I am surrounded by optimists. My daughter is an optimist, my husband is an optimist, my mother is an optimist. Me? Well, you might not know this about me but for years I was a defensive pessimist. In the glass-half-full or half-empty scenario, I was waiting for the glass to smash and the water to spill all over the floor.

Now I recognise the power of optimism. Optimism is a form of positive thinking, the belief that your happiness is your responsibility, that no matter what is going on in your life you can choose to see the good and embrace the positive aspects of even the most challenging situation. Optimists simply expect the best possible outcome in any situation.

Optimists are also more likely to believe that negative events in life are a result of external factors and not their personal fault. Let’s take a business relationship break-down for example. The optimist might walk away thinking; well it just wasn’t meant to be. While the pessimist is more likely to focus on what they must have done to cause the breakdown of the relationship and how that is going to impact on them moving forward.

So, pessimists are more likely to think of challenging situations as personal and permanent, while optimists tend to see difficulties as an external and more temporary thing. This is important because when pessimists see negative situations as being about them or their abilities (rather than just a situation they are in), they are more likely to walk away from a difficult task when the going gets tough, less likely to persevere with their goals and take different approaches until they succeed. (Note how this has nothing to do with how hard they worked…)

Optimism can have positive effects on our health

Optimism has positive effects on our health as well as our wellbeing. According to research from Harvard School of Public Health, published online April 17, 2012 in Psychological Bulletin optimism can protect your cardiovascular health. In fact, the research suggests that factors such as happiness, optimism, and life satisfaction reduced the risks despite a person’s smoking status, age, body weight, and socioeconomic status.

Your immune system works hard to keep you healthy, and optimism helps keep your immune system strong. The University of Kentucky studied the immune response of law students. Over a hundred students were tested five times over six months. Before each test, they would answer a survey about how optimistic they were feeling. They then received an injection to stimulate an immune system response. The larger the lump following the injection, the bigger the response, thus the healthier the immune system. The biggest immune system responses were found in those law students who were feeling the most optimistic about life.

In a study published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal, researchers analyzed regarding over 3,000 subjects aged 60 or older. Over the course of eight years, these individuals declined in mobility and how they handled daily tasks. However, the degree to which they declined was different. In the initial research, 21% of participants reported a high level of life satisfaction, 23% with low, and 56% in the middle. Only 4% of those high-level participants experienced new impairments. For those with the least life satisfaction that was 17%. Additionally, 80% of those from the middle of the road and low satisfaction group were more likely to develop mobility and function issues.

University of Michigan researchers followed over 6,000 non-stroke individuals for two years and discovered that each point increase on the optimism front reduced the risk of an acute stroke by 9%.

The Melissa Institute points to the importance of optimism and resilience. Dr. Dennis Charney has studied people who have survived despite extreme stress. Those participants included earthquake victims, Special Forces, and prisoners of war. The survivors who were most resilient had a number of factors in common, however, the predominant common factor: optimism. The survivors believed that despite the challenge they would prevail.

7 techniques to harness the power of optimism

Don’t worry if you’re reading this and worrying because, like I used to, you find yourself with a glass-half-full (or are the one asking “what glass?”). Optimism is about how we think and our way of thinking is simply a habit. A habit that, with time and effort, can be changed. Here are 7 techniques that you can start practising today.

1. Mind your Mouth. Phrases like it’s impossible, it can’t work, and I can’t programme your brain to look for the negative. Using more positive language – I can, I will, I know I can learn, I have the power to choose – primes your mind for taking positive action. If positive words are too challenging to start off with, try inserting more neutral words rather than emotionally charged words. So, for example, if life has thrown a sack of lemons your way, instead of saying, “I’m so angry”, opt for an emotion diffusing phrase like “I’ve got a challenge to overcome”.

2. Don’t dine on whine. It’s easy to be caught up in frustration, but wasting your breath and energy whining about colleagues, customers, the economy, your boss, or other things that are completely out of control drains you and everyone around you. The same can be said for personal issues or illnesses. It’s one thing to talk about your issues and work through them, it’s another to focus on them and allow them to drag you, and others, down. Stop throwing yourself pity parties, gift yourself some self-love and start finding the positives.

3. Rock your resilience. Optimism isn’t about ignoring problems, it is about understanding that challenges and setbacks are temporary and inevitable. It’s having the self-belief that you have the abilities and skills – or the power to develop them – to overcome the challenge. Your situation may be serious and it will probably be difficult, but you can still remain positive and hopeful about the future. I know it’s corny but it’s still true – there are no rainbows without sun and rain.

4. Nix the naysayers. Optimism can be learned, and it’s also contagious, but so is negativity so choose your social circle carefully. Already got naysayers in your life? Read about how to neutralise them here.

5. Ride the rollercoaster. Let’s face it, life isn’t always positive, so we shouldn’t expect sunshine and flowers every day. Ups and downs are a natural part of life, and it’s all about keeping things in perspective.  Life will always throw up challenges, but most of them are temporary and it’s how you respond to them that’s key. Hope for the best, but remember that you’re capable of handling the worst and coming out the other side.

6. Live in the present. So often negativity and pessimism stem from living in the past, rehashing past experiences or in the future, worrying about what might happen. We berate ourselves for conversations we’ve had, replaying them over and over in our minds. We create future worlds of catastrophe and drama, planning for the negative and living in fear. Make a commitment not to live constantly in the past or the future but in the present. We cannot control what has happened, we cannot know what will be. The only true reality is right now, in this moment and it’s a beautiful gift of sensations and choices. To bring yourself back to the present close your eyes and focus on your feet. Feel the ground beneath them supporting you. Take a deep breath in and out and say to yourself “in this moment I am complete, alive and full of potential”.

7. Ask yourself the right questions. Questions are powerful. Not only does hearing a question affect what our brains do in that instant, it can also shape our future behaviour. This is because questions trigger a mental reflex known as “instinctive elaboration”. When we get asked a question, it takes over our brain’s thought processes and when your brain is thinking about the answer to a question, it can’t think about anything else. And because our thoughts affect our emotions and our behaviours, questions can have a profound effect on our results.

For me, it’s all about asking ourselves the right questions – questions that hijack our brain and focus it on the right things. Often we ask ourselves questions without even realising it. They’re usually questions we’ve asked ourselves repeatedly over a long time and so they become subconscious habits. All these questions direct our brain in a particular way. But you can choose the questions that you ask yourself and harness the power of your brain. Questions like… What do I want to create today? How do I want to feel today? What do I want to be able to celebrate tonight? How can I be of service to my clients / my family / my friends and my community today? These questions stimulate our brain to find creative answers… and those answers direct our thoughts at the very beginning of the day, guiding us towards choices that can boost our satisfaction and well-being.


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