A recent study published in Psychological Science found that those with more optimistic attitudes had better-functioning immune systems which, in turn, helped them ward off illnesses. Yet far too many of us assume that optimism is an inborn trait bestowed on a lucky few. That's a completely wrong assumption, says James Maddux, a professor of psychology at George Mason University. Can people learn to be optimists? The answer is an indisputable yes, says Maddux. He recommends the following:
Reframe negativity. After recently witnessing a round of layoffs at my office, I felt panicked that I'd soon be facing the loss of my own dream job. Maddux tells me I need to disabuse myself of the notion that there's only one job for me. You may think that if you lose your job you may never find another that's as fulfilling, but that's probably not the case, he says. While I shouldn't deny that my current position might not last forever, I also need to acknowledge that there will probably be other professional opportunities that, after a period of adjustment, could potentially be as challenging and satisfying, he says.
Take action. Pessimists tend to think bad things happen to them because they simply have bad luck or because they don't have what it takes to be successful, says Maddux, when a bad economy or an unfaithful partner could really be the reason for getting laid off or dumped. Maddux recommends aiming for a balance between accepting responsibility for some of the bad circumstances and taking action (i.e., looking for another job or posting an ad on a dating site). Allow yourself to acknowledge those things that were beyond your control.
Pay attention to what makes you feel optimistic. Do you feel more positive when the collective mood is positive? The flowers are bright, the neighbors look happy, the dog's tail is wagging. Try to really tune in to what you're thinking and feeling in the moment, suggests Maddux. If you're feeling good, try to understand what brought you there and how to get there again. You can also try to bank those positive feelings to draw on when you're feeling the darkness creep in-like in the dead of winter when you're shoveling your fifth round of snow. Remind yourself that winter is transient, that in just a short amount of time the flowers will be blooming, says Maddux.
Strive for real conversations. While making small talk is good for fostering social connections, having substantive interactions actually gives people a greater sense of well being, according to a March study from the University of Arizona. As Maddux points out, married couples headed for divorce often find themselves able to talk about only trivial things like TV shows or a termite problem. The goal of couple's therapy is not just to get people talking again but talking about things that really matter.
Do look at that glass as half full. Cultivating optimism is about breaking old thought patterns and establishing new ones, says Maddux. If you're truly looking at a glass that's filled to the halfway mark, why not see it as half full? Choosing to focus on those half-full things might help you to realize that you don't need your cup to runneth over in order to feel optimistic.