The Benefits of Optimism and how to Cultivate Itby Nicola on 2012-04-04
The Benefits of Optimism and how to Cultivate It
By Nicola J Davies
Optimism involves having a favorable attitude towards life, no matter what. It’s one of the best ways to deal with the unpredictability of tomorrow, expecting life to offer more good than bad. Optimistic people, when going through tough, demanding, and negative times, choose to regard these as learning experiences to better prepare them for the future. Being optimistic is a choice to view life positively, and expect tomorrow to always be better.
Optimistic individuals share an underlying belief that amid suffering, good things always come to pass. Negative events and experiences don’t last forever, and when these occur, they don’t detract from the fact and expectation that life is still good; life remains filled with the promise of brighter days. Even when misery comes round, optimistic people see it as a chance to learn something of value. As a result, optimistic individuals stay motivated through life’s challenges, given their conviction that everything works out for the better eventually.
What are the Benefits of Optimism?
Why do individuals choose optimism as a preferred way of viewing life? The short answer is that the benefits of such an orientation override the consequences of negative life events. Optimism generates a global positive outlook and helps to breed success - optimistic people don’t give up easily, if at all. This resilience has advantages for both physical and mental well-being.
Since optimistic people expect life to harbor more positive than negative outcomes, they believe, and are more engaged, in what they do. They set and pursue goals with the conviction that they will realize their dreams in time. This makes them more willing to put in the effort, and approach work and play with a positive attitude.
Possibly the most outstanding attribute of optimists is their ability to persist in pursuing goals, especially when facing obstacles. They are committed to act on their wishes, and can tolerate hardships in pursuit of their dreams. The certainty of achieving their goals increases efforts when coming across difficulties. It is therefore little wonder that optimists are among life’s successful people in business, sports, or anything they set their minds to.
Although it is not entirely clear how optimism affects health, evidence shows that expecting positive outcomes in the future makes people less prone to physical ailments. For one, optimism encourages people to be pro-active about their well-being, and many take active steps in promoting their health, including following wholesome diets and exercising regularly. Of the many studies investigating the impact of optimism on physical health, a general finding is that those high in optimism have better health outcomes. They also appear to have a stronger immune system than those low in optimism. For example, a study involving patients who underwent heart transplant surgery showed optimistic patients recovered quicker and better than others who didn’t share their attitude. An 8-year US-based study involving 97,000 women reported a strong link between optimism and lower risk of heart disease. In contrast, research also shows that patients who tend to explain life events in negative terms are more prone to infectious diseases, have weaker health, and shorter lifespans.
The expectation that good things will happen seems to buffer against stress, especially when coupled with the belief that negative experiences are learning opportunities, rather than major setbacks. Since they believe in themselves and what they are capable of, optimists are risk takers, and create more opportunities for positive events to come their way. They are also more pro-active in taking steps to manage stress, such as exercising, which contributes to them being less prone to stress-related illnesses. In one study, individuals who underwent 12-weeks of psychological therapy to reframe how they interpret and explain life events noticed a dramatic improvement in their ability to cope with the consequences of setbacks. This made them more resilient and willing to face the future. Generally, optimistic people are happier than those who are more realistic or pessimistic.
How can I Cultivate Optimism?
Since optimism involves the ways in which we interpret, make sense of, and explain events, learning to be optimistic is a matter of reframing how we process information about everyday life. The idea is to make a permanent shift towards viewing the present and future in more positive terms. This doesn’t mean being blind to unpleasant realities that happen to others or ourselves. It involves acknowledging the reality of what’s happening, yet choosing to interpret and explain it in a way that is life-confirming, instead of life-denying.
An optimistic approach to life involves interpreting life events in a way that is internal, stable, and global. What this means is that optimistic people attribute positive outcomes in their lives to their own efforts (internal), believe that more advantageous events are likely to happen often and consistently in the future (stable), and that good outcomes are not dependent on specific, fortuitous circumstances (global). When getting a job promotion, for example, an optimist will see it as the result of their personal qualities and their efforts at work (internal), believe that similar good things will come their way in future (stable), and that they are pervasive and not circumstantial happenings (global).
Changing the way you Interpret Events:
Like any habit, adopting an optimistic mind-set is something that can be learned, and it gets better with practice. It requires changing how we think about current and future events, which in turn requires becoming aware of automatic thought patterns, and customary explanations we offer to ourselves and others about why certain events have happened. This is part of what psychologists refer to as ‘cognitive restructuring,’ and it further entails challenging established thinking patterns, and replacing them with new, empowering, optimistic ones.
Taking time out during the day and engaging in short, regular, optimism-inducing exercises is another effective way of learning how to be more optimistic. Research shows that asking people to imagine scenarios in which their “best possible self’ emerged, and writing their thoughts down immediately and significantly increased a sense of positive feelings about the self and future. There are many similar writing or contemplating exercises a person could do to create a strong sense of positive feelings about the self and the future: writing down and contemplating ‘what are the 10 best things I love about life,’ for instance, can also deliver surprisingly positive feelings. Changing how we feel about life, ourselves and the expectations we have of the future is something that can happen immediately. With regular practise these become habitual, and soon folks can ingrain an optimistic outlook in their sense of who they are.
Focusing on your Strengths:
Another strategy for cultivating optimism is to learn to focus more on your successes, however minor they may seem, and to stop dwelling on shortcomings and failures. This also means taking stock of your strengths and talents, and searching for opportunities in which to apply these. In addition, adopting the habit of looking at setbacks as temporary opportunities can be an extremely powerful practice, which can radically alter your life for the better. Over all, challenging negative thinking styles, engaging in optimism-inducing exercises, and focusing on your strengths, are excellent ways in which to learn optimism. As a result, you are choosing a more meaningful, enjoyable and enriching life.
Being an optimist involves making a conscious choice that can immediately and dramatically alter your life for the better. Optimists are realists who choose to focus on the good and positives that life has to offer, regarding negative events as temporary learning curves between successes. The quality of our lives depends to a large degree on how, and what, we choose to focus on. For a better quality life, cultivating optimism is an effective strategy!
John Mandrola (2011). The Benefits of Optimism for Maintaining Good Health. Better Health Network, http://getbetterhealth.com/the-benefits-of-optimism-for-maintaining-good-health/2011.11.06.
Rick Nauert (2011) Optimism Tied to Lower Risk of Stroke. PsychCentral, http://psychcentral.com/news/2011/07/22/optimism-tied-to-lower-risk-of-stroke/27985.html.
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman (1998).
Dr Nicola Davies is a Psychology Consultant and Freelance Writer with an interest in health and well-being. Her publications can be viewed at www.healthpsychologyconsultancy.com. Alternatively, you might like to sign up to her free blog: http://healthpsychologyconsultancy.wordpress.com/