Tapping the Power of Optimism
What is optimism?
Optimism is a hopeful, positive outlook on the future, yourself, and the world around you. It is a key part of resilience, the inner strength that helps you get through tough times.
By definition, optimism helps you see, feel, and think positively. But it has extra benefits you might not know aboutoptimism helps keep up your physical health too. 1
You dont have to be a "born optimist" to use the power of optimism. In daily life, or when faced with a crisis, you can choose a positive viewpoint to make the most of what life brings your way.
Can you make optimism work for you?
Even if you tend to focus on the negative side of things, "realistic optimism" can work for you.
With realistic optimism, you dont just expect the best and hope that things will go well. Nor do you let yourself see and expect only the worst. Instead, you look at the "big picture," the good and the bad. You then:
- Decide what is realistic to expect.
- Decide what you can do to make things go as well as possible.
- Choose to focus on the positives, and on your strengths, as you go forward.
For example, lets say you are about to have a knee surgery. You can choose to be optimistic about your recovery, rather than let fear or hopelessness take hold. Imagine how you want to feel 6 or 12 months after surgerystrong and active. Picture what you want to be doing, how you want to be moving around. Keep these positive, hopeful pictures in your mind.
A positive attitude can also help you keep up a positive mood, which can help with healing. But optimism alone is only part of a good recovery. Its also important to know what to do, such as physical therapy exercises, and what to be careful about. And if you need support or advice, you can plan ahead with the right people before the surgery.
When practicing optimism, remember to keep a flexible frame of mind. Expect change, and be ready to adjust to it.
How can you practice optimism?
Whenever youre having trouble with thinking negative thoughts, expecting the worst, or feeling powerless, try any of these exercises for a few days.
- Focus on whats going well. Write down three things that have gone well in the past day. These can be large, like getting a raise, or small, like "I talked with an old friend today." Describe the cause of each event, and credit yourself for the part you played in it, such as "I made that phone call I've been putting off for a long time."
- Practice gratitude. Write down three things in your life that you are grateful for. This kind of focus on what enriches your life can help keep your thoughts and feelings more positive.
- Look for the benefits. Think of a negative event from your near or distant past. Write it down. Now think of something positive that has or could come of it. Write it down. For the positive thought, use larger handwriting or a favorite color.
- Look ahead. Picture yourself doing something that feels good. Expect good things to happen.
- Build yourself up. When you need it, lean on others or your faith to build more strength. Say to yourself often, "I am strong."
What does it mean to be grateful?
Gratitude is saying "thank you." But it's more than a thank-you to a friend for a favor or gift. Gratitude is saying thanks for everything that is important to you and good in your life. You are thankful for a gift, but you're also thankful to watch a sunset, do well at a sport, or to be alive. You see your life and your experiences as a gift.
Gratitude is linked to well-being. One group of three studies suggests that people who practice gratitude appear to be more optimistic, pleased with their lives, and connected to others when compared to those who reflect on daily hassles or on everyday events. 1 Another study suggests that gratitude in teens is linked to feeling good about life, being optimistic, and having a good social network. 2
You also might find that gratitude may help decrease anger. If you find yourself thinking about how someone has wronged you, shift your attention to someone else who has been there to support you.
Gratitude may also be linked to resilience, which is having an "inner strength" that helps you bounce back after stressful situations. The traits mentioned above, such as optimism and connection with others, are often found in people who are resilient.
How can you practice gratitude?
To practice gratitude, you say "thanks" and you appreciate what's important to you.
- Spend a few minutes at the end of each day and think about, or even write down, what you are grateful for that day. Think about people, events, or experiences that have had a positive impact on you.
- Call or email someone just to say "thanks."
- Write thank-you notes as well as saying "thank you" when you receive gifts or favors. Or write a letter of gratitude and appreciation to someone. You don't have to mail it.
- Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper about something a stranger did for you. Or just say "thank you" to people you don't know, such as waving when a person lets your car cut in during heavy traffic.
- When feeling burdened by your health, give thanks for the abilities you still have.
- Start a family ritual of gratitude, such as giving thanks before a meal.
- Find a creative way to give thanks. For example, plant a garden of gratitude or take pictures of things you are grateful for.
Dealing With Negative Thoughts
What exactly is a negative thought?
Suppose a coworker or a grocery store clerk suddenly gave you a mean look. How would you react? Would you just let it slide off you, like water off a duck? Or would you take it personally and feel bad about yourself, or even get angry about it? If you turn small things into big things that bother you for days, weeks, or even longer, youre having negative thoughts.
