Some surprising discoveries have been made about being optimistic.
Let’s first consider exactly what an optimist is.
An optimist is someone who plans to get more done than time permits.
It is also someone who, having failed to achieve the impossible, is sure everything will somehow get done anyway.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Optimism is the belief that good things will happen to you and that negative events are temporary setbacks to be overcome.”
In a study at the Mayo Clinic, adults shown to be pessimists based on psychological tests had 19 percent higher death rates over a 30-year period than those who were shown optimistic.
No doubt, the optimists were healthier because they were more inclined to take good care of themselves.
And although there are clearly forces in this country and the world that could subdue even the most ardent optimist, being optimistic is a choice we can make throughout the day.
An optimist can also be a realist. Optimists do not fret over things they can do nothing about; including economic injustice, or our repeated failure to learn from history
Optimists have discovered that life is a lot more pleasant when one chooses to see the glass as half full.
But it goes farther than just being positive
Murphy’s Law — “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong” — is the antithesis of optimism. In a book called “Breaking Murphy’s Law,” Suzanne C. Segerstrom, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, explained that optimism is not about being positive so much as it is about being motivated and persistent.
Dr. Segerstrom and other researchers have found that rather than giving up and walking away from difficult situations, optimists attack problems head-on. They plan a course of action, getting advice from others and staying focused on solutions.
Research has indicated that a propensity toward optimism is strongly influenced by genes, most likely ones that govern neurotransmitters in the brain. Still, the way someone is raised undoubtedly plays a role, too. Parents who bolster children’s self-esteem by avoiding criticism and praising accomplishments, however meager, can encourage in them a lifelong can-do attitude.
With the right guidance, many of the attributes of optimism also can be learned by adults, Dr. Segerstrom and other researchers have found.
Noting that it is easier to change behavior than emotions, she eschews the popular saying “Don’t worry, be happy.” Instead, she endorses a form of cognitive behavioral therapy: Act first and the right feelings will follow. As she puts it in her book, “Fake it until you make it.”
She wrote, “People can learn to be more optimistic by acting as if they were more optimistic,” which means “being more engaged with and persistent in the pursuit of goals.”
If you behave more optimistically, you will be likely to keep trying instead of giving up after an initial failure. “You might succeed more than you expected,” she wrote. Even if the additional effort is not successful, it can serve as a positive learning experience, suggesting a different way to approach a similar problem the next time.
Framing your thoughts
It’s important not to neglect the power of positive thinking. Both Dr. Segerstrom and the Mayo researchers recommend taking a few minutes at the end of each day to write down three positive things that happened that day, ending the day on an upbeat note.
The Mayo researchers offered these additional suggestions:
Avoid negative self-talk. Instead of focusing on prospects of failure, dwell on the positive aspects of a situation.
Regardless of the nature of your work, identify some aspect of it that is personally fulfilling. If your job is scrubbing floors, stand back and admire how shiny and clean they look.
Surround yourself with positive, upbeat people. But be aware that if you are chronically negative and always see only the dark side of things, the optimists in your life may eventually give up on you.
Focus on situations that you can control, and forget those you can’t. I would also suggest using voting power, money or communication skills to forward a goal that is beyond your personal control.
Steven Campbell is the author of “Making Your Mind Magnificent.” His seminar “Taming Your Mind, Unleashing Your Life” is now available on line at stevenrcampbell.teachable.com. For more information, call Steven Campbell at 707-480-5507.