Learning to Be An Optimist

You may naturally be pessimistic, but with practice, you can learn to be more optimistic.

Optimism is an attitude based on the belief that an outcome will be good. The word comes from the Latin word, Optimist and pessimist and optimismoptimum, which means best. An optimist expects the best possible outcome from any given situation. Pessimism is the general belief that an outcome will be bad. The pessimist tends to expect the worst outcome in any situation. Its Latin root is pessim, which means bad. We’ve all known optimists and pessimists, and optimists are definitely more pleasant to be around.

There are many advantages to being optimistic. Optimists respond better to stress. Research shows that optimists have lower levels of Cortisol (a stress hormone), and are better able to regulate that hormone when faced with stressful events. Other research has shown that optimists have a lower chance of developing cardiovascular disease, stroke and depression. Optimists even seem to recover more quickly from surgery.

Of course, it just makes sense that optimists will tend to be happier and more contented. They see any situation as more hopeful, thus improving motivation and effort. Other factors being equal, optimists tend to be more successful.

There are three key differences between optimistic and pessimistic thinking. They are:

Permanence: Optimistic people tend to see bad events as temporary, and good events as more permanent. They expect that they will bounce back more quickly after a failure. Optimists attribute negative events to specific, temporary causes, while viewing positive events as due to more permanent causes.

Pervasiveness: Pessimistic people see failure in one area of life as a failure in life as a whole. They overgeneralize the negative aspects of their lives, while perceiving positive events as exceptions to the rule or flukes. On the other hand, optimistic people see the negative events of life as the exception to the rule.

Personalization: Optimists blame outside causes for negative events, while perceiving positive events as the result of their hard work or abilities. Pessimists blame themselves for any negative events they experience, and discount their contributions to positive outcomes.

In his book, “Learned Optimism,” Martin Seligman, Ph.D. argued that we can become more optimistic by changing our thinking. His method involves (a) understanding our pessimistic reactions and interpretations to negative events, (b) generating counter-evidence to our negative beliefs or interpretations, (c) catching and stopping our pessimistic thoughts, and (d) reminding ourselves of the benefits of positive expectations. These steps have to be practiced repeatedly over time to be successful.

A complete change from pessimism to optimism would be pretty difficult. But, with deliberate effort, you might be able to improve your thinking enough to make a difference. Try to expect a positive outcome. You just might get it.

The Power of an Attitude of Gratitude

A thankful heart gives us hope, connection and resilience. It's good for the soul!

 

Happy Thanksgiving! This day, we remember our many blessings. My hope is that you will live in an attitude of gratitude is good for mental health and self-esteemgratitude every day of the year. Even in our difficult days, we have much to be thankful for. Today, I have posted a previous article about the power of an attitude of gratitude. Hope you enjoy it.

Once more, scientific research has confirmed something that our parents and grandparents already knew; that counting our blessings, or an attitude of gratitude, will make us happier. In fact, practicing this one habit seems to improve our sense of emotional wellbeing more than any other behavior.

In the mid-1990’s, a branch of psychology began to emerge, called “Positive Psychology”. Rather than focusing on emotional illness or difficulties, this group turned their research toward increasing understanding of the factors that made some people exceptionally positive or mentally healthy.

We’ve all known some individuals who seem to handle life’s difficulties with exceptional grace, and just appear more happy, joyful or satisfied. They clearly experience their share of life’s up’s and down’s, but do with more peace and hope than most. The researchers in Positive Psychology studied such individuals to identify those traits, attitudes or habits they shared that allowed them to do this.

First, let’s look at the factors that did not predict happiness. The researchers found that material wealth or standard of living had very little to do with happiness. While the United States has the highest financial standard of living, we are clearly not the happiest people. Many people who have much less than us report that they are much happier.

The research also found that negative life events did not necessarily lower a person’s level of happiness on a long-term basis. Of course, one’s happiness does go down immediately after experiencing a negative life event, but the research found that the person’s level of happiness usually returns to their pre-event level within two years. This was even true when the negative event was extreme, such as spinal cord injury resulting in permanent paralysis. Interestingly, the same was true for positive life events. Immediately after the event, the person’s level of happiness did go up, but usually returned to their pre-event level within about two years.

