”There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
– William Shakespeare
Imagine walking into the bank on a regular weekday and while you’re there a masked man comes in to rob the bank. All the people in the bank are taken hostage and before everyone are rescued you’re the only one getting injured as the robber shoots you in the leg. Would you consider yourself lucky or unlucky in this situation?
Some people would be very happy with this outcome. They’d be grateful that they made it out alive and that no one was seriously injured or even killed. Others would consider themselves extremely unlucky since they were the only one out of all the people present who got shot.
If you try this scenario on a couple of different friends you’ll be surprised at how differently they respond to this situation and it tells you quite a bit about the way they interpret the world. Psychologists would refer to this as the persons ”explanatory style”.
The (Surprising) Benefits of Optimism
So, why is this important? Well first off, even though there’s nothing inherently ”wrong” with having a pessimistic explanatory style, people with a positive outlook tend to enjoy life more. But that’s not all there’s to it. Researchers have found that optimists enjoy added benefits like:
- Better Health – In a study of 99 Harvard students it was found that those who were optimists at 25 were significantly healthier at ages 45 and 60 compared to those who were pessimists. Another study of clinically depressed patients found that 12 weeks of cognitive therapy (involving reframing the patients thought processes) worked better than drugs as changes were more long-lasting than a temporary fix. Further studies have also linked a pessimistic explanatory style with higher rates of infectious disease.
- Better Cholesterol – A study of 990 male and female participants between the ages of 40 and 70 years old showed that the people with more optimistic dispositions had better levels of good cholesterol, more often kept a sensible diet and had a lower body mass index.
- Greater Achievement – When the grand daddy of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, was analyzing the explanatory styles of sports teams he found that optimistic teams created a greater synergy and as a result performed better than the pessimistic teams. Another study showed that pessimistic swimmers who were lead to believe they’d done worse then they actually had were more likely to perform worse in future performances. Optimistic swimmers were not affected in this negative way.
- Persistence – Optimists don’t give up as easily as pessimists do and are more likely to succeed because of it. There are countless examples of business people who have persisted through disheartening failures over and over again only to keep on going and turning their failures into millions. One prime example is Donald Trump who’s filed for bankruptcy several times.
- Less Stress – Because optimists believe in themselves and their abilities they expect good things to happen. Their way of viewing negative experiences as minor setbacks and positive events as evidence of further good things to come results in decreased stress levels. Research also shows that optimists are more proactive in their own stress management.
- Longer Life – Last but not least, several studies have shown that optimistic people actually live longer. In the Nun Study, one of the most dynamic and powerful studies on the impact of optimism in the history of positive psychology, Danner and colleagues from the University of Kentucky analyzed the self-written autobiographies of 180 Catholic nuns and scored them for emotional content. They found that positive emotional content in these early-life autobiographies was strongly associated with longevity 6 decades later. Other studies have shown that optimistic breast cancer patients had better health outcomes than pessimistic and hopeless ones.
How to Be Positive
So how can you shift your own explanatory style to reap all of these awesome benefits? First off, you need to realize that (as always) there are no magic shortcuts to sustainable change but if you are ready to make some small shifts in your habits and behaviors a more positive mindset is clearly achievable. Here are six science-based ways to do this:
1. Exercise – This is the number one way to quickly change your emotional state. I know of no better way to completely get rid of disempowering feelings than to get out and get moving. If you work out a lot you can most likely back me up on this. The reason we feel so much better during and after exercise is that the brain releases a type of neurotransmitters called monoamines (specifically serotonin, dopamine and norepinepherine) that have positive effect on our mood.
On top of that, a study conducted by Bjornebekk and colleagues showed that the antidepressant effect of running are also associated with more cell growth in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory.
Action: If you’re not physically active, see what adjustments you can make in your daily routine to get moving more. Don’t overwhelm yourself if you’re just starting out. A daily walk around the block is just fine. The important thing is to get started on your behavioral change and then go from there. If taking walks is boring to you, find ways to make them more pleasurable. Perhaps listening to your favorite music, podcasts, audio books or bringing a friend can do the trick. Get creative!
2. Change Your Physiology – We all know that if we’re feeling down our body language will adapt to our feelings and result in a disempowered posture. But did you know that it works the other way around to? Studies like this one by Strack and colleagues have shown that holding a pen in your mouth, ”forcing” the same muscles you use when smiling to get to work, actually affects your emotional response and make you feel happier.
