Optimism is a pattern of thinking that allows you to believe in good things and regard life events in a positive light. People who practice optimism are better able to rise to challenges and cope with adversity, and they experience less depression, distress, and anxiety. Optimism contributes to positive emotions, good health, and success. It allows you to focus on finding solutions rather than getting caught up in the emotions your problems produce. Optimism is most beneficial when it is flexible and realistic because you can be hopeful and motivated as well as have an accurate view of your situation so you can be prepared if things don’t go as planned, be empathetic, and know how to achieve success.
The core of pessimism (negative thinking habits) is helplessness, which leads to an emotional downward spiral. If you are being pessimistic about a challenging situation, you’re less likely to put in the effort needed to find success or a resolution, and thus more likely to have things not go your way. This will confirm negative beliefs and perpetuate self-fulfilling prophecies, making it more difficult to be motivated or hopeful.
Luckily, this helplessness is often learned – luckily because, despite genes, environment, or experiences, helplessness doesn’t have to be permanent. Optimism can also be learned to replace it. It is possible to interrupt patterns of negative, pessimistic thinking and introduce more helpful thinking habits that will allow you to find solutions and experience more positive emotions in your life. Here are a few ways to get started practicing optimism:
1. Simple as ABCDE
For the next week, when you recognize a negative event in your life, write it down in a notebook or journal. Identify the Adversity (what happened), your Beliefs about the event at the moment, and the Consequences of those beliefs (your behavior and emotions). To guide your thoughts to a more helpful place, use one of the three Ds: Distraction (e.g. calling a friend), Distancing (e.g. going for a walk), or Disputation. Distraction and distancing are great for helping to manage the immediate intensity of emotions, but the disputation of negative beliefs is often the most effective tactic.
Disputation involves finding evidence to support or counter beliefs and alternative explanations for the negative event. These steps will help prevent catastrophizing when pessimistic thoughts get out of control and lead you to harmful extreme beliefs (e.g. you might as well give up on being healthy because you ate one thing that wasn’t in line with your diet plan). Next, ask yourself what the implications are of having a belief and how useful the belief is to you. Will it make things better to hold onto it? Even if a belief is true, these steps can help put things in an empowering perspective.
Try to write about five events and the thoughts they trigger. This process won’t eliminate negative beliefs or emotions, but it will provide alternative paths that will help you see that adversity isn’t permanent, it doesn’t have to affect everything in your life, and it’s not all your fault.
2. Time to Worry
If you find yourself overwhelmed by worries, acknowledge the anxious thoughts and schedule a time to think through them later. Choose a time when you know you’ll be calmer and have 15-30 minutes of “worry time.” If the worries pop up outside of this time during your day, distract yourself with something such as exercise or a mindfulness technique. You might write the worries down. This can help take away some of their power. Try to solve the problems one step at a time instead of all at once.
3. Is It Possible?
Optimism doesn’t always mean believing that good things will happen but that they could. When facing a challenge or disappointment, ask yourself if it’s possible that something good could come out of it – that may be a better job or clearer understanding to help with relationships. Imagining good things happening helps your brain develop the ability to think optimistically.
It’s natural to have negative thoughts and beliefs when difficult things happen. Their presence doesn’t make you weak, stupid, or hopeless. It may sometimes feel like they are in control and that it’s no use trying to find alternative thinking habits. However, thinking habits aren’t written in stone. Through trial, error, and perseverance, you can learn to make these tools a part of your everyday life and enjoy the improved physical and psychological well-being that comes from practicing the “psychological self-defense” of conscious optimistic thinking.
- You might also try the “Best Possible Self” and other practices found at berkeley.edu/optimism to help you look on the bright side.
Akhtar, Miriam (2012). Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression. London, UK: Watkins Publishing.