Optimism, the ability to see the glass as half full rather than half empty, not only puts a smile on your face and a bounce in your step, it is an elixir that builds confidence and engenders hope. It creates the emotional space that helps you to remain positive in the face of adversity, be creative in finding solutions, and persevere through obstacles on the way to reaching your goals.
If Optimism is so Good for us, why is it so Hard Sometimes?
As a species, we evolved to be hypersensitive to dangers and to minimize positive experiences. It was much more important that we learned and remembered which plants were poisonous, which animals were aggressive, who was trustworthy. Those things could make the difference, literally, between life and death. Positive experiences, while pleasant, didn’t come with dire consequences if we forgot about them, so our brains evolved with a bias for negativity. If we have a negative experience, even for a fraction of a second, our brain will hold onto it. If we experience something positive, even for a much longer period of time, it will slide right off. As neuropsychologist Rick Hanson puts it, our brains have evolved to be velcro for negative information and teflon for positive.
Until recently, it was thought that no new brain cells were formed after early childhood. Since the 1990s, however, studies have shown that the brain generates new neurons throughout an adult’s lifespan.
The brain continuously adjusts and reorganizes its neurons in response to new stimuli and new environments. Our brain’s ability to form new neurons and new connections mean that we are not doomed to always seeing the bad and never the good. It means we can train our brain to be more optimistic, the way we can train our muscles to be strong.
Five Techniques to Build Your Optimism
1. Be Mindful
Because of our negativity bias, we naturally focus on the bad things that happen. Just being aware of when we start focusing on unpleasant experiences allows us to disengage and not be overpowered by negativity.
2. Notice the Positive
Hanson suggests that when positive things happen, we should intentionally give them enough of our attention to overcome our negativity bias. Notice the positive event, keep it foremost in your awareness for 20-30 seconds, and feel it sinking into your deeper consciousness.
3. Visualize the Best Possible Future for Yourself
Imagining a positive future has been proven to increase optimism. Take ten minutes to imagine the best possible future that you can see for yourself. Visualize it in as much detail as possible. Focus on it, speak it aloud, write about it, express it through movement.
4. Daily Gratitude List
Increased gratitude increases your optimism. Make a list of the people and things in your life that you are grateful for: your apartment, your job, your animal companions. List the good things that happened that day: the nice cashier, finding your lost keys. List the sensory things too: the smell of coffee in the morning, the warmth of your bedsheets. Keeping a gratitude journal trains your brain to focus on the positive and strengthens your ability to appreciate the positive things in your life.
5. Get a Little Exercise
Physical movement, at whatever level you are able, is a proven mood booster, although the exact reason isn’t known. It could be the increased levels of serotonin or the increased sense of accomplishment and self-esteem. It could be the new neurons it helps generate. It could be simply distracting you from the negative thoughts in your head. Whatever the cause, what is known is that moving your muscles, whether the gentlest of stretches or the most intense workout, has an almost immediate positive benefit for your outlook.
Supercharge Your Optimism
Optimism and the confidence it engenders creates the emotional space for creative problem solving. It opens you up to be able to see new possibilities in your life, and to engage in making the change you want to see in the world. Once you’ve built a healthy set of optimism muscles, grounding your optimism in a realistic view of the challenges ahead turns your optimism into a turbocharged machine for success. People who not only see the bright side but also recognize the obstacles and difficulties ahead are best at staying optimistic, persevering through difficulties, and reaching their goals.