A Superhero’s Guide to Optimism

In 10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Happier, we urged you to become an optimist. Study after study shows optimists are healthier, happier and lead longer lives. But what is optimism? How do you learn it? We’ve got all the answers in A Superhero’s Guide to Optimism.

What Is Optimism?

Optimists and pessimists frame negative events in opposite ways. Pessimists attribute negative events to personal pervasive and permanent factors – i.e. things that are your fault, apply to other aspects of your life, and can’t be changed. In other words, an optimist who loses a tennis match is having an off day. A pessimist concludes he/she sucks at tennis.

While roughly 25% of this outlook is genetic, how your genes and environments interact determines your outlook on life. So different mixes dictate whether you’re Eeyore or Piglet. The good news is you can learn optimism. It just takes a little work.

Your Current State:

First, assess how pessimistic you are. Spend a week writing every negative thought you have. Develop a few counterarguments for each, even if it feels fake. This trains your brain to seek out the positive.

Then, discover if you’re pessimistic for a reason. Some pessimists believe the world is out to get them, often due to socioeconomic status or an unhappy childhood. While you can’t control how your story begins, you control how it ends. Forgive those who’ve wronged you, release outside forces from blame, and start changing your own actions.

Others use pessimism as a defense mechanism. Insecure about screwing up, they convince themselves they won’t succeed – which, ironically, sets them up for failure.  Next time someone compliments you, smile and thank them. Don’t say anything else. Take ownership of your work, no matter how afraid you are you’ll mess up in the future. Spoiler Alert: Everyone does, so enjoy the moment.

Similarly, reward your efforts on a major project, even if the project fails. “Having something to look forward to increases optimism,” and this practice reinforces that you should take credit for your work. As each day ends, ask yourself, “What have I done well today?” Don’t stop until you’ve thought of 3 answers.

Changing Your Environment:

You’ll likely stay a pessimist if you’re surrounded by them. If one relationship consistently depresses you, hang out with more positive people. Find an optimism role model whose attitude toward life you can emulate. When you face a potential catastrophe, ask, “What would my role model do?”

Another environmental factor you should consider is envy. Successful friends often inspire jealousy, even if their successes aren’t related to your own desires. Break this unhealthy habit by getting off social media, i.e. Humblebrag City. Compare yourself to people who have less than you to feel luckier. Got a friend who won’t shut up about his latest accomplishment? Give him his moment – then tell him that while you’re happy for him, his constant bragging makes you feel inadequate and you’d rather discuss something else. Communication is key.

What else gets you down? Listening to a sad song? Play a peppy Pandora station. Depressed by the 11-o-clock news? Limit your exposure and try something uplifting like Upworthy. Are you a loner? Have substantive interactions with people, not just small talk, for greater well-being.  If you know something around you exacerbates your pessimism, erase it or change it.

How to Feel Happier:

First, count your blessings. Pessimists overlook the good in their lives, subconsciously focusing on the bad. Start a feel-good journal or jar and fill it with mementos that make you happy, like a ticket stub or a favorite compliment. Slip inspirational quotes anywhere you can think of. Or try these tips to increase gratitude.

Then, smile. Smiling makes your brain think you’re happy, so turn up your mouth even when you don’t want to. You’ll make people around you smile and improve their moods, since smiling is a form of non-verbal communication. Don’t forget to eat right, get outside and follow the other tips listed here.

When Pessimism Hits:

Becoming an optimist doesn’t mean you’ll never be sad again. You can’t slack off because ‘everything will be fine.’ You’ll still have negative thoughts and experiences. Optimism won’t cure all your problems; it’s a coping mechanism to help you recognize setbacks are inevitable but not always your fault, and life will improve. So what do you do on the bad days?

First, reframe negative experiences. Balance accepting responsibility for your actions with recognizing forces outside your control. When something bad occurs, coolly examine what happened and learn what to do next time. You shouldn’t shoulder all the blame – but you shouldn’t get off scot-free, either.

Secondly, stop ruminating, i.e. worrying obsessively over something. Combat this destructive habit by increasing engagement with your daily life. Focusing on the present eliminates your worrying time. If you catch yourself ruminating, find an all-encompassing distraction like exercise or meditation. However, it’s human nature to focus on danger. If you can’t stop worrying, start creating a solution within 60 seconds of your problem thought.

Thirdly, pessimists blow every minor setback into a doomsday scenario, a phenomenon known as catastrophizing. One late report at work won’t cost you your job. Try ruminating to develop a solution to your problem, or “exaggerate it to the point of comic hilarity.” Catastrophize as much as you can, until your imagined consequences become so outrageous they’re hilarious – then go as far as you can in the positive direction. When you’re done, select the most likely outcome, which is probably a balance between the two extremes.

Finally, practice! If you follow these tips then relapse into pessimism, don’t give up because you’re clearly not cut out for optimism. You’ve lived a lifetime of pessimism, and you won’t lose it overnight. Instead, commit to the process, even when you mess up. And when you do, motivate yourself to start up again – seek advice from your optimism role model, or professional help if you’re struggling.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? If you learned optimism, how did you do it? Did we miss your favorite tips? Let us know in the comments, on Facebook or Tweet us @SuperheroYou!

