“To see things in their true proportion, to escape the magnifying influence of a morbid imagination, should be one of the chief aims of life.”
— The Map of Life, William Edward Hartpole Lecky
I subscribe to daily quotes generated by The Happiness Project and this quote by Lecky landed in my inbox today. I thought this was a funny coincidence because I’ve been spending some time exploring my own psyche and my sometimes undeniable tendency to drift over to the side of pessimism particularly when I’m extremely short on sleep which happens to be the case this week.
Are you an optimist, pessimist or somewhere in the middle? I put myself somewhere in the middle. I’m not a Pollyanna nor am I Woody Allen, the comedic pessimist known for the famous quote, “ More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
Now that’s pessimism.
Our outlook on life in large part is due to genetics. But, negative thinking can also be a habit that with practice we can change. When it comes to longevity, better health and an improved sense of well being, making the choice to walk on the sunny side of the street will pay off.
People that are optimist are inclined to anticipate the best possible outcome and to believe that we live in the best world possible. Because of their positive outlook, optimists tend to be more resilient to stress, have more appropriate coping skills, and are more likely to practice a healthy lifestyle.
One study that followed a sample of males and females between the ages of 65 and 80 found that optimism was correlated with health behaviors such as not smoking, moderate consumption of alcohol, and engaging in regular physical activity.
Another study examined 545 males between the ages of 64-84 for fifteen years. The results showed a direct correlation between dispositional optimism and death for cardiovascular diseases with a reduction of 50% of the risk of cardio-vascular death in the optimistic individuals.
Yet another study looked at 100,000 women and found that pessimists had higher blood pressure and cholesterol, while their optimistic counterparts exercised more and were leaner. Lead researcher Dr. Hilary Tinkle, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsbugh said, “The majority of evidence suggests that sustained, high degrees of negativity are hazardous to health.”
In some cases, however, optimism can reduce an individual’s perception of reality leading them to participate in risky behaviors such as smoking. These unrealistic optimists tend to have an “it won’t happen to me” attitude that can back fire on them.
But overall, those of us that tend to see the world in a positive light have a better quality of life, are better able to adapt to an ever-changing environment, and are able to develop coping strategies to eliminate and manage stress. Plus, optimists are more successful in changing habits and behaviors simply because they believe they can.
Bad Habits of Negative Thinkers
Pessimists may not even recognize that they spend most of their time engaged in negative thinking patterns. Some signs that you may sabotaging yourself with negative self talk are:
- You magnify the negative aspects of situations and filter out anything positive that happened.
- You personalize bad situations and blame yourself for anything that goes wrong even if what happened is well beyond your control.
- You anticipate a catastrophe. As soon as you’re out of the bed in the morning you begin to imagine everything that bad that could happen to you.
- You see everything in black and white. To you a situation is either all positive or all negative when in fact most situations are a mix of both.
Even if you have a tendency to polarize, magnify, personalize and catastrophize, with a little brain training you can develop a more optimistic disposition.
Train Your Brain
Recognizing that you practice negative self talk is the first step to optimism. Deciding you want to change your thought patterns is the second and there are a number strategies that you can use to develop a habit of positive thinking.
Here are a seven strategies to get your started:
- Positive affirmations – Subscribe to daily affirmations through a web site like Everyday Affirmations.org. It only takes a couple of minutes to open the affirmation, read it and think about it. Do it first thing in the morning and set the tone for a positive day.
- Practice gratitude – People that express gratitude are happier and healthier. Keep a gratitude journal and write down one thing that you are grateful for each day. At the end of the week review what you’ve written. To read more about the impact gratitude can have on your health, click here.
- Positive self talk – Do you spend your day engaged in repetitive negative thoughts and self-criticism? This can be detrimental to your health and is worth changing. Begin by catching yourself when the negative cycle starts and cut it off. Replace the negative thoughts with ones that are hopeful and optimistic.
- Get Plenty of Sleep – Studies show that people that don’t get enough sleep are prone to negative thinking and depression. If you’re short on sleep, practicing positive affirmations, and engaging in positive self talk will be even more difficult. Try and get at least seven hours (although eight is ideal) of sleep each night.
- Exercise – Physical activity gets our mind off of our problems, and the endorphins that are released when we exercise are natural mood enhancers. When you work hard enough to get your heart rate up you’ll feel more energetic and find that you are more in control of your life.
- Optimize Your Levels of Vitamin D – Make sure you are getting adequate amounts of Vitamin D through natural sunlight or supplementation. People that are D deficient tend to have a lower immune response to common viruses and stress and can feel tired, achy and depressed. If you suspect you might be deficient in the sunshine vitamin, ask your doctor for a simple blood test.
- Laugh – There’s a reason the boxed DVD sets of comedies like Friends, The Office, and Everybody Loves Raymond are so popular. They are good to have on hand on days when you can’t see anything funny about the world. Watch one of your favorites for an instant attitude adjustment.
Developing a sunny outlook may take some time if you don’t have a natural pre-disposition towards optimism but acquiring the habit of positivity is critical to both your physical and mental health. Your life will be more enjoyable and you’ll be better able to handle the everyday stressors which contribute to the health benefits of being an optimist.
Over To You
Are you a pessimist? Optimist? Somewhere in the middle? What’s your secret to staying upbeat even when things don’t go as planned?
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