The studies did find, however, that exceptionally positive people all share an attitude of gratitude. They report that they pay attention to the blessings in their lives. Most of them consciously and deliberately cultivate this feeling of thanksgiving in each day. Most report that, with practice, the attitude becomes more natural and automatic.

We can all learn to be more grateful. Make the decision to cultivate an attitude of gratitude starting today. Count your blessings. Write them down. Before your feet hit the floor each morning, make yourself think of five things you have to be thankful for. Thank those you love. Thank them for the things they do for you, but more, thank them for loving you and sharing your life. Look for opportunities to be thankful today. You just might find yourself feeling happier!

Making Yourself Happy

You have more control over your mood than you think.

Most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be.

                                                                       Abraham Lincoln

 

How happy are you today? How happy are you most days? Do you tend to go through your days with a sense of well-being or joy, or do you tend to move from one problem to another in your mind?Abraham_Lincoln

 

Research, and common sense, suggest that we have more influence over our happiness than we think. We can increase our feelings of happiness if we are deliberate about it. Most of the time, we can improve our mood if we make the effort.

 

Now, I want to be clear that I’m not referring to clinical depression here. The disease of depression is a physical and mental disorder, which requires treatment. You can’t just snap out of depression. Even in depression, however, you can sometimes improve your mood, with effort. You can’t just decide to make it go away.

 

I’m referring to our day-to-day moods when depression is not a factor. In these situations, we can shift our mood if we try.  We don’t have perfect control over our mood, but we do have more control than we think.

 

Have you ever noticed that your mood one day might be pretty positive, and another day be down and out. Did you notice that your life situation might have been exactly the same on both days? It wasn’t your circumstances that determined your mood, it was your thinking, your perspective or your outlook. One day you thought negatively about yourself or your life, and the other day your thoughts were more positive.

 

So let’s imagine that you listened to the quote from Abraham Lincoln above, and made up your mind to be happy today. You determined this morning to make it a good day. How would you do it? What thoughts would you generate? What thoughts would you avoid? What would you want to notice or focus on?

 

Most likely, you already know the answers to these questions. You would want to deliberately notice or focus on the positive aspects of your life. You would try to avoid obsessing about your problems. You would remind yourself of the things you have to be thankful for. You would make efforts to cheer others up, or make them feel better. You would look for humor. You would get engaged in life activities. You would take the time to notice the beauty of nature. You would remind yourself of the positive traits of those around you, rather than their deficits. You would take the time to do something nice for yourself, or give yourself a little treat, without guilt. You would try to smile more.

 

The problem is not that we don’t know what to do. We just forget to do it. We focus our attention on the negative circumstances in our lives and believe strongly that we can’t feel better as long as those circumstances exist. We believe that we have no choice. We exclaim, “How could I possibly be happier in this situation?”

 

You may be right. Some circumstances are so negative that they do dictate your mood. But most are not.  Everyone has negative and positive circumstances in their lives. If you’re waiting for all your negative circumstances to disappear before you can experience happiness, you will be waiting a long time.

 

What would it take for you to improve your happiness level just one or two notches? Why not give it a try. Be deliberate today about improving your mood. Make up your mind to feel better today. See if Lincoln was on to something.

Comments: What techniques have you found to be helpful in improving your mood?

 

 

The Power of an Attitude of Gratitude

thanksgiving_photoOnce more, scientific research has confirmed something that our parents and grandparents already knew; that counting our blessings will make us happier. In fact, practicing this one habit seems to improve our sense of emotional wellbeing more than any other behavior.

In the mid-1990’s, a branch of psychology began to emerge, called “Positive Psychology”. Rather than focusing on emotional illness or difficulties, this group turned their research toward increasing understanding of the factors that made some people exceptionally positive or mentally healthy.

