Optimism and pessimism seem like traits you’re born with, but they are simply a way of thinking. Today I’m talking about how you train yourself to be more optimistic.

How to Train your Brain for Optimism

Imagine you’re at a party and you meet someone new. They seem like a cool person. You get to talking and they start telling you this interesting idea they have for a new product. What’s your response? Are you immediately thinking of all the ways the product could go right or all the ways it could go so terribly wrong?

That right there is a quick way to gauge whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. While it’s not necessarily so cut and dried as that, noticing your gut reaction to a situation can give you a good idea where you fall.

However, you will need to gauge lots of different areas of your life to get the full picture. Much like growth vs fixed mindset, optimism and pessimism are on a sliding scale. And you can be optimistic in one area of your life and pessimistic in another. We are mysterious creatures like that.

The thing is that there are so many benefits to being optimistic, that it’s hard to ignore, even for the most staunch pessimist. Improved physical health, lower stress, improved emotional wellbeing, to name a few.

Can you just switch from being a pessimist to be being an optimist? While it’s not as easy as switching political parties, it can be done. Optimism and pessimism are defined by the story we tell ourselves about why things happen to us. And as I’m always saying, thoughts are habits, and habits can be changed.

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OPTIMISM IS GOOD FOR YOU

Does optimism really matter THAT much? According to medical studies, it does. In people with a negative medical prognosis, having an optimistic belief about the outcome has been shown to

  • Increase survival rate
  • Improve ability to manage pain
  • Improve immune function
  • Improve cardiovascular function
  • Improve physical function

What if you’re not facing a negative medical prognosis, do you really need to switch your mindset? Well how would you like to live longer? Have better emotional health? Be less stressed overall?

These are all benefits of optimism. By retraining your brain to focus more on the positive thoughts than the negative ones you become more likely to succeed in life. You might tend to take more risks, which will reap you greater rewards. And even if you don’t succeed, you won’t take the same emotional hit that a pessimist would.

Optimism also makes you more likely to be proactive about dealing with your stress so you won’t let it get out of control.

All of these factors add up to make a compelling argument to jump on the optimism train.

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THE STORIES WE TELL OURSELVES

There are three elements to the way that we explain the events that have happened to us. The direction that we lean becomes clear when we examine these stories based on these elements.

Stable vs. Unstable
Is this event likely to happen again or was it just a fluke?

Global vs. Local
Does this event reflect on your life as a whole or is it isolated?

Internal vs. External
Did you have a hand in causing the event or did it just happen to you?

Let’s take an example of having landed a big client.

An optimist would say that this happened because of the hard work she put in (internal). That this proves good things are going to keep happening (stable). And that good things are likely to happen in other parts of her life (global).

A pessimist would be the opposite and say that this happened as a fluke (local), the client must have had no other choice (external). She would believe this would never happen again (unstable).

The reverse is true for the responses to a negative event. If something negative happens the optimist sees that as a fluke, that it’s not her fault, and that it won’t effect good chances of a future (unstable, external, local). And a pessimist sees the negative thing as a sign she sucks, it’s all her fault, and that her whole life is just like this (stable, internal, global).

The things that we tell ourselves matter. If you’re telling yourself that the things that are good in your life are just happenstance and you had no hand in creating them – even though you’re thinking about something positive, it’s in a pessimistic way.

How to Train your Brain for Optimism

OPTIMISM IN ACTION

The best definition that I’ve seen for the optimistic viewpoint was written by Jeff Kehoe. He says that optimism is “the simple, clear, energetic belief in the potential success of an idea.”

Now this doesn’t directly discuss the stories we tell ourselves, but it does show how optimism plays out in action.

The stories we tell ourselves can often be deeply unconscious. If you’re beating yourself up over why you didn’t win that client, some of it might come to light based on what you’re saying to yourself over and over – I always fail, for instance.

However, noticing your first perception of a new person or a new idea can be an easier way to start. This instance is a fresh page – so how do you color it?

If the answer is that as soon as you meet someone or hear a new idea the negative critic starts marking the page up with her red pen, then it might be time to work on those thoughts.

Anthony K. Tjan has an exercise called the 24×3 to help build up your optimism muscle. Upon encountering a new person or idea wait 24 seconds before entertaining critical thoughts. Notice I said entertaining, not thinking.

