8 Ways to Be More Optimistic
Adopting an optimistic outlook may seem difficult, but it doesn't have to be. Here's how to be more optimistic—even if you're naturally negative.
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What does it mean to be optimistic?
You’ve heard it all before: Optimists see the glass as half full, while pessimists see it as half empty. But what you might not know is that seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses can improve your health.
Of course, just because an optimistic outlook is good for you doesn’t mean it’s easy. It can be tough to maintain a positive outlook—especially if your natural inclination is for gloom and doom.
Thankfully, there are ways to become more optimistic. (Yes, even in bad times.)
Here’s how to look on the bright side, even when you see storm clouds on the horizon.
(Learn about the science and benefits of being happy.)
Optimists don’t walk around seeing rainbows and puppy dogs everywhere they go. Instead, people with optimistic outlooks have hope and confidence in success and a positive future. (On the flip side, pessimists tend to put a negative spin on situations.)
The brain plays a big role in this. Studies indicate that positive moods are connected with more left-brain activity. Negative moods, such as feeling depressed or experiencing anger or rejection, are associated more with the right side brain activity, as researchers found in a 2018 study published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
There’s a good chance your brain is primed for either positive or negative thinking, says psychologist Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin and a research expert on the brain’s frontal lobe and emotions. In fact, Davidson’s early research found that only 15 percent of people have no inclination one way or the other.
But while genetics plays a role in your outlook, it’s not the only thing that shapes who you are. Life experience, particularly as it relates to your childhood family environment, does too.
Are you an optimist?
You’re either optimistic or not, right? Not exactly. Scientists believe optimism and pessimism fall on a spectrum.
Psychologists call this dispositional optimism. It’s the extent to which you believe positive outcomes will occur in the future, for yourself, for others you know, and for the world in general.
Optimism can also vary to some extent depending on the topic and context. Generally speaking, optimists share some common characteristics. You might be an optimist if:
- You expect things to work out for the best.
- You don’t let one bad experience ruin your expectations for the future.
- You feel gratitude for the good things in your life.
- You view challenges and obstacles as an opportunity to learn.
- You think that good things can come from negative events.
- You are always looking for ways to make the most of opportunities.
The benefits of optimism
A rosy view on life offers another reason to smile—it may benefit your health. Research says that optimists:
- Have better cardiovascular health
- Experience lower levels of pain
- Have higher survival rates after diagnoses of medical conditions like cancer, type I diabetes, and HIV or AIDS
- Get more exercise
- Are less likely to smoke
- Get better-quality sleep
- Experience less stress
- Have more extensive social networks
- Manage their relationships better
- Are more effective at dealing with stressors and trauma and at using coping strategies
Plus, optimists tend to know more about their health and about how to be healthy. A study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that optimistic people knew more about how and why heart attacks occur and overall common health challenges for their specific age group compared with people who had a more pessimistic outlook.
8 ways to be more optimistic
If you’re a natural pessimist, you might be thinking you’re out of luck. There’s no way you’ll benefit from optimism’s health effects—or is there?
True, you may not be reaping the benefits of positive thinking just yet, but look on the bright side: You can change that. There are specific actions you can take to kick your level of optimism up a notch.
Try mindfulness techniques
You may have heard the right-brained, left-brained theory of thinking: Essentially, the idea is that right-brained people gravitate to creative fields like the arts, while left-brained thinkers lean toward more analytical fields like math.
While there’s no proof that your nature or personality is centered on one side of the mind or the other, research has shown that creative types may be more likely to be pessimistic or have a negative outlook.
If you tend to fall into the creative category, don’t worry. In his research, Davidson found that the brain can be rewired by consciously altering our thoughts using mindfulness techniques. This can lead to a significant change in how we respond to experiences.
Kimberly Hershenson, a licensed clinical social worker, cautions against the tendency to associate optimism with happiness. Don’t assume that to be optimistic you have to deny life’s challenges completely. Although happiness can result in optimism and makes it easier to have an optimistic outlook, the two are entirely different.
