Recently, Psych Bytes introduced a new series for young adults to help them live happier lives. Using the acronym “OMEGAS,” Dr. Dave Verhaagen provides a practical six-part plan to increase your sense of happiness and wellbeing. Today, he explores Optimism and how it can change your outlook in significant ways.

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.” – Noam Chomsky

What is Optimism? What Are the Benefits of Optimism?

I’m a cognitive-behavioral therapist, which means I believe if you change your thinking, you can change your life. Over more than twenty-five years, I’ve seen the benefits for thousands of individuals. One way you can think differently and improve your life is by teaching yourself to become more optimistic.

Optimism is a confidence that future events will turn out well. It is a hopefulness that good things are ahead. It’s not just wishful thinking. True optimism is rooted in reality and honesty but looks at the future through a positive lens.

The benefits of optimism are enormous. In a review of the literature, Elizabeth Scott found that optimism can lead to:

  • Better physical health
  • Better emotional health
  • Greater persistence on important goals and tasks
  • Less stress

There’s no question there are both long-term and short-term benefits to being more optimistic. Optimistic people often have much better futures because they envision and expect better futures for themselves.

Where Does Optimism Come From?

Have you noticed how some people are more optimistic, while others see the future more negatively? Why is that?

Optimism is strongly influenced by your temperament, or, as you might say, by your wiring. It’s also shaped by your early environment, like your family culture and the messages your received when you were younger. The combination of these forces creates a general outlook that leans more optimistically or pessimistically.

Optimism is a relatively stable trait in humans, as is pessimism. People who are naturally optimistic tend to stay in a certain range regardless of the slings and arrows of life. One study even found that optimists stayed optimistic, even in the face of a cancer diagnosis.

The other side of the equation is true, as well. Naturally pessimistic people are Eeyores, even in the face of positive events.

Eeyore

Different Ways of Thinking

At a foundational level, optimists and pessimists think in vastly different ways. Pessimists experience negative events in their lives and believe the bad news is permanent and affects every aspect of their lives. They also think the unpleasant turn of events exposes their limitations and their inability to cope.

Here’s how pessimistic people think:

  • “This crappy stuff is here to stay.”
  • “This bad news affects every aspect of my life.”
  • “I have no control over this lousy situation.”
  • “I can’t cope with this nonsense.”

For the naturally pessimistic person, these thoughts are loud and seem very real. A 21-year-old guy who expected his girlfriend to break up with him told me not too long ago, “This is what always happens. It’s not just what I think, it’s how it is.”

For him, a breakup in the near future was inevitable, expected, a near certainty. His belief in this made that outcome more likely, which is one problem with pessimism: it can increase the chance of a negative outcome.

Contrast the way a pessimist thinks with the way an optimist thinks. She sees the negative events as temporary and only affecting a certain area of their lives (like work or a relationship), rather than staining everything.

They also see these hard times as opportunities to show their resourcefulness and resilience. They might have thoughts like this:

  • “This crappy stuff will pass.”
  • “This bad news affects me in some ways, but the rest of my life is still good.”
  • “I have some control over this lousy situation, so I’ll do what I can to make it better.” Or in situations that are really beyond his or her control: “I accept what I can’t change and I don’t let it tear me down.”
  • “I can cope with the rough stuff.”

The way optimists think makes all the difference. As legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, once said, “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”

How to Become More Optimistic

So practically speaking, can you become more optimistic? If your wiring and experience predispose you to a certain level of optimism, is there any way you can change it?

Fortunately, the answer is yes. Several studies have found that “optimism-generating” activities work – and have lasting benefits. In the research, naturally pessimistic people were asked to spend one week doing these three activities:

  1. Recall and write down times when you were at your best. (In some studies, they are asked to imagine themselves in the future in what they call their “Best Possible Self,” see Peters et al, 2010)
  2. List out your personal strengths.
  3. Write down three good things that happened that day.

In one study, researchers found participants who did these activities were significantly happier 6-months later. That’s right, one week of these simple tasks had benefits that lasted for up to half a year.

Imagine if you made a habit of doing these activities for more than a week. Imagine if you made them a regular part of your week! What impact do you think they could have in your life?

Yes, we’re dealt a certain predisposition toward a natural level of optimism. The good news is that with intentional effort, you can become a more optimistic person. And when you do, you’ll reap some significant benefits.

References:

  • Malouff, J.M. & Schutte, N.S. (2017) Can psychological interventions increase optimism? A meta-analysis, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12:6, 594 604, DOI:10.1080/17439760.2016.1221122
  • Peters, M.L, Flink, I.K., Boersma, K, & Linton, S.J. (2010) Manipulating optimism: Can imagining a best possible self be used to increase positive future expectancies?, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5:3, 204-211, DOI: 10.1080/17439761003790963
  • Prati, G. & Pietrantoni, L. (2009) Optimism, Social Support, and Coping Strategies As Factors Contributing to Posttraumatic Growth: A Meta-Analysis, Journal of Loss and Trauma, 14:5, 364-388, DOI: 10.1080/15325020902724271
Dr. Dave Verhaagen
Dave Verhaagen is the author or co-author of eight books, including Therapy with Young Men and Parenting the Millennial Generation. As a licensed psychologist who earned his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he has served as clinical director for three mental health agencies and is the founder and former CEO of Southeast Psych, a large psychology practice in Charlotte, NC. He is one of fewer than 5% of psychologists in the U.S. to be certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) and he is a Fellow of both The American Board of Clinical Psychology and The American Board of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. His work has been featured several times in USA Today, Newsweek, and dozens of newspapers around the country. He works almost exclusively with young adults (16-29 year olds) in his clinical practice. Dave is a popular speaker at local, state, and national conferences. He has been married to Ellen for 26 years and they have four young adult children: Daniel, Christy, Maddie, and Abbey.Fun facts: He once broke a finger tucking in his shirt and broke another finger making his bed. He worked in radio for seven years on-air. He is a bad magician. He still dresses up each year for Halloween. Do with this information what you will.

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