“I dwell in possibility.”
Negative emotions narrow your range of vision whereas positive emotions expand it. Research has shown that you are more likely to see opportunities and enjoy success (and happiness) when you focus on, and experience, positive emotions.
The fact is, we can train our feelings. We are not victims of our situation, or indeed of our past (as is sometimes suggested by thinkers like Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, respectively). We can directly address our bad feelings and replace them with positive feelings, building on the happy core that is in each of us, our best self. In his book, Learned Optimism Martin Seligman states that changing how we think changes how we feel, and because we choose the way we think, we have the ability to choose how we feel.
Remember: happiness is a skill
We need to bring the same level of attention to our happiness as we do to developing any other skill.
Let’s say you wanted to be a world class pianist, you’d have to practice for thousands of hours, and most likely you would have started to practice when you were quite young, and you wouldn’t expect to go it alone – you’d have a talented teacher by your side. So why do we expect to just be happy? Happiness is a skill and like any other skill, we need to practice it and we need the right support.
By learning how to be more positive and optimistic, we can liberate the positive forces within us, drop our negative and overly critical self perceptions and re-set our inappropriate goals. This will help us to learn that the glass is, after all, half full and not half empty.
Optimism n. A tendency to take a hopeful view of things, or to expect that results will be good
The Oxford Dictionary
One way of looking at optimism and pessimism is as different explanatory styles – the way we explain our experiences and what happens to us. Optimists attribute the cause of negative events and experiences to external, specific and transient factors, (it’s not that bad and it will get better) whereas pessimists do the opposite, they attribute the cause to internal, global and permanent factors (it’s really bad and it’s never going to change).
Interestingly, these ways of thinking are reversed when we explain good events and experiences. Optimists think about them as being personal whereas pessimists presume the opposite. The reason explanatory style matters is that if you believe everything is bad and going to stay that way, it will affect your behaviour, you are more likely to sink into helplessness and stop trying, whereas someone who sees it as a temporary blip is more likely to be spurred into taking action to improve their future.
What are the benefits of optimism?
There are a huge number of benefits linked to being optimistic. These include:
- Optimists suffer less anxiety, depression and stress than pessimists
- Optimism is linked to more effective coping – optimistic people tend to deal with problems rather than avoid them, and use more acceptance, humour and positive reframing, meaning they recover more quickly from negative events in their lives
- Optimism is associated with high life satisfaction and increased well-being, optimists are more action oriented when faced with problems and more likely to accept the reality of a bad situation than a pessimist
- Optimists don’t give up easily even when faced with serious adversity whereas pessimists are more likely to anticipate disaster and give up as a result
- Optimists have stronger immune systems and lower cardiac risk and recover from surgery more quickly
How to develop an optimistic outlook
Laura King, psychology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, pioneered the first systematic optimism intervention. One group of study participants were asked to visit her lab every day for four days and spend 20 minutes writing a narrative description of their best possible future self.
The exercise meant participants considered their most important, deeply held goals and wrote about what their life would be like when these things were achieved. The other group wrote about the details of their daily life for 20 minutes each day. King found that the group who wrote about their best possible future were more likely to show immediate increases in positive mood, be happier several weeks later and to report fewer physical ailments several months later in comparison to the control group. Why not give it a go?
Your best possible self
The best possible self strategy is an effective way of tapping into positive emotions via optimistic thinking. If you’re optimistic about the future, you’re confident that you’ll be able to achieve your goals, at work or in life, meaning you will invest effort in achieving these goals.
Think about ‘your best possible self’ – this means you imagine yourself in the future, after everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard, and accomplished a number of your important life goals. You are in a position where you have realised your dreams and your potential.
Take 10 minutes everyday for a week to write about this future.
Include as much detail as possible – think of it as a picture painted with words. Where you live. Who you live with. What you do everyday, this can be your work, your leisure time or your routines. Describe your house, the restaurants you eat at, the holiday you’re about to go on, as well as how all of this makes you feel. Get creative!
“Optimism is not about providing a recipe for self deception. The world can be a horrible cruel place and at the same time it can be wonderful and abundant. These are both truths. There is not a halfway point – there is only choosing which truth to put in your personal foreground.”
Lee Ross, Graduate School Adviser, Stanford University