Optimism: Why it matters and 8 ways to increase it

You probably have an accurate feeling already as to whether you’re what the world would consider an “optimist”. You may not really be sure though. Everybody experiences more than one type of emotion, after all. Nobody feels positive or negative all the time, without even a slight variation.

Try asking yourself which of these statements you identify with more:

  1. I expect more good things to happen than bad things.
  2. I rarely count on good things to happen to me.

If you identify more with A = Optimist. Identify more with B = Pessimist.

There’s a very good chance you are somewhere between the two categories. You might be optimistic about some things, and pessimistic about other things.

What is optimism?

Optimism is hopefulness. It’s a sense of confidence about the future, or about the success of something. Optimists see the proverbial glass as half full, not half empty.

Research study found conducted as recently as in 2020, found that sensitivity levels to positive or negative experiences were about 50% genetic and 50% environmental. The studies were conducted on nearly 3000 sets of identical and non-identical twins. I’m oversimplifying here, I don’t think anybody looking at this right now is interested in all the scientific results, but a conclusion of this study was that it’s possible to become a more optimistic person.

You can’t judge your optimistic or pessimistic reaction to life experiences based on what other people experience. If you think about it, different people can experience the same exact life event in very different ways. Here’s a very simple example – some people move in with a partner and it’s absolutely fantastic, other people that move in ends up being a huge disaster. Same life event, massively different outcomes.

Optimistic people tend to have a particular outlook on things. When good things happen, they may take credit for doing a good job, or for appreciating good things life has to offer. When bad things happen, optimistic people are less likely to take it personally may blame chance. They tend to look for the ‘silver linings’ hidden in the clouds on their dark days.

Does optimism matter?

Yes, optimism matters.

At the most basic level, optimism matters because it is motivation. Motivation for what, you might ask. Optimism is the motivation for almost everything. If you think something is going to work out some type of positive outcome, you’re going to be motivated to go through with it. You’ll make the effort and try to get it done.

Pessimism discourages you under the guise of protecting you. If something isn’t going to work out, or will have a negative outcome, then why expend all the effort only to be disappointed?  In other words, why bother?

While reading a lot of things about this over the last few weeks, I came across multiple research studies indicating that optimistic people tend to experience health benefits as a result of their outlook. Again, let me try to explain without giving you a science report. Research I encountered revealed that optimistic people have less risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, strokes, depression, chemical dependency issues, and a bunch of other problems. Some analysts of the results concluded that optimistic people tend to engage in healthier behaviors, thus leading to the outcomes.  Others believed that the healthy behaviors themselves led to optimism.

Not convinced about the benefits of optimism? Well, optimism has also been linked to:

  • Happier romantic relationships
  • Fewer sick days
  • Higher pain threshold
  • Less likelihood of developing cognitive impairments
  • Higher levels of work/career satisfaction
  • Higher levels of money saved for the future
  • More goals for the future

Are you thinking it might be worth it to try and be more optimistic, regardless of whatever is going on in the world around you?

  • ways to get a more optimistic outlook
  1. Tell yourself to stop expecting the worst

It’s perfectly reasonable to try and learn from things that haven’t gone well in the past. It’s actually smart to do that. But it’s not good to obsess about them!

Think about it too much and you can submit those thoughts into your memory. The negativity will grow and grow about what hasn’t gone well works to consolidate these thoughts in our memory. They become unwelcome guests putting a downer on ourselves, and others, and souring life experiences. Accept that what’s happened has happened and work consciously to replace nagging thoughts with kinder, more compassionate ones.

  1. Start a gratitude diary. It’s OK. Nobody has to know.

No matter how bad you feel, it’s always worth at least trying to count your blessings. I know it’s really hard sometimes. It can be so difficult it feels impossible.

Personal example: I vividly remember lying on a gurney in a hospital emergency, room, speaking on the telephone with the assistant district attorney in charge of prosecuting the drunk driver who killed my husband. I wasn’t going to be able to be at a court hearing because I was being admitted to the hospital because grief and stress had my MS in overdrive. I could take off with that none of our kids had been in the car with their dad that day. It was a huge reach because he was coming from work so, of course, they wouldn’t have been with him, but still, I was grateful.