Another great example of how our physiology affects our mood is the work of Cuddy and colleagues. Their study showed that merely 2 minutes of ”power posing” (deliberately expressing a dominant posture) substantially decreased the stress hormon cortisol and raised the dominance hormone testosterone in their participants.
Action: Make power posing a part of your morning routine. This doesn’t have to take up any extra time at all if you don’t want it to, you can power pose in the shower or at the breakfast table if you want to. If you’re getting ready for some sort of performance, reduce your anxiety and raise your confidence by power posing a couple of minutes before. Also become aware of and adjust your habitual posture as you stand and walk. Hold your head up, straighten out your back and take up space. Use the body language of a proud and confident person and you’ll become one!
3. Change Your Language – The way we habitually express ourselves through our words has a huge impact on our mindset and our emotional reactions. Have you ever talked to someone about a situation in which you felt you were mistreated and found yourself getting increasingly more upset the more you described the ignorance of the other person? This is the power of words in action.
Words can literally change our brains according to researchers Newberg and Waldman. Positive words like ”peace” and ”love” can alter the expression of genes, strengthening areas in our frontal lobes and promoting cognitive functioning. Hostile words on the other hand can disrupt specific genes that play a key part in producing neurochemicals that protect us from stress. A single negative word can increase activity in the amygdala (the fear center of the brain) and release dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters.
Action: Transform your vocabulary. Catch yourself using negative words and tone them down. Instead of saying I HATE my boss, maybe say I disagree with my boss. Instead of saying you’re depressed, perhaps say you’re a bit down. Conversely, do the opposite with your positive words. Increase the magnitude of your positive feelings by deliberately describing your positive experiences with bigger words. This is not about distorting the truth but rather to be careful about what meaning you attach to what happens around you and how that in turn makes you feel.
4. Surround Yourself With Optimistic People – Human beings are social creatures and as such it’s important for us to find common ground in order to get along. As we’re introduced to a new social group we all go through a process of conformation, not necessarily because we believe or agree with what the other are saying or doing, but in order to be accepted and liked. This is necessary because the group needs to be in some kind of agreement as far as rules, morals and behavior to avoid issues among its members.
Salomon Asch showed how susceptible we are to this process in his classic conformity experiment where the participant gave an answer they knew was wrong only because everyone else in the group was giving that same incorrect answer. We are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. Who are you conforming to? Who’s beliefs are you adapting to and reinforcing everyday even though you feel like it’s not right?
Action: Clean up your relationships. Identify the energy vampires in your life. How can you reduce the time you spend with these kinds of people and make room for more positive relationships? Maybe you need to drop someone completely from your life. Also ask yourself where the kind of people you want to surround yourself with hang out and go meet them.
5. Be Mindful – In order to be optimistic, we need to stop our habitual way of mindlessly moving from one task to the next without appreciating what’s going on around us. The practice of becoming more present in the moment is so powerful that it actually makes physical changes in the brain structure.
In one experiment the participants showed an increased grey-matter density in areas of the brain responsible for learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion and introspection after taking part in an 8 week mindfulness program.
Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Ellen Langer, suggests that mindfulness makes us more optimistic because we are open and attentive to possibilities. Research by Weinstein and colleagues also suggests a relationship between mindfulness and optimism.
Action: Start a meditation routine. Simply get comfortable and focus on nothing but your breath for a minute or two. If you’ve never tried it before it’s going to be uncomfortable at first. Know that this is just your mind protesting being cut off from the endless stream of stimuli it’s used to. If you’d prefer guided meditation calm.com is a great resource.
6. Practice Gratitude – Research by Emmons and McCullough showed that by writing down three new things that they were grateful for each day, the participants brains started to retain the pattern of scanning the world for the positive, rather than the negative, first.
When Martin Seligman assigned 411 people the task of writing and personally delivering a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness, the participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in their happiness scores. The benefits of this exercise lasted for a month.
Action: Get a journal and start counting your blessings each night. Write down at least three new things that you’re grateful for. Also, make sure to properly thank people. Put the practice of emailing and thanking one person every day and watch your happiness levels skyrocket and relationships improve as your unexpecting friends replies start flooding your inbox.
I have two things to ask of you:
- If you enjoyed this article, please email it to a friend who could benefit from it.
- How do you stay positive in life? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!