Having an optimistic outlook does not mean you always have an abundance of joy or that everything is going great in your life. Instead, it’s a belief in positive outcomes, even in the face of trials and tribulations.
Focus on what you can control
It can be tempting to mull over the past—what could have or should have been. Equally alluring is ruminating on an uncertain future. Neither of these actions will help you adopt an optimistic perspective.
Psychologists recommend remaining present in the moment. This makes it easier for you to stay focused, centered, and more positive because you’re not dealing with unknown facts.
Focus on things you can control now. For instance, if you didn’t get a big promotion you wanted, don’t dwell on the negative. Zero in on what you can do now to reach your goal.
Take time for yourself
Quiet your mind and take time for yourself, even if it’s only for 30 minutes a week. Take a long bath, crack open a book, go for a run, or watch your favorite show. What you do doesn’t matter as much as how it makes you feel. The goal is to engage in an activity that is relaxing and that you enjoy.
(Need advice? Here’s how to build a self-care plan, according to experts.)
Spend more time reflecting on your life’s positive aspects than the areas you would like to improve. A gratitude journal can help. Try beginning your day by writing down three things or people you are thankful for. Reflect on why these things or people are valuable to you.
(Learn more about the health benefits of gratitude.)
Practice being kind to others, even during stressful times or during times when you feel challenged. In many cases, exercising kindness is more beneficial for the giver than it is for the receiver.
Nip negative thinking in the bud
It’s normal for negative thoughts to present themselves every now and then. Let’s face it: Life can get complicated. Most people won’t walk around like Mary Poppins all the time.
But Davidson says that it’s a good idea to challenge negative thoughts. You may think, “I have cancer, so I’m doomed.” Instead, flip that thought to “Many people with cancer live long, wonderful lives.”
Spend less time with Debbie Downers
Last but certainly not least, make sure to surround yourself with people who tend to think positively. Everyone has at least one friend or family member who complains about anything and everything.
Unfortunately, negativity can be contagious, and Aunt Alice’s chronic complaining can very well rub off on you. You don’t have to cut off these chronic complainers entirely. Just make sure you also have a healthy group of people who counteract the negative energy you might face from time to time.
Next, learn the powerful way therapists ward off anxiety and depression.
- Kathleen Hall, PhD, mindfulness expert
- Kimberly Hershenson, LCSW, psychotherapist
- Richard Davidson, PhD, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin
- Cornell Chronicle: "Left, Right and Center: Mapping Emotion In The Brain"
- Davidson, J. Richard. The Emotional Life of Your Brain, Hudson Street Press, 2012
- Davidson, J. Richard. Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, Avery Publishing Group, 2017
- Hall, Kathleen. Uncommon H.O.P.E., Sourcebook, 2010
- Health Promotion Perspectives: "Associations Between Optimism, Tobacco Smoking and Substance Abuse Among Iranian High School Students"
- Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health: "Optimism and Its Impact on Mental and Physical Well-Being"
- Health Psychology: "Optimism, Coping, and Health: Assessment and Implications of Generalized Outcome Expectancies"
- Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin: "Dispositional, Unrealistic, and Comparative Optimism: Differential Relations with the Knowledge and Processing of Risk Information and Beliefs about Personal Risk"
- Psychological Bulletin: "The Heart's Content: The Association Between Positive Psychological Well-Being and Cardiovascular Health"
- Annals of Behavioral Medicine: "Optimism and Physical Health: A Meta-analytic Review"
- Psychosomatic Medicine: "Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation"
- Psychology Today: "Stress"
- Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: "Approach motivation in human cerebral cortex"
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: "Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in 2 epidemiologic cohorts of men and women"
- Journal of Sleep Research: "The contribution of dispositional optimism to understanding insomnia symptomatology: Findings from a cross‐sectional population study in Austria"