8 ways to be more optimistic and why it’s good for your health

Adopting an optimistic attitude may seem difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s how to be more optimistic—even if you’re naturally negative.

What does it mean to be optimistic?

You’ve all heard it before: optimists see the glass as half full, while pessimists see it as half empty. But what you may not know is that seeing the world through rose-colored glasses can improve your health.

Of course, just because an optimistic attitude is good for you doesn’t mean it’s easy. It can be difficult to maintain a positive attitude – especially when your natural inclination is toward darkness and doom.

Luckily, there are ways to become more optimistic. (Yes, even in bad times.)

So look on the bright side even when you see storm clouds on the horizon.

(Learn more about the science and benefits of happiness.)

Optimism 101

Optimists don’t walk around seeing rainbows and puppies everywhere. Instead, people with optimistic prospects have hope and confidence in success and a positive future. (On the other hand, pessimists tend to influence situations negatively.)

The brain plays a major role in this. Studies show that positive moods are associated with more left brain activity. Negative moods like depression or anger or rejection are more likely to be associated with right brain activity, researchers found in a 2018 study published in 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 research expert on the brain’s frontal lobe and emotions. In fact, Davidson’s early research found that only 15 percent of people are leaning in neither direction.

But while genetics play a role in your attitude, they’re not the only thing that shapes you. Life experience, especially in relation to the family environment of your childhood, does this as well.

Are you an optimist?

You’re either optimistic or you’re not, right? Not exactly. Scientists believe that optimism and pessimism lie on a spectrum.

Psychologists call this dispositional optimism. It is the extent to which you believe positive outcomes will occur in the future, for yourself, for others you know, and for the world at large.

Optimism, too, can vary to some extent depending on the topic and context. In general, optimists share some common traits. You might be an optimist if:

  • They expect things to turn out for the best.
  • You don’t let a bad experience ruin your expectations for the future.
  • You feel gratitude for the good things in your life.
  • They see challenges and obstacles as opportunities to learn.
  • You think that good things can come from negative events.
  • You are always looking for ways to make the most of your opportunities.

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The benefits of optimism

A rosy outlook on life offers another reason to smile – it can benefit your health. Research says that optimists:

Also, optimists tend to know more about their health and how to live healthily. A study in Annals of behavioral medicine found that optimistic people knew more about how and why heart attacks occur and about general health challenges for their specific age group compared to people with more pessimistic attitudes.

8 ways to be more optimistic

If you’re a natural pessimist, you might think you’re out of luck. There’s no way you’re going to benefit from the health effects of optimism—or are you?

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 certain actions you can take to take your optimism up a notch.

Try mindfulness techniques

You may have heard of the right-brain-left-brain theory of thinking: Basically, it’s about right-brained people being drawn to creative fields like the arts, while left-brained thinkers are drawn to more analytical fields like math.

Although there is no evidence that your nature or personality is centered on one side of the mind or the other, research has shown that creative types are more likely to be pessimistic or have a negative attitude.

If you fall more into the creative category, don’t worry. In his research, Davidson found that the brain can be rewired by consciously changing our thoughts using mindfulness techniques. This can lead to a significant shift in the way we respond to experiences.

Redefine optimism

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 completely deny life’s challenges. Although happiness can lead to optimism and makes it easier to have an upbeat attitude, the two are vastly different.

An optimistic attitude does not mean that you always have a lot of fun or that everything is going well in your life. Instead, it’s a belief in positive outcomes, even in the face of trial and error.

Focus on what you can control

It can be tempting to reflect on the past – what could or should have been. Pondering about an uncertain future is just as tempting. None of these measures will help you adopt an optimistic perspective.

Psychologists recommend staying present in the moment. This makes it easier for you to stay focused, centered and more positive because you don’t have to deal with unfamiliar facts.

Focus on things you can control now. For example, if you didn’t get a big promotion that you wanted, don’t dwell on the negative. Focus on what you can do now to achieve your goal.

Take time for yourself

Quiet your mind and take time for yourself, even if it’s just 30 minutes a week. Take a long bath, open a book, go jogging or watch your favorite show. What you do is not as important as how you feel about it. The goal is to engage in an activity that is relaxing and that you enjoy.

(Need advice? Here’s how to create a self-care plan, according to experts.)

Practice gratitude

Spend more time contemplating the positive aspects of your life than the areas you want to improve. A gratitude journal can help. Try to start your day by writing down three things or people you are grateful for. Think about why these things or people are valuable to you.

(Learn more about the health benefits of gratitude.)

Be nice

Practice being kind to others, even during times of stress or when you feel challenged. In many cases, it is more beneficial for the giver to exercise kindness than for the receiver.

Suppress negative thinking in the bud

It is normal for negative thoughts to pop up from time to time. Let’s face it: life can get complicated. Most people aren’t going to walk around like Mary Poppins all the time.

But Davidson says it’s a good idea to challenge negative thoughts. You may be thinking, “I have cancer, so I’m doomed.” Instead, turn that thought to “Many people with cancer live long, wonderful lives.”

Spend less time with Debbie Downers

Last but not least, surround yourself with positive thinking people. 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 whining can very well rub off on you. You don’t have to completely rule out these chronic whiners. Just make sure you also have a healthy group of people who will counteract the negative energy that you will be confronted with from time to time.

Next, learn about the powerful ways therapists ward off anxiety and depression.

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