Optimism isn’t the same thing as happiness. Both optimists and pessimists may feel happy about something that has happened, but their thoughts about it may be very different. When a happy event occurs:
An optimist might think, “This is one of many good things that have happened in my life. Maybe other good things will result from it”.
A pessimist might think, “This good feeling will never last. Look at all the bad things that have happened to me in the past”.
In other words, optimism is a tendency to think about things in a positive way. Pessimism is a tendency to think about them in a negative way. Optimists and pessimists also view setbacks in different ways.
Optimists consider setbacks temporary and surmountable, and that circumstances or bad luck are to blame. Pessimists think setbacks will undermine them and will be long term and they tend to blame themselves for the situation. These differences are important because they can affect how people act. Researchers have found that when optimists face a setback, they are less likely to give up and their persistence can help them reach their goals. They have also found that even if you tend to see the glass as half empty instead of half full, you can strengthen your ability to stay optimistic and break the habit of giving up when you face challenges.
Recognising your negative thinking
Negative thoughts aren’t always unhealthy. Your fears about walking down an unlit street late at night may lead you to choose a safer route. And concerns about the economy may prompt you to get helpful advice from a financial professional or to save more money to protect yourself and your family.
But certain types of negative thoughts can reduce your optimism about your future. These ideas may have a variety of causes, including inaccurate messages you’ve read or heard from other people.
Some common types of unhelpful negative thoughts are:
Overgeneralising, or making assumptions about yourself based on too little information. You might tell yourself, “I’m no good at making presentations,” when you haven’t really made many and you might be able to improve your skills.
Personalising, or blaming yourself when things go wrong, even if you don’t have control over the situation. You might think it’s your fault that a friend always seems unhappy when she’s around you, although she may not have a cheerful temperament or may have personal problems you don’t know about.
Tending to expect the worst. You might think you’ll never be able to handle a new assignment at work even when you know that the manager who gave you the task has a good understanding of your skills.
Filtering, or “screening out” the positive aspects of a situation and dwelling on the negative ones. After giving a great party, you might focus on a guest who got sick and couldn’t come, even when those who attended said they had a wonderful time.
Splitting or “all-or-nothing thinking.” You might think that if colleagues don’t have all the skills you have, they aren’t making a contribution to your organisation, when they may have other abilities that your employer values.
You may notice that at certain times you fall into one or more of these thought patterns – for example, when you face new challenges. If you so, you can dispute your negative thinking and focus on replacing it with positive thoughts in those situations. You’ll be more likely to succeed if you work on changing one type of thought at a time instead of trying to adjust your entire outlook all at once.
Tips on staying optimistic
You can develop a more positive outlook by taking steps every day to change how you think. This process may take time, especially if you see yourself as a pessimist or are facing unusually large challenges. But you may see a difference right away just by doing a few simple things regularly.
Here are tips on building more optimism into your life:
Be aware of your negative thoughts. Pull back from time to time and listen to the messages you’re sending yourself. If you have negative thoughts about a situation you can’t change, try to replace them with positive ones.
Practice talking back to yourself. Create alternate responses to the negative thoughts you would like to overcome and consider writing those responses down. For example, if you think, “I’ll never be able finish that project”, try “I’ll break it down into manageable parts”. If you think, “I don’t know how to do that” try “I have a chance to learn something new”.
Use “thought-stopping” techniques. Learn a few ways to interrupt negative thoughts, which some scientists call “thought-stopping techniques”. Psychologist Martin Seligman suggests in his book
Learned Optimism that you carry a 3 x 5-inch card with STOP written on it in red and look at it when you want to break a thought pattern. He adds, “Many people find it works well to wear a rubber band around their wrists and snap it hard to stop their ruminating”.
Distract yourself. If you can’t or don’t want to use thought-stopping techniques, find other ways to distract yourself from negative thoughts. Play a musical instrument or a sport that requires your full concentration. Or make a tape, burn a CD, or create a playlist of upbeat songs that make you want to sing along.
Bring more humour into your life. Tap into the power of laughter to banish gloomy thoughts. Watch funny films, post cartoons on a bulletin board, or enjoy the jokes or humorous songs your friends upload to Facebook or a blog.
Spend time with optimistic people. Research has found that moods and ideas can be contagious. Chronic complainers may bring you down even if you aren’t aware of it. Spend as much time as you can with optimistic people who lift your spirits.
Use your core values. Behavioural scientists say that most people have two to five values that are especially important to them, which may include things like humour, kindness, creativity, spirituality, leadership, or a capacity to love. These core values (often called “signature strengths”) are strongly linked to more satisfaction in life. And using them may increase your optimism almost effortlessly because “exercising them makes you feel invigorated rather than exhausted”, psychiatrist Alicia Salzer writes in her book Back to Life: Getting Past Your Past with Resilience, Strength, and Optimism.
Practice gratitude. A pessimistic outlook may cause you to lose sight of the things you’re thankful for and practicing gratitude can restore the balance. Spend a few minutes each day thinking about the good things in your life or sharing them with a friend or family member. Some experts suggest that you keep a “gratitude journal” and write down the things that make you feel grateful. Control what you can control. Even if you’re basically an optimist, you may start to feel pessimistic if you dwell on things you can’t control. Focus on doing all you can to improve what you can control.
Develop or keep up good-health routines. Optimism is easier to maintain when you feel good physically and mentally. Eat a healthy diet, sleep for 7 to 9 hours a night and get 30 minutes of vigorous exercise at least three times a week.
Get help if you have unwanted negative thoughts that won’t go away. A therapist or other counsellor can give you other ideas on what to do if you have persistent negative thoughts that are interfering with your work, relationships, or enjoyment of life. Your assistance programme can give you information on how to find a therapist in your area.
This article on “How to Develop an Optimistic Outlook” was taken from the Lifeworks Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) library of resources available to all insured members with HanseMerkur health insurance plans. Please check it out to find other interesting and useful articles, pod casts and tips to help with your well-being or ask your local sales agent for more information about it.