Sometimes optimism gets a bad name. Positive people might find themselves being accused of "wearing rose-colored glasses" or behaving like "a Pollyanna." In truth, real optimism isn't about ignoring reality and pretending that everything is OK, even when it's not.
Psychologists believe that optimists actually process their life experiences in a way that is different from others, but no less valid than pessimism or even realism. Optimistic people process life in a way that allows them to be hopeful and resilient. Having hope that things will get better and the ability to bounce back when things go wrong are integral to good health and happiness.
Are You an Optimist?
Mental health professionals have ascribed a set of coping mechanisms that are common to optimists:
Optimists believe that when bad things happen those events are temporary. They believe that they will recover.
Optimists see a negative event in one part of their life as segmented from the rest. They also don't engage in self-blame or self-hatred for things that have gone wrong.
Optimists don't accept the attitude that a negative event is predictive of more negative events in the future. They don't catastrophize.
If you see yourself in these descriptions, you may well be an optimist. If you are, what others see as disasters, you may see as challenges that will give you a chance to better yourself. You probably believe that people are generally good, that you can handle whatever comes your way, and that the future will be bright. If this doesn't sound like you at all, you can always find out how to work on yourself to bring some of these qualities into your life.
What are the benefits of Optimism?
Not surprisingly, optimists tend to be pretty happy people. Studies have indicated that a positive outlook decreases the likelihood of suffering from mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. Optimists just don't do hopelessness. Some part of the mind is constantly on the lookout for the silver lining around the clouds. And because they are looking for it, they usually find it. Self-help guru Tony Robbins is famous for saying, "What you think about expands."
Optimism also results in some amazing physical benefits. Studies reveal that optimists aren't just more mentally resilient, they are more physically resilient as well. Their immune systems are stronger resulting in reduced rates of illness overall. Research has shown that embracing a positive view of life can actually lengthen your lifespan. It can cut your chances of getting heart disease in half. Optimists who contract critical illnesses such as cancer have shown noticeably better outcomes and responses to treatment.
Can You Increase Your Optimism?
There is a genetic component to being a natural optimist, but that only accounts for about a quarter of the causation. That means that even if you're not naturally inclined toward a positive outlook, you have a high probability of developing one if you try.
Keeping a gratitude journal is a great way to help yourself become more optimistic. When you spend a few moments at the end of every day recording a list of things you are grateful for, it helps to train your brain to focus on the positive and to learn that even on bad days there is always some good.
If you tend toward pessimism, you may be overwhelmed with negative thoughts on a nearly constant basis. Start challenging a few of those negative thoughts and reframing them. This may seem awkward at first, but practice makes perfect.
Changing some habits can be helpful as well. If you are a news junkie, maybe you want to limit that to once a day and replace it with something more positive. Assess the people that you spend the most time with. If you're exposed to pessimism through your friend group daily, it might be time to add some optimists to the mix.
Optimism isn't about ignoring the negative, it's about processing it in a way that lets you believe you can overcome it and gives you hope that things will be better in the future. And who couldn't use a bit more of that?