For those of us with a pessimistic turn of mind, such optimism may seem to be either out of reach or out of touch with reality-just too darn sunny for words. But it turns out that optimism is one of the keys to living a happy life. For one thing, it helps people bounce back when adversity strikes. It's a core element in remaining hopeful even in the most dire circumstances. It's an essential factor in both perseverance and creativity (when you're in a good mood, you're more creative). And medical research shows that optimists are more likely to recover from heart attacks and the common cold. Most of all, optimism staves off depression. All in all a trait devoutly to be wished for.
But what if you weren't lucky enough to be born with that "optimist" gene? Not to worry. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have been studying optimism for nearly 30 years. It turns out that optimism can be taught. You, too, can learn to turn lemons into lemonade.
"Optimism certainly is a core element in super-resilient people, of whom Reagan was one," says Dr. Karen Reivich, a research associate in Penn's Department of Psychology, where she co-directs a program to study the prevention of depression and promotion of resilience in children. "We know that optimists perceive the world in a certain way. Early on in our study, we broke optimism down into several key thinking styles."
These three thinking styles affect how you interpret events-especially negative events-in your life. While all of us fall along a continuum, find your characteristic tendencies in the following thinking styles:
"Me vs. Not Me": Who's to blame?
When things go wrong, is your tendency to blame yourself or to look outside yourself for the causes of problems? If you blame yourself excessively, you're more likely to be pessimistic. (Caveat: We're talking about unrealistic levels of self-blame that paralyze you from further action, not realistic taking of responsibility.)
"Always vs. Not Always": Is the problem permanent or temporary?
When things go wrong, do you believe the problem will last forever and that you can't change it? Or do you believe that the causes are fleeting, or at least something you have control over? Those who believe that latter are more optimistic.
"Everything vs. Not Everything": Is the damage pervasive or limited?
The "everything" people are pessimists. They believe that a problem will spill into every domain of their life and have consequences throughout their world The "not everything" folks (optimists) are good at localizing the specific adversity and containing it.
Research shows that people with a "me, always, everything" mindset tend to blame themselves when things go wrong, think the problem is completely outside their ability to change, is lasting, and will undermine everything they do. Down for the count.
Learning the Skills of Optimism
We all have an internal radio station, says Dr. Reivich, that plays nothing but "us" 24-7. We're the announcer and we're the listener. But most of what we say about ourselves is at a low volume. The first step to retraining our minds is to turn up the volume.
Get a sheet of paper, make three columns, and write down "Worst-Case Scenario" and "Best-Case Scenario," leaving one column in the middle for "Most Likely Outcome." Write down your biggest fears and then make a list of equally unrealistic best hopes (e.g. "There was a terrible mistake in the brochure, so it was a blessing I didn't send it out. I'll get a raise.") The extreme scenarios are so ridiculous they can jolt you out of your catastrophic thinking. Then you're ready to fill in the space for "Most Likely Outcome" ("My boss will be a little annoyed. I'll have to work this weekend.")
Now go back to sleep.