What is optimism, really?
Optimism is a mindset of hopefulness and confidence about the future and is a construct that often gets misconstrued. It is frequently mistaken as thinking ALL the time positively, but this is not true. Optimism is NOT toxic positivity or the obsession with positive thinking. People with this belief look to put a positive spin on all experiences, even those that may be highly stressful or profoundly tragic. Toxic positivity can silence negative emotions, which must be experienced as part of the total human experience. It can also demean grief and/or pressure people to feign happiness despite their feelings and circumstances.
Dr. Martin Seligman defines optimism as responding to problems with a sense of confidence and high personal ability. Fortunately, optimism exists on a continuum and is a learnable skill. As we learn to increase our optimism, we benefit as it serves as a protective factor against depression and several serious medical issues. Research indicates that optimistic people deliver healthier babies than their less optimistic peers, have better sleep quality, and have better immune system function. Optimistic individuals have increased life satisfaction and self-esteem. In fact, a recent study followed 70,000 women for eight years finding that those who were optimistic were much healthier; they had a considerably lower risk of dying from a number of significant causes of death, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, infection, and respiratory diseases. People with optimistic mindsets had improved quality of life, energy levels, better psychological and physical health, faster recovery from injury or illness, and fewer colds.
But the world around us can sometimes be negative and challenging. How do we stay positive? Uplifted? Optimistic? Follow these hree steps toward a more optimistic you:
1. Be curious, and be a learner. Charlie Mackesy, author of “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse,” includes a theme of optimism in his story. Explore this delightful book for opportunities to read and reflect on the nature of optimism and enhanced well-being.
“This storm will pass,” the author writes above, a drawing depicting the boy and his animal friends huddled amidst a menacing storm.
Optimistic people believe that adverse events are temporary, limited in scope, and manageable. By limited scope, we mean one does not expect adverse events to permeate every aspect of a person's life.
“The greatest illusion,” said the mole, “Is that life should be perfect.”
Optimism understands that one does not have to think all the time positively. One knows that life is rich with a wide range of experiences, including challenges and uplifting ones.
“One of our greatest freedoms,” explains the mole to the boy, “Is how we react to things.”
Research indicates that we can influence our ability to regulate our feelings, thoughts, and behavior under stress simply by shifting the way we talk to ourselves. Are you kind to others but critical of yourself? Negative self-talk creates a negative opinion of oneself, influencing our feelings, thoughts, and behavior. Reframing our negative self-talk with positive messages takes time and practice. It is like creating a new blueprint for how you relate to yourself. It takes some work, but well worth it. Examples of positive self-talk include the following.
2. Surround yourself with positive people. Both negativity and positivity are contagious. Which one do you want more of? So, consider the people with whom you spend most of your time. Surround yourself with people who are positive whenever you can. Research shows it will improve your self-esteem and increase your chances of reaching your goals. Choose people who will lift you, not drag you down. Choose people who will shine a light on the bright side of things, not emphasize the problems and the pitfalls. Find or create your high-frequency tribe.
3. Practice gratitude. Research shows that practicing gratitude reduces stress, improves self-esteem, and nurtures resilience even in tough times. Writing down the things you are grateful for can improve your optimism and overall sense of well-being. Write notes of gratitude or keep a gratitude journal. Think of people or experiences that bring comfort or happiness and express your appreciation to them in a handwritten note, and/or write about them in your gratitude journal. On difficult days, jot down a list of things you are grateful for. Deliver your handwritten gratitude notes to the intended recipients while also sharing your message verbally. Select a strategy and do it consistently. Develop a habit through regular practice and build your gratitude muscle.
Follow the advice of Michael J. Fox, actor, and advocate:
“And if you don’t think you have anything to be grateful for, keep looking. Because you don’t just receive optimism. You can’t wait for things to be great and then be grateful for that. You’ve got to behave in a way that promotes that.”
Michael J. Fox also says, "With gratitude, optimism is sustainable." Remember, optimism is a mindset. Let's grow it!
Explore Charlie Mackesy's work here
Learn more about Michael J. Fox's reflections on his 30th anniversary with Parkinson's disease here
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Author: Karin H. Spencer, EdD, NCPT
Thanks for visiting the Uplift Blog! I'm an educator, Pilates enthusiast (NCPT), reflective practitioner and Ironman triathlete. I love helping others discover their joy and confidence as movers. I support others in making lifestyle changes to improve health and well-being. As a life-long educator, I am especially committed to joining together with teachers to uplift each other.