We’ve all known some individuals who seem to handle life’s difficulties with exceptional grace, and just appear more happy, joyful or satisfied. They clearly experience their share of life’s up’s and down’s, but do with more peace and hope than most. The researchers in Positive Psychology studied such individuals to identify those traits, attitudes or habits they shared that allowed them to do this.

First, let’s look at the factors that did not predict happiness. The researchers found that material wealth or standard of living had very little to do with happiness. While the United States has the highest financial standard of living, we are clearly not the happiest people. Many people who have much less than us report that they are much happier.

The research also found that negative life events did not necessarily lower a person’s level of happiness on a long-term basis. Of course, one’s happiness does go down immediately after experiencing a negative life event, but the research found that the person’s level of happiness usually returns to their pre-event level within two years. This was even true when the negative event was extreme, such as spinal cord injury resulting in permanent paralysis. Interestingly, the same was true for positive life events. Immediately after the event, the person’s level of happiness did go up, but usually returned to their pre-event level within about two years.

The studies did find, however, that exceptionally positive people all share an attitude of gratitude. They report that they pay attention to the blessings in their lives. Most of them consciously and deliberately cultivate this feeling of thanksgiving in each day. Most report that, with practice, the attitude becomes more natural and automatic.

We can all learn to be more grateful. Make the decision to cultivate an attitude of gratitude starting today. Count your blessings. Write them down. Before your feet hit the floor each morning, make yourself think of five things you have to be thankful for. Thank those you love. Thank them for the things they do for you, but more, thank them for loving you and sharing your life. Look for opportunities to be thankful today. You just might find yourself feeling happier!

Your Do-It-Yourself Guide to Fighting Depression- Part 2

In the last post, we looked at depression as being similar to a mean, ugly, parasitic troll, which had gotten your body andtroll_2 mind. This destructive troll wants to grow stronger, so it makes you do the very things that feed it. Unfortunately, as it grows stronger, you grow weaker. Such is the course with all parasites.

This troll makes you feel fatigued, weak, heavy, and drained so you decrease your physical activity. When you’re depressed, you just want to sit, or worse, stay in bed. You almost yearn to be still and move as little as possible.

The depression troll makes you decrease your physical activity because this worsens the depression. To fight the depression you must make yourself do as much physical activity as possible. While this can be difficult, and seem impossible, you can do little bits of activity at a time. Then you can gradually increase the amount of activity.

Today, will cover the second do-it-yourself tool to fight depression. While the depression troll works to make you decrease your physical activity, he also works to make you decrease your social activity. He makes you want to withdraw from others. He makes you isolate yourself.

The depression makes you uncomfortable being around other people. You feel that you don’t fit in. You imagine that they are thinking negative things about you. You perceive that they are judging you. You feel more comfortable when you are alone.

Even when you are around others, you don’t talk as much or share as much. You feel a distance, even when others are in the same room as you. You feel disconnected. You may perceive that others are backing away from you, but it’s more likely that they are simply responding to your distance.

Your do-it-yourself tool is to make yourself do the opposite of what the depression troll makes you want to do. You approach others. You identify those in your life that have been the most supportive and positive toward you, and you approach them. You call them on the phone. You write an email. You invite them to lunch or a Saturday shopping trip. You make yourself spend time with others.

Then you try to make yourself connect. You make yourself talk, even when you don’t feel like it. You make yourself talk, even when you don’t think you have anything to say. You force yourself to make and maintain eye contact. You connect.

This will be uncomfortable at first. Every fiber of your being will want to run away, find an excuse to withdraw and go back to bed. That’s normal. Connect anyway.

Even if you don’t enjoy this increase in social contact, it helps significantly in fighting the depression. It starves that parasitic depression troll, until he just decides to leave you. I don’t know why it works, despite the fact that you don’t enjoy it, but it does work.

Do it now. Call that old friend or family member. Send a re-connection email. Just come out of your room and spend time with your family. Look them in the eye. Smile. You’re not alone.

Question: What do you feel contributes most to the depressed person’s tendency to withdraw, even from those who love them?

Life’s Roller Coasters

roller_coasterRoller coasters are fun because we know we will get off soon. We can thrill to the ups and downs and unexpected curves because of the flat part at the end, where we slow down, stop, raise the bar, and get off. The experience is pleasurable because we know that it is temporary.

