8 ways to be more optimistic and why it benefits your health

Adopting an optimistic outlook may seem difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s how to be more optimistic, even if you’re naturally negative.

What does it mean to be optimistic?

You’ve heard it all before: optimists see the glass as half full, while pessimists see it as half empty. But what you may not know is that seeing the world through rose-colored glasses can improve your health.

Of course, just because an optimistic outlook is good for you doesn’t mean it’s easy. It can be difficult to maintain a positive outlook, especially if your natural inclination is toward gloom and doom.

Fortunately, there are ways to become more optimistic. (Yes, even in bad times.)

Here’s how to look on the bright side, even if you see storm clouds on the horizon.

(Learn more about the science and benefits of being happy.)

Optimism 101

Optimists don’t walk around and see rainbows and puppy dogs everywhere. Instead, people with optimistic outlooks have hope and confidence in success and a positive future. (On the other hand, pessimists tend to put a negative spin on situations.)

The brain plays a major role in this. Studies show that positive moods are associated with more activity in the left hemisphere. Negative moods, such as feeling depressed or experiencing anger or rejection, are more associated with right hemisphere activity, as researchers found in a 2018 study published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

There’s a good chance your brain is ready for positive or negative thinking, says psychologist Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin and a research expert on the brain’s frontal lobe and emotions. In fact, Davidson’s early research found that only 15 percent of people have no inclination in some way.

But while genetics plays a part in your outlook, it’s not the only thing that defines who you are. Life experience, especially if it relates to the family environment of your childhood, so does.

Are you an optimist?

You are optimistic or not, right? Not exactly. Scientists believe that optimism and pessimism fall on a spectrum.

Psychologists call this dispositional optimism. It is the degree to which you believe that positive outcomes will occur in the future, for yourself, for others you know and for the world at large.

Optimism can also vary to some degree depending on the subject and context. In general, optimists have some common traits. You could be an optimist if:

  • You expect everything to be okay.
  • You don’t let one bad experience ruin your expectations for the future.
  • You feel gratitude for the good things in your life.
  • You see challenges and obstacles as an opportunity to learn.
  • You think good things can come from negative events.
  • You are always looking for ways to take advantage of opportunities.

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The benefits of optimism

A rosy outlook on life offers another reason to smile: it can benefit your health. Research says that optimists:

In addition, optimists know more about their health and how to be healthy. A study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that optimistic people knew more about how and why heart attacks occur and general health problems for their specific age group compared to those with a more pessimistic view.

8 ways to be more optimistic

If you’re a natural pessimist, you may think you’re out of luck. You don’t benefit from the health effects of optimism in any way, do you?

It’s true that you may not be reaping the benefits of positive thinking just yet, but look on the bright side: you can change that. There are specific actions you can take to take your optimism to the next level.

Try mindfulness techniques

You may have heard the right-brain, left-hemisphere theory of thought: Essentially, the idea is that right-brained people are drawn to creative areas like the arts, while left-hemisphere thinkers lean towards more analytic areas like math.

While there’s no evidence that your nature or personality is focused on one side or the other of the mind, research has shown that creative types are more likely to be pessimistic or negative.

If you tend to fall into the creative category, don’t worry. In his research, Davidson found that the brain can be rewired by consciously changing our thoughts using mindfulness techniques. This can lead to a significant change in the way we respond to experiences.

Redefine optimism

Kimberly Hershenson, a licensed clinical social worker, warns against the tendency to associate optimism with happiness. Don’t assume that to be optimistic you have to completely deny life’s challenges. While happiness can lead to optimism and make it easier to have an optimistic outlook, the two are completely different.

Having an optimistic outlook does not mean that you always have an abundance of joy or that everything is going well in your life. Instead, it is a belief in positive results, even in the face of trials and tribulations.

Focus on what you can control

It can be tempting to think about the past – what could or should have been. Equally tempting is worrying about an uncertain future. None of these actions will help you take an optimistic perspective.

Psychologists recommend staying in the moment. This makes it easier for you to stay focused, centered, and more positive, because you are not dealing with unknown facts.

Focus on things you can control now. For example, if you didn’t get a big promotion you wanted, don’t dwell on the negative. See what you can do now to reach your goal.

Take time for yourself

Calm your mind and take time for yourself, even if it’s just for 30 minutes a week. Take a long bath, open a book, go for a run, or watch your favorite show. What you do doesn’t matter as much as how you feel. The goal is to participate in an activity that is relaxing and that you enjoy.

(Need advice? Here’s how to create a self-care plan, according to experts.)

Practice gratitude

Spend more time thinking about the positive aspects of your life than the areas you would like to improve. A gratitude journal can help with that. Try to start your day by writing down three things or people you are grateful for. Think about why these things or people are valuable to you.

(Read more about the health benefits of gratitude.)

Be nice

Practice being kind to others, even in times of stress or when you feel challenged. In many cases, kindness is more beneficial to the giver than to the receiver.

Nip negative thinking in the bud

It is normal for negative thoughts to occur from time to time. Let’s face it: life can get complicated. Most people won’t always walk around like Mary Poppins.

But Davidson says it’s a good idea to challenge negative thoughts. You may be thinking, “I have cancer, so I’m doomed.” Instead, turn that thought around to “Many people with cancer live long, wonderful lives.”

Spend less time with Debbie Downers

Last but certainly not least, make sure you surround yourself with people who tend to think positively. Everyone has a friend or family member who complains about all kinds of things.

Unfortunately, negativity can be contagious, and Aunt Alice’s chronic complaining may very well take its toll on you. You don’t have to completely shut down these chronic complainers. Just make sure you also have a healthy group of people who counteract the negative energy you may be dealing with from time to time.

Then learn the powerful way therapists ward off anxiety and depression.

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