well-being. They cope better when things go wrong and experience less distress, depression and anxiety. They have stronger immune systems and recover faster from surgery – one of the reasons, maybe, why optimists live longer.

When bad news intrudes on an optimist’s life, they adapt better to negative events and focus on solutions rather than problems. So, for example, they’re more likely to go to the doctor (and feel optimistic about securing an appointment!) and then stick to the advice. These are some of the proven benefits of optimism, which is both a strength and a positive emotion. Think optimistically and you’re more likely to feel the joy! 

 

Do not despair though, if you lean more towards pessimism. Pessimists are good at assessing risk and act cautiously in high-risk situations. They are less likely to engage in risky activities like drink-driving or casual sex. They are more ‘realistic’. It’s the optimists who see themselves as below average risk for experiencing failure, heart disease or cancer.

Pessimists aren’t surprised when something bad happens but contrary to expectations, they are more likely to stick their head in the sand, whereas optimists may be shocked but better able to pick up the pieces and find a way forward.

There is a positive form of pessimism that you might recognise if you’re one of those people who has ‘be prepared’ as a motto. If you need to get somewhere you’ve checked out public transport and how to drive there. You carry sunglasses and an umbrella with you. If this sounds like you then you may be a ‘defensive pessimist’ – someone who thinks through and plans for every eventuality. And that’s no bad thing. Anyone who engages in this much mental rehearsal is likely to succeed. 

 

Learning to be more optimistic 

The good news is that there is a form of optimism you can learn in spite of the legacy of your genes, upbringing or life experience. It’s called ‘optimistic explanatory style’ and is based on the way we interpret the causes of events that happen to us.

When something goes wrong, a pessimist is likely to see the cause as:

  • personal – ‘it’s all my fault’
  • permanent – ‘it’s never going to change’
  • and pervasive – ‘now everything is ruined’.

Optimists think in the exact opposite way. When something goes wrong for them, they see the cause as:

  • not personal – ‘other factors are involved’,
  • not permanent – ‘this too shall pass’
  • and not pervasive – ‘other areas of my life are going well’.

So think like an optimist when something goes wrong. 

 

I’m applying this way of thinking right now to my current housing situation. I have been in limbo over the past year living in a rented cowshed (more luxurious than it sounds!) while searching for a new home. Rather than blaming myself, a kinder way of thinking is to use the three dimensions of optimistic explanatory style, like so:

  • It’s not personal: I didn’t cause the current state of the property market with the lack of supply. It’s outside of my control.
  • It’s not permanent: The inflation in the property market is easing off now. 
  • It’s not pervasive: I’ve had a good time living in the countryside. I’ve loved being on the farm and bottle-feeding the lambs.  

 

When something goes well, optimists and pessimists explain the causes of the good fortune in the opposite way to their thinking about negative events. If they pass an exam, a pessimist thinks that:

  • the cause is not personal – ‘the questions were so easy’,
  • it is not permanent – ‘it was just luck on the day’,
  • and not pervasive – ‘I can still fail the next one’.

Whereas the optimist will think of the cause as:

  • personal – ‘I did a great job’,
  • permanent – ‘I’m really good at this subject’,
  • and pervasive – ‘this is a good start and I can do well in the others too.’

 

Psychological Self-Defence 

Optimism acts a bit like a muscle. The more you practise challenging pessimistic thinking, the easier it becomes and this will shield your well-being and strengthen your resilience.

Learning optimism is also about having a sense of confidence in the future turning out well. Prof Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, believes that ‘prospection’ – the ability to conceive of a positive future – is key to our well-being and more important than resilience. 

Here’s a starter for ten for you to develop your ability to prospect:

 

The Joy of Anticipation (exercise)

  • Think of three positive things that you expect to happen tomorrow. Write them down. 
  • Now choose one of the three and anticipate the good feelings you associate with the positive event. 
  • Relax into these good feelings (‘marinate’ in them, so to speak) and see if you can maintain this for a couple of minutes.
  • Repeat the exercise every day.

You can then scale up to another practice called ‘Best Possible Self’, which involves writing about how you would like your life to be when everything has worked out for the best (keep reading for instructions). This is based on the goals you value rather than pure fantasy. Writing it down helps to gain insights, and motivates you to make the dream a reality and see pathways to the goal.

This is something to be done over four consecutive days. Write free form, anything goes and don’t worry about grammar, spelling or punctuation.

 

Best Possible Self (exercise)

‘You’re going to think about your best possible self. Compile a picture of how you are when you’re at your best and how you would like to come across to others. Think about your passions and the people, events, situations and successes that are important to you. 

Thinking about your best possible self means that you imagine yourself in the future, after everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You’ve worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realisation of your life dreams and your best potentials. 

It is important that you capture these thoughts in writing (e.g. 20 minutes a day)’.

Research has shown that this practice leads to an increase in positive emotions in the short-term, higher levels of happiness over the long term and fewer trips to the doctor! 

 

What does your best possible life look like? You can share your thoughts in the comments below. 


Has this topic piqued your interest? Discover more about yourself and how to live life with more happiness at our next Positive Psychology talk led by Miriam. Find more information and book your place here.

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