Psychologists have long wondered why some people quickly bounce back from life’s challenges, while others have difficulty regaining their balance. Now, scientific research suggests that the way you approach the world may impact your ability to recover from life’s stressors. In particular, cultivating an optimistic outlook can protect you from psychological threats and allow you to thrive.
The old saying about seeing the glass as “half empty” or “half full” has led many people to mistakenly believe that we’re simply wired to be optimists or pessimists. Optimism is often thought of as a personality trait that some people are born with and others aren’t. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, optimism is a set of behaviors that have been learned and cultivated over a lifetime. Importantly, it is possible to increase your own optimism by practicing certain thought patterns and responses.
Optimism is a sense of hope for the future. This includes taking a solution-focused approach to life. Rather than fixating on the problem, an optimist looks ahead to potential solutions. This gives optimists the ability to assess their own strengths and weaknesses, helping them react effectively to troublesome situations.
It’s important to note that an optimistic person isn’t blind to everything negative. Some people mistakenly believe that optimists are simply burying their heads in the sand about life’s negative aspects. Instead, optimists tend to accurately assess a situation and figure out how to make the most of it. They look at a glass as half empty and then decide to fill it up!
Link Between Optimism and Resilience
Psychologists have demonstrated over and over that people who cultivate an optimistic outlook on life are much more likely to bounce back from stressful life events. This protective quality is called resilience. Cultivating optimism can increase your resilience and allow you to thrive in the face of the challenges life throws your way.
For example, consider a situation in which you unexpectedly lose your job. This is obviously a big setback that would cause anyone to be upset. A pessimist may begin a negative line of thinking: “I can’t believe I got fired.” “Everyone probably thinks I’m stupid.” “They realized what a failure I am.” “I’ll never get another job now that I have that on my resume,” and on and on. These negative thought patterns may leave you feeling stuck and unable to weather this stressful life event.
In contrast, examine the response of an optimist to the same situation. An optimist might think, “You know, I really don’t know that that job was a good fit with my skill set anyway. At least I learned how to use that new design software while I was there. It sucks that I lost the job, but maybe this is a good opportunity to go back to school and try something new.”
Simply by taking a more positive outlook during a stressful and potentially dark situation, the optimist has reframed the entire event. The optimistic person is now in a much better position to get through this negative life event and come out stronger on the other side.
How to Cultivate Optimism
Since optimism is not a hard-wired personality trait, it can be learned. Begin by re-learning your ABCs, this time as a new way of conceptualizing events. “A” stands for antecedent (or adversity). This is the stressor that is potentially causing a problem. “B” is your belief or behavior. In the example above, these are all of the negative thoughts that occur after you lose your job. Finally, “C” is the consequence. For pessimists with negative thought patterns, the consequence is often feelings of depression, anxiety, or helplessness.
To cultivate a more optimistic outlook, remember to dispute (“D”) these automatic thoughts. Take a moment to notice the automatic thoughts and dispute them. Then, evaluate (“E”) by looking for the evidence. When you challenge and evaluate your own thoughts, you will soon realize that they are often based on mistaken premises or self-judgment. Then, replace the problematic thought with a more balanced outlook.
If you’re facing a time of adversity, take the time to recognize your problematic thought patterns and cultivate a more optimistic outlook. Consider doing the following:
Be realistic. Accurately assess your own strengths and weaknesses to determine how they may contribute to the problem.
Self-care. Take time to relax your mind and body. Exercise, take a bath, or enjoy a good meal.
Acknowledge stress. Pushing stress away is counterproductive, as this approach often makes the stressful event seem even worse. Repeat a mantra, such as “Accept what you cannot change,” “This too shall pass,” or simply, “Breathe,” to center yourself.
Find social support. Surround yourself with fellow optimists who make you feel supported. Don’t be afraid to lean on your friends when you need help.
Meditate. Meditation is a great way to center your mind, clear your head of negative thoughts, and experience deep relaxation.
An optimistic attitude won’t come overnight. However, making small changes in your thinking pattern or way of approaching stressful situations will pay off over time. Invest in yourself to increase your resilience and learn how to thrive.