I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our attitude towards life, and how it effects our health and wellbeing. It’s not unusual (and normal) for many of us to be a little pessimistic at times. But I think if we are negative and take a ‘glass half empty’ approach to life for the majority of our time, then it has consequences. At the least it reduces our happiness, at worst it potentially causes ill health.
I watched a few videos recently about elders, and I’ve read a lot about centenarians. (Yes, it’s what I enjoy doing in my spare time!) One of the things that seems common amongst them is optimism. They seem to have a zest and enthusiasm for life. And hope and confidence for the future, despite their age.
Martin Seligman is an American psychologist, known for his body of work related to positive psychology. He has been studying optimists and pessimists for years. His belief (amongst others studying optimism) is that if we develop a sense of optimism early on in life, then it can contribute to our happiness and potentially increase our longevity. It can help us thrive in life. It’s especially important to teach children how to be optimistic. And how to help them reframe negative thoughts. Seligman’s book The Optimistic Child talks all about this and teaches us how.
The benefits of optimism
It helps us feel happy more often
First and foremost, taking this more positive attitude towards life feels nicer. If we look at the negatives around us daily then we aren’t going to feel real good. While it’s important to understand that bad things can happen in our lives and allow ourselves to feel pain, being optimistic helps us get through more easily and better able to cope. And move forward without dwelling and ruminating over it for years to come. Some difficulties are much harder than others, and might require talking with a professional.
It keeps us healthy and potentially increases our longevity
Feeling stressed, which often involves negative and worried thoughts, can potentially have ill effects on our health. I notice it myself with my autoimmune. Symptoms flare in periods of stress. So I know I need to slow down, and be a little kinder towards myself. When we are stressed we are more susceptible to picking up viruses which can take longer to overcome. And potentially develop more serious illness later on in life. When we are more positive towards life, it can keep our stress levels down, and benefit our health.
As mentioned by psychologist Dr. Oakley Ray, from Vanderbilt University:
"There are pathogens that can live in equilibrium with us - like tuberculosis - with only a small percentage developing symptoms and exhibiting illness. Those who don't get sick probably have a well functioning PENI system."
PENI is short for psychoendoneuroimmunology, which is the interaction between the mind and the endocrine, nervous and immune systems.
Our mental thoughts can affect our physical body.
We can achieve greater things and persist for longer
Seligman found in a study of those in sports teams, that the more optimistic teams performed better than the pessimistic ones. If we adopt the attitude that we are going to fail anyway, then chances are we won’t do so well. Also, when we think optimistically, we are more likely to persist for longer when things become challenging. We don’t give up so easily.
So how do we get better at being optimistic?
It can be challenging, especially if over time we have become rather pessimistic in our way of thinking. But it’s possible with ongoing practice.
Reframe our thoughts
Psychologists use a technique called cognitive therapy (which involves reframing a person’s thought process) to help patients think a more rational and healthy thought. We can replace dismal thoughts with more responsible ones. Such as:
I haven’t achieved what I wanted to this past year. It was a terrible year.
It wasn’t the year I thought it would be, but many great things happened unexpectedly that I’m grateful for.
The latter thought is a healthier thought and more likely to help us feel calmer within ourselves.
Focus on solutions, not problems
Rather than focussing on the problem, we can look for one way which might improve the situation. It gives us a sense of hope and moving forward, rather than backwards staying with the problem.
When we are being negative we often overlook all the good we have in our lives. So it can help to sit and think about all those good things - those we love, the roof we have over our head, the fact that we may live in a beautiful surrounding, being able to use our body in sport. Most of us have something to feel grateful for. If we think of those things daily it helps us feel appreciative and look at life more positively.
Accept that which we can’t control or change
There are some things that aren’t so easy to change. A difficulty that perhaps we need to put up with for a while. When we practice acceptance and stop fighting and feeling anger about it, we begin to feel calmer. It can also help us to find something healthy and nurturing that brings joy, in an otherwise difficult time.
Most situations have a positive and negative light.
Practising optimism is taking the positive one. And we practise and practise until eventually our thoughts swing more on the side of optimism rather than pessimism. It becomes more natural to look at the world with hope and confidence. It doesn’t mean navigating life oblivious to adversity and ignoring the problems before us. But rather understanding that while a time is difficult, things can get better.