Negative thoughts can make you feel sad and anxious. They take the joy out of lifeand they can take a toll on your physical health. Thats why its so important to learn how to deal with them.
How can you deal with negative thoughts?
One way to deal with negative thoughts is to replace them with thoughts that make you feel better. Lets say you just learned that you have a health problem. You might tell yourself "My life will never be the way it used to be" or "This is the beginning of the end for me." That will probably make you feel pretty badand it will make your body weaker, just when you need it to be strong.
Or you could tell yourself something like "This is going to be a challenge for a while, but if Im patient I can learn to adapt and still enjoy my life" or "This is a setback for me, but I can recover from it if I give myself time." This kind of thought can make you feel better and more hopeful. And it helps your body too.
Do you have any negative thoughts right now? (Sometimes it's hard to even know.) Take a minute, listen to your thoughts, and see if you do. If youre telling yourself something that makes you feel bad, remember: You are in charge of what you tell yourself. So why not come up with something more encouraging?
Theyre just thoughts. Whats the big deal?
Because of the mind-body connection, your thoughts really can affect your health. By telling yourself more encouraging things, youre telling your brain to produce chemicals that can:
- Lower your blood pressure.
- Reduce your risk for heart disease.
- Make your immune system stronger so you can resist infection and disease.
- Lower your stress level and make you feel less anxious.
- Help you avoid stomach problems, insomnia, and back pain.
- Make you feel happier and more optimistic about the future.
What else can you do to feel more positive?
Sometimes negative thoughts are connected to the way you live from day to day. Here are some things you can try right now to help you see the brighter side of life:
- Focus on what you are feeling right now. If you're sad, feel the sadness. But dont tell yourself that you have always felt this way and are doomed to feel sad forever. Sadness passes. A negative thought can linger... until you let it go.
- Share your feelings with someone close to you. Everyone has negative thoughts from time to time. Talking about it with someone else helps you keep those thoughts in perspective.
- Do something nice for yourself. Maybe you could work less today and play with your kids more. Or you could find something that makes you laugh.
- Take time to count your blessings. There are so many things for each of us to be thankful for. Whats one thing you appreciate?
- Eat well. Sleep well. Be active. The nicer you are to your body, the easier it is to feel more positive about yourself.
- <Make social connections . This is just a fancy way of saying "create the kind of community you want." Enjoy some time with family and friends. Find a faith community that works for you. Join a team or club. Take up a new hobby.
Pattys Story: Using Positive Thinking to Help Back Pain
Sometimes Patty doesnt know whether to laugh or cry when one of her three kids runs at her for a flying hug. She loves the affection, but picking up her kids all the time is one reason the 33-year-old third-grade teacher has back pain. She tries to smile and gently remind her kids to hug mommy with their feet on the ground.
Patty feels pretty good most days, even with back pain that comes and goes. "I've learned over the last few years to try to focus on what I can do. I'm lucky that my pain is just nagging, not debilitating. But still, it can make me really cranky with my kids at home and with my kids at school."
Patty did some reading on the mind-body connection. She learned that the things she tells herself about what's going on in her life and how she feels about it can make her pain worseor better. "So I really work at finding the good things in my day. It helps me get through the day, and I think it makes my pain not bother me as much," she says.
Stopping negative thoughts to reduce pain
She walks a lot, swims, and does exercises for her back. And she now sits next to her kids when they want a hug. But Patty also works at thinking in a positive way.
"I used to feel so discouraged whenever my back would hurt again," Patty says. "I would tell myself that it was never going to get better."
She learned to notice when she had those negative thoughts. "I would catch myself thinking, 'Why do I bother exercising? The pain is just going to come back.' But instead of keeping on that train of thought, I would say to myself, 'Exercise has helped my back before. I know it will make my back stronger if I stick with it.'"
She also started to use a rubber band to help her "snap out of" a negative thought. For a while, Patty would wear the rubber band around her wrist. Whenever she caught herself saying something discouraging about her pain, she would snap the rubber band and think to herself, "Stop." She has done it enough that now she just says "stop" to herself without using the rubber band.
"Its a little thing. But it helps me be aware of what I tell myself," she says. "It helps me to not dwell on the negative all the time. I still have some bad days. But I don't have as many as I used to. And I feel more in control of my thoughts, my pain, and my life."