In recent years it feels like we’ve all been ordered to “think positive” by experts in a variety of fields. Health professionals tell us that optimism improves our physical and mental health and helps us live longer. Corporate coaches report that optimistic employees are more productive, earn more money, and climb the career ladder more quickly than their pessimistic counterparts.
Psychology research concludes that optimistic people are happier and have more friends. Could it be that simple? Could thinking positively make everything better?
According to Webster’s dictionary optimism is the tendency to take the most hopeful or cheerful view of matters, to expect the best outcome, or the practice of looking on the bright side of things. However, optimism is not simply the blind belief that things will turn out perfectly. That kind of reckless optimism, based on unrealistic expectations, can lull us into laziness and overconfidence.
Healthy optimism, on the other hand, is making the choice to expect the best, the commitment to see the silver lining in each dark cloud, and the willingness to focus on the positive rather than the negative. Optimists make lemonade out of lemons and see the glass as half full. They are more open to and see possibilities others miss.
Pessimists claim that expecting the worse prepares them for disappointments so they are less likely to be devastated when situations do not turn out as desired. Expecting misfortune leaves you feeling apprehensive about the future, anxious about potential outcomes, focused on the negative, and over time can develop into a state of mind where you don’t see your ability to control any situation. This is a recipe for depression, anxiety disorders, and stress and its attendant negative impact on the mind, body, and spirit. Although disappointments are to be expected, forecasting them when the outcome is not known seems like adopting a negative approach in a neutral situation.
If you have a choice, and you do, why not expect the best? With this approach you can feel good about an upcoming situation right up to the end. If the situation turns out to be disappointing, you will most likely get over it and in the meantime you have been focused on the bright side while waiting. Optimists tend to see adversity as temporary and look at obstacles as learning opportunities. They brush off a letdown and launch themselves headlong toward the next fortunate circumstance.
Your attitude, whether optimistic or pessimistic, propels you to behave in ways that match your expectations. This is called a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
There are some situations where research clearly indicates that optimism helps you attain your goal. Positive assumptions about the future allow you to tolerate stressful situations that may otherwise be unbearable. Dieting benefits from a dose of optimism – it fortifies your resolve to resist temptations.
According to Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness and a proponent of positive psychology, says that “if anything, the evidence in support of the health benefits of optimism is stronger than ever.” Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. Seligman’s work has shown that people become more optimistic when they learn to challenge their negative thinking patterns, especially those involving self-blame.
Breaking behavioural habits also has an impact on your mental habits. Take a different route to work, read a newspaper from a different city, watch a television show or read a book in a genre that is new to you, eat at a place you’ve never eaten before. Allowing yourself more flexibility can lead to more creative thinking. This is particularly important as we age since our thinking tends to become more crystallized.
Celebrate every success on your journey to positive thinking. What you focus on grows.