Photo Credit: Skakerman via Compfight cc

Written by Sasha Graffagna

In 10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Happier, we urged you to become an optimist. Study after study shows optimists are healthier, happier and lead longer lives. But what is optimism? How do you learn it? We’ve got all the answers in A Superhero’s Guide to Optimism.

What Is Optimism?

Optimists and pessimists frame negative events in opposite ways. Pessimists attribute negative events to personal pervasive and permanent factors – i.e. things that are your fault, apply to other aspects of your life, and can’t be changed. In other words, an optimist who loses a tennis match is having an off day. A pessimist concludes he/she sucks at tennis.

While roughly 25% of this outlook is genetic, how your genes and environments interact determines your outlook on life. So different mixes dictate whether you’re Eeyore or Piglet. The good news is you can learn optimism. It just takes a little work.

Your Current State:

First, assess how pessimistic you are. Spend a week writing every negative thought you have. Develop a few counterarguments for each, even if it feels fake. This trains your brain to seek out the positive.

Then, discover if you’re pessimistic for a reason. Some pessimists believe the world is out to get them, often due to socioeconomic status or an unhappy childhood. While you can’t control how your story begins, you control how it ends. Forgive those who’ve wronged you, release outside forces from blame, and start changing your own actions.

Others use pessimism as a defense mechanism. Insecure about screwing up, they convince themselves they won’t succeed – which, ironically, sets them up for failure.  Next time someone compliments you, smile and thank them. Don’t say anything else. Take ownership of your work, no matter how afraid you are you’ll mess up in the future. Spoiler Alert: Everyone does, so enjoy the moment.

Similarly, reward your efforts on a major project, even if the project fails. “Having something to look forward to increases optimism,” and this practice reinforces that you should take credit for your work. As each day ends, ask yourself, “What have I done well today?” Don’t stop until you’ve thought of 3 answers.

Changing Your Environment:

You’ll likely stay a pessimist if you’re surrounded by them. If one relationship consistently depresses you, hang out with more positive people. Find an optimism role model whose attitude toward life you can emulate. When you face a potential catastrophe, ask, “What would my role model do?”

Another environmental factor you should consider is envy. Successful friends often inspire jealousy, even if their successes aren’t related to your own desires. Break this unhealthy habit by getting off social media, i.e. Humblebrag City. Compare yourself to people who have less than you to feel luckier. Got a friend who won’t shut up about his latest accomplishment? Give him his moment – then tell him that while you’re happy for him, his constant bragging makes you feel inadequate and you’d rather discuss something else. Communication is key.

What else gets you down? Listening to a sad song? Play a peppy Pandora station. Depressed by the 11-o-clock news? Limit your exposure and try something uplifting like Upworthy. Are you a loner? Have substantive interactions with people, not just small talk, for greater well-being.  If you know something around you exacerbates your pessimism, erase it or change it.

How to Feel Happier:

First, count your blessings. Pessimists overlook the good in their lives, subconsciously focusing on the bad. Start a feel-good journal or jar and fill it with mementos that make you happy, like a ticket stub or a favorite compliment. Slip inspirational quotes anywhere you can think of. Or try these tips to increase gratitude.

Then, smile. Smiling makes your brain think you’re happy, so turn up your mouth even when you don’t want to. You’ll make people around you smile and improve their moods, since smiling is a form of non-verbal communication. Don’t forget to eat right, get outside and follow the other tips listed here.

When Pessimism Hits:

Becoming an optimist doesn’t mean you’ll never be sad again. You can’t slack off because ‘everything will be fine.’ You’ll still have negative thoughts and experiences. Optimism won’t cure all your problems; it’s a coping mechanism to help you recognize setbacks are inevitable but not always your fault, and life will improve. So what do you do on the bad days?

First, reframe negative experiences. Balance accepting responsibility for your actions with recognizing forces outside your control. When something bad occurs, coolly examine what happened and learn what to do next time. You shouldn’t shoulder all the blame – but you shouldn’t get off scot-free, either.

Secondly, stop ruminating, i.e. worrying obsessively over something. Combat this destructive habit by increasing engagement with your daily life. Focusing on the present eliminates your worrying time. If you catch yourself ruminating, find an all-encompassing distraction like exercise or meditation. However, it’s human nature to focus on danger. If you can’t stop worrying, start creating a solution within 60 seconds of your problem thought.

Thirdly, pessimists blow every minor setback into a doomsday scenario, a phenomenon known as catastrophizing. One late report at work won’t cost you your job. Try ruminating to develop a solution to your problem, or “exaggerate it to the point of comic hilarity.” Catastrophize as much as you can, until your imagined consequences become so outrageous they’re hilarious – then go as far as you can in the positive direction. When you’re done, select the most likely outcome, which is probably a balance between the two extremes.

Finally, practice! If you follow these tips then relapse into pessimism, don’t give up because you’re clearly not cut out for optimism. You’ve lived a lifetime of pessimism, and you won’t lose it overnight. Instead, commit to the process, even when you mess up. And when you do, motivate yourself to start up again – seek advice from your optimism role model, or professional help if you’re struggling.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? If you learned optimism, how did you do it? Did we miss your favorite tips? Let us know in the comments, on Facebook or Tweet us @SuperheroYou!

Photo Credit: Skakerman via Compfight cc

Written by Sasha Graffagna

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