As this unique and very challenging year draws to an end, it seems like a fitting time to write about the power and importance of optimism. However, with so much still uncertain and at times overwhelming, some might ask how can we be optimistic at times like these?
My honest answer would be, what's the alternative? I don’t know of a single situation that was ever improved by being pessimistic about it. However, I do know, and scientific research backs it up, that when you develop and practice optimism, it can lead to a longer, healthier and happier life.
What optimism means to me:
Optimism is one of my values. For me it means looking for the good first, keeping an open mind and not leaping to negative conclusions or making assumptions. It’s about giving "good" a chance to show up.
Now some may say that optimism can make you naïve or idealistic. I’d challenge that. For me, optimism isn’t fake positivity - it’s not saying that things are great when they’re not, or the belief that somehow things will magically become great. It’s recognising things as they are now and responding wisely to that. It’s about being resilient and positive, while firmly grounded in reality.
Optimism is recognising that nothing is permanent and that the positive actions I take today will help shape the future for the better; for me and others. So If times are hard, it helps me recognise that it will pass, and if times are great, I try and make sure I soak up every bit of enjoyment from it, in the knowledge that it will pass too.
When you’re optimistic, you accept that you can't control everything and know when and what to let go of. (For example, not getting sucked into the perpetual cycle of negative news). It’s accepting the things we can't change and directing our efforts to what we can. This is something we all need help managing right now! There's so much going on in the world that feels out of our control. Focussing on the things that you can affect, no matter how small, is optimism.
Why choose optimism?
When things are tough and you’re really up against it, it’s easier to assume and prepare for more of the same. It’s a kind of defence mechanism.
But there is another choice, you can choose optimism. And far from being naïve or unproven, there’s an abundance of scientific research that shows the transformative impact optimism has on so many areas of our lives. Here are just 4 reasons why you should choose optimism....
1. It makes you braver.
If you’re optimistic you’re much more likely to take calculated risks. To travel and explore different cultures, to leave the job or relationship that isn’t working for you anymore and to start, and try new things. Stepping out of your comfort zone isn’t easy, but when you reflect with optimism you see the lessons, not the regrets and when you look forward you choose to focus on the opportunities, not the potential pitfalls.
2. It helps you live a longer and healthier life.
Optimists tend to look after themselves better, which could be one of the reasons that they have lower rates of heart disease, depression, and chronic illness. When faced with health issues, optimists are less likely to take a fatalistic view and more likely to take positive steps to understand, treat and cope with it. Research shows that optimists tend to live up to 15% longer than average and are more likely to live beyond the age of 85.
3. It builds resilience.
Optimists deal better with uncertainty, change and difficulties and cope better with stress overall. They take more direct action in the face of adversity, seeing the opportunity and the lesson, rather than wasting too much time dwelling on worries or about how things could have been different.
4. It improves connection.
Optimists see the similarities between people and not the differences, so they are much more likely to build meaningful relationships and maintain and nurture the ones that bring them the most joy. This is critical to your overall wellbeing and happiness, because every piece of research on happiness shows that connection is key.
But can you really train yourself to be optimistic? The good news is, yes!
Optimism isn't a mindset, it's a behaviour and one we can cultivate - here are 5 ways to get you started:
1. Practise mindfulness to heighten your awareness
When your mind starts drifting to the past or rushing to the future and catastrophising to find reasons not to believe the positives, you’ll be more able to recognise that the only real truth is what is here now and you can base your choices on that. Taking positive actions based on the here and now.
2. Practise gratitude
Even when times are really hard, there’s always something to be grateful for. Set up a gratitude jar or journal; before going to bed at night, note down three to five things you are grateful for from that day. You can also practise this as a family. When you train your brain to focus on the positive, optimism becomes your go to option.
3. Be kind
Being kind on purpose and noticing how that feels has a positive impact on all involved. Whether you give, receive, or simply witness kindness, it gives you a boost and reminds you of the good in the world and our connection to others and floods your body with feelgood hormones - making you more optimistic.
4. Change your language to change your perspective
Changing the way you think begins with changing the words you use. One method you can try is “stop-think-change.” When you notice a pessimistic thought, STOP and notice it. THINK about how you can turn the scenario to a more positive one and then CHANGE your words to make your thoughts more positive. By changing your words, you’ll notice that you are starting to feel more optimistic. For example - "urrrrgh I have to go to work today" becomes: "I get to go to work today" or "I should or shouldn't do...." becomes "I want to or I'd like to do....." More about this in a future blog!
5. Visualise the positives
Visualisation can help you move positively towards your goals. This is not ‘I’ve thought it so it will happen’ but rather an evidence backed technique in which we begin to see the possibility of achieving our goals. Be specific and practice frequently - what will it look like, sound like and how will it feel when you’ve achieved your goals? Studies show visualisation can improve concentration, motivation and reduce fear and anxiety.
By putting these actions into practice, we can rewire our brains and train ourselves to be more optimistic, ultimately making us more resilient, happier and healthier. And remember, practice makes progress; every time you focus on the positives, that is what grows.
Optimism may not always be the easy choice, but it's certainly the right one.
To find out more about how I can support you or your organisation improve your wellbeing, please get in touch through the contact page.