Life sometimes feels like a roller coaster, with its own ups and downs and unexpected curves. Unfortunately, we often can’t see the flat part at the end where we slow down and return to normalcy. We imagine that our present chaotic ride will go on forever. We dread the next fall and anxiously await the next unexpected turn.

It does seem that negative life events often come in clusters. Just when we’re recovering from a jab in life, we’re struck with a right hook, and we find ourselves reeling and unsteady. Our only goal is to stay on our feet, or to put one foot in front of the other.

When you find yourself in the middle of a cluster of negative life events, you have to hang on tighter and realize that you’re not alone.  When life is unstable, we need to lean on others for assistance, advice, support or just their presence.

We also have to recall past negative clusters and remember that they eventually ended and that we survived. There is a lot of wisdom in the phrase, “This too shall pass.”

Most importantly, remember that the roller coaster had a creator, who knew each twist and turn long before you purchased your ticket. Trust that creator to bring you home to the flat part, where you can slow down, step onto stable ground and breathe a sigh of relief.

 

Question: When you’ve experienced the ups and downs of life, what steps have you taken to hold on and stay the course?

 

The Power Of A Smile

MP900262698We often underestimate the power of a smile. It’s so simple and common that we tend to ignore its power, but research evidence suggests that a smile can boost mental and physical health and increase success in relationships and work.

Researchers distinguish between the Duchenne and the non-Duchenne smile, named after the French neurologist, Duchenne de Boulogne who first identified them. The Duchenne smile is genuine, sincere and wholehearted. This smile involves the whole face, particularly the eye muscles. The non-Duchenne smile is more fake, perhaps given as a polite gesture, and just involves the mouth. The Duchenne smile is the one that provides the most benefit.

Some studies suggest that frequent Duchenne smiles are associated with longer life-span. We know that when we smile, our bodies release endorphins, the comfort or feel-good hormones. We also know that frequent smiles tend to lower blood pressure and boost our immune system, making us more resistant to illness.

The physical benefits of a smile are significant, but are far outweighed by the social/ relationship effects. One study suggested that people who smile frequently tend to have lower divorce rates in later life. We communicate and connect through smiles. We encourage others and bond with them.

Many years ago, a retired college professor shared this story. She said that she was in her office the day before that year’s graduation. A young black woman entered her office and said she was graduating the next day and wanted to thank her. The professor didn’t recognize the woman and asked if she had taken her classes, to which the woman replied that she had not. The woman explained that, four years earlier, she had been one of the first black students at the college. She said that, during her freshman year, many there had made her feel unwelcome, and that she was considering dropping out. She said that she passed this professor in the hall on a regular basis, and that the professor often smiled as they passed. The student noted that the professor’s smile made her feel she wanted her to be there. The student reasoned that if one person wanted her there, perhaps there were others. She began to look for, and find, others who welcomed her as a student. She stayed at the college and was graduating the next day, so she wanted to thank the professor for helping her finish.

We never know the power of a small gesture, a smile. You will feel better, and you never know who else you might touch.

 

Question: Do you have an experience where a smile made a difference? Please share it.

The Power of an Attitude of Gratitude

thanksgiving_photoOnce more, scientific research has confirmed something that our parents and grandparents already knew; that counting our blessings will make us happier. In fact, practicing this one habit seems to improve our sense of emotional wellbeing more than any other behavior.

In the mid-1990’s, a branch of psychology began to emerge, called “Positive Psychology”. Rather than focusing on emotional illness or difficulties, this group turned their research toward increasing understanding of the factors that made some people exceptionally positive or mentally healthy.

We’ve all known some individuals who seem to handle life’s difficulties with exceptional grace, and just appear more happy, joyful or satisfied. They clearly experience their share of life’s up’s and down’s, but do with more peace and hope than most. The researchers in Positive Psychology studied such individuals to identify those traits, attitudes or habits they shared that allowed them to do this.