As much as I’d love to have a magic wand to make you STOP thinking something, I don’t. And the more you tell yourself NOT to think about something the faster you’ll think about it.

So when the critical thoughts come up, don’t explore them right away. Take a moment, and look for the upside. What are this person’s positive features? How might this idea work?

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Once you’ve mastered this, move up to 24 minutes. And then 24 hours. It sounds like a lot, but it’s just a day. Go one day after hearing a new idea or meeting a new person where you just focus on that which is positive and can work.

It’s not that you can’t think of the negatives, but don’t sink into them. If you need to you could write them down in a notebook so you can let them go – like you would when practicing a brain dump. Then actively focus your attention back to the positive.

Just like any thought habit, this will take time to change. But if you continue to practice it, it will be easier. And eventually you will start to be focusing more on the positives around aspects of your life, and less about the negatives.

Once you are able to focus on the positives around something new and external (someone else’s idea), then it’s time to start working on internal optimism. Think of an event that you have a pessimistic viewpoint on and start to change the story that you’re telling yourself.

Don’t pick something negative that happened to yourself because it’s too easy to get trapped into beating yourself up over it. Go for something positive that you’re explaining in a pessimistic way. A promotion, landing the big client, an amazing partner, getting the lead in the school play – it doesn’t matter what the event is so long as you had some hand in it.

Begin to switch your thinking about the story you tell yourself. Start with one of the aspects like internal vs external. If you’re telling yourself that you’re not the reason this good thing happened, look at your life and see how other positive things happened before and after this.

In a promotion example, have you worked hard and been rewarded? Have you received other promotions, bonuses, or positive feedback from peers and managers? All of these signs point to the reason that you earned the promotion, not that someone else made it happen for you.

You can tackle other parts of the story too to solidify an optimistic perspective on it. Then the next time that something good happens (and it will!) notice the way you’re thinking about it. If pessimism is creeping in immediately start switching the narrative.

Once you have success at this, you can do the same for negative events that happen.

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TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING

Shawn Achor tells a story in his book Before Happiness about getting into a car with someone and having him drive off without putting on his seatbelt. When Shawn asks him about why he doesn’t wear one, he says it’s because he’s an optimist.

That, my friends, is not optimism, it’s recklessness. If you go around all day thinking about all the bad things that could possibly happen to you and you fixate on those bad things – you’d probably never get out of bed for fear of a meteor hitting you.

But the same goes for the flip side. If all you think is that good things will happen to you and that there’s never a chance for something bad – then you will never be able to anticipate any of the problems that you might encounter. That pretty much guarantees you’ll fail.

In fact there is something called the optimism bias. 80% of people tend to overestimate the likelihood of something good happening and underestimate the chance that bad things will happen.

We have all been there. If you’re contemplating a career change, the new choice is bound to better, and easier. Considering a long trip? It’s all fun, none of the exhaustion. Want to move to a new town? The grass is always greener.

That’s not to say that if you’re an optimist that you are incapable of seeing the downsides, but there have probably been times when the downsides just didn’t weigh as much as they should. Even though I’ve had 3 businesses, each time I tend to believe that starting the new business will somehow be better, easier than the last.

I know better, but it’s still a struggle to really buy into the idea.

What are you to do when you find yourself being overly optimistic about something on the horizon?

Tasha Eurich gives an exercise to help bring your attention to the possible pitfalls of excessive optimism.

  1. Consider your idea – what is the best possible outcome for it?
  2. Face the music – what’s the REAL likelihood of this happening? If you’re struggling to look at the situation objectively, take yourself out of the equation. Imagine a friend telling you this dream. How would you help her figure out if it was possible? Then go do that research for yourself.
  3. What can you do to face the things that could get in your way to reaching your best possible outcomes? Make a plan to increase your chances of success.

OPTIMISM IS WORTH THE EFFORT

The benefits of optimism range from physical to mental to emotional. Even if you’re a lifelong pessimist it is possible to make the switch and retrain your thoughts. With some practice and focus you can teach your brain to look for the positive first and foremost.

If you’re struggling to get control of your mindset, contact me here. Coaching with me is a great way to change the way you think so you can move forward.

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