Make a habit of writing down two or three things to be grateful for, regardless of how big or small. It makes a difference. Recognize things like life, health, home, friends, family, pets, work, and hobbies.

If you don’t want to write about it, that’s OK. Take a few quiet minutes to meditate or think about it each day. Your meditation doesn’t have to be an elaborate ritual or involve incense, chimes, or whatever else you imagine.  It can be as simple as you with your cup of water or coffee, spending a moment thinking about good things in your life and your world.

  1. Be kind. Do something for somebody else

Sometimes the best way to get out of your own head is to do something for somebody else.  There’s less time to be negative if you’re doing something positive.

Doing something good for somebody else releases natural chemicals into your system that physiologically give you a boost.  You can do something kind for a family member or friend, neighbor or coworker, somebody in your community or general area.  It can be as simple as paying for the cup of coffee for somebody behind you at a drive-thru.  When you want to do something kind there are endless possibilities.

  1. Build a base of good and positive memories

A good way to combat negativity is to focus instead on positive things. Take a few minutes to think about something you’ve achieved or accomplished. Something you feel proud of.  These do not have to be big things. They could be things from 2nd grade and things from last week. They could be things you’ve been publicly acknowledged for and things that nobody knows about but you.

The point of this effort is to make good, positive memories more quickly accessible to you so when you’re feeling down or negative, there are positive touchpoints you can quickly draw upon. Jot them down on –

  • Post-it notes
  • a memory board
  • index cards
  • a PowerPoint
  • a sheet of lined paper
  • a Word document
  • a personal diary with a little lock and key

… this is only for you, so it’s entirely up to you.

  1. Envision the best possible future You

 

Whenever you perceive limitations, frustrations or problems in life, take time to write down and imagine the ideal situation for You. It’s not about what you think other people want for you to do, achieve, or accomplish. This is more important than that because this is what you want for yourself. It isn’t selfish to make yourself a priority in your own life.

  1. Protect yourself from negative people

 

No matter who you are, you only have so much energy. Treat your energy like the valuable commodity that it is. Things that make you feel listless and unreasonably tired should be minimized in your life as much as possible. You should be aware of what’s going on in the world, but you don’t need to watch the news 18 hours a day. Things that you enjoy but can’t stop indulging in excessively are probably not good for you.

Even healthy things, like exercise, if done to excess can be bad for you. This is a fact that’s even true about people. Don’t just cut people out of your life, but if somebody always makes you feel bad about yourself and you just can’t get that dynamic to change, then you need to minimize your interaction with them.

  1. Enjoy nature, in whatever way you can

There is a substantial amount of research that shows twenty minutes a day spent outside can be as effective as an anti-depressant. Your physical and mental well-being can benefit greatly from spending time in nature. It might be walking or running, roller skating or bicycling, bird watching or gardening, collecting seashells or staring at clouds. It doesn’t really matter what exactly you do, it helps to connect in some way with nature.

What do you do though, if like me, getting outside isn’t an option? I can only speak for myself, but I am in an area where I am pretty well surrounded by large windows, so I feel close to outside. I had the areas outside my windows beautified as much as possible.  As the seasons change, so does my view. Weather permitting, somebody opens up the windows and the sliding doors to allow the fresh air inside.

Just as with many things in life, all you can do is the best you can do.

  1. Find your joys

When you’re really engaged in something that you’re doing, the experience gives you a feeling that is simultaneously peaceful and excited. You could be able to achieve this because of a hobby, a pastime, a job, or volunteer work. Maybe cooking or baking does that for you. Taking photos. Building Lego kits. Cleaning out your closets. Polishing your shoes. Reading. Beekeeping. Crossword puzzles. Video games. Dancing in the living room or singing in the shower.

You get the picture! Whatever you enjoy, embrace it and be happy.

I’d love your thoughts about optimism and whether or not you actively seek to cultivate it in your life. Email me about that or anything else at frominhere@gmail.com.

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