First, let’s look at the factors that did not predict happiness. The researchers found that material wealth or standard of living had very little to do with happiness. While the United States has the highest financial standard of living, we are clearly not the happiest people. Many people who have much less than us report that they are much happier.

The research also found that negative life events did not necessarily lower a person’s level of happiness on a long-term basis. Of course, one’s happiness does go down immediately after experiencing a negative life event, but the research found that the person’s level of happiness usually returns to their pre-event level within two years. This was even true when the negative event was extreme, such as spinal cord injury resulting in permanent paralysis. Interestingly, the same was true for positive life events. Immediately after the event, the person’s level of happiness did go up, but usually returned to their pre-event level within about two years.

The studies did find, however, that exceptionally positive people all share an attitude of gratitude. They report that they pay attention to the blessings in their lives. Most of them consciously and deliberately cultivate this feeling of thanksgiving in each day. Most report that, with practice, the attitude becomes more natural and automatic.

We can all learn to be more grateful. Make the decision to cultivate an attitude of gratitude starting today. Count your blessings. Write them down. Before your feet hit the floor each morning, make yourself think of five things you have to be thankful for. Thank those you love. Thank them for the things they do for you, but more, thank them for loving you and sharing your life. Look for opportunities to be thankful today. You just might find yourself feeling happier!

Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?

MP900305720A pessimist is someone who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is someone who makes opportunities of his difficulties.

Harry Truman

                                                                                                                    

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? An optimist tends to see the positive possibilities in every situation. A pessimist tends to see the negative possibilities. Optimists expect good things to happen, while pessimists expect negative outcomes. One sees the glass half full, while the other sees the glass half empty. While lengthy, I have included one of my favorite jokes, that illustrates the concept.

Once there was a woman who had two sons. One was an extreme pessimist, while the other was an extreme optimist. They were both so extreme that they drove her up a wall. She went to her pastor for some suggestions on how she could temper their optimism and pessimism. He said he thought he could help. Christmas was approaching. He suggested that she make her pessimistic son’s Santa presents the best ever. He said she should go over the top to get him everything she could think of that he might want. He suggested that such a fabulous Christmas morning might break him of his extreme pessimism. The mother said it would be expensive, but that it would be worth it. 

She then asked him what she should do about her overly optimistic son. The pastor noted that the family owned a farm, to which she agreed. He said she should take a cardboard box out to the barn. She should fill it with manure. She was instructed to tape it shut, wrap it in wrapping paper and put a bow on top. He suggested that if her optimistic son received only a box of manure on Christmas morning, it might break him of his extreme optimism. The mother agreed.

Christmas morning came. The mother watched as the boys came down stairs to see their presents. The pessimistic son went to his side of the tree. He found many wonderful presents, including a bicycle, a skateboard and roller skates. He just stood and stared at it all. Then he started to cry.

He sobbed, “Mama, why does Santa hate me so much?”

His mother asked him what he meant.

He said, “Santa must hate me, because he wants me to die. He gave me a bicycle so I would break my neck. If that doesn’t kill me, he gave me a skateboard. And if that doesn’t do the job, he gave me roller skates, just to make sure. Mama, this is the worst Christmas ever!”

The mother sighed, “Well, that didn’t work”.

She went over to the optimistic son’s side of the tree. He had opened the wrapped box, and was digging in the manure. She asked him what he thought about his Christmas.

He replied excitedly, “Mama, I’m not sure, but I think there’s a pony in here somewhere!”

 

Research suggests that traits of optimism or pessimism may sometimes be inherited, but the results aren’t clear on this point. We do know that such thinking patterns can be learned, and that they are habitual.

This week, notice whether you tend to be an optimist or a pessimist. Unlike the joke, there’s nothing wrong with being an optimist, as long as you recognize reality, but being a pessimist can surely hurt you. If you notice yourself having pessimistic tendencies, consciously look for the positive things in your day and in your life (i.e. count your blessings). Make a gratitude list. Deliberately paying attention to the positive parts of our lives can gradually diminish those pessimistic tendencies.

Question: What techniques have you found helpful in becoming a more positive person?