If you’re someone who is naturally optimistic, amazing. It will help you stay resilient and adapt.
If you’re not, you’re the reason I’m doing this episode. For you, for me, and for anyone who needs help seeing hope.
Normally on my podcast, I ask a question and work through it. Today I’m going to start with the answer.
Yes, there is a way to train your mind to find hope and optimism.XO Conversations Podcast
Covered in this episode:
- How to be more positive and optimistic
- How to think positive when depressed
- Positive thinking exercises
- Examples of positive thinking
The blog post is a review of the topic and information shared. The episode includes interviews and real-life examples (plus it’s a great narrative style podcast episode). Have a listen!
In fact, it’s more important than ever to see hope and positivity in the world.
Just a note about this episode, we do talk about depression. This episode is meant as an information resource only, and not for diagnostic or treatment purposes. If you’re experiencing depression, please talk to your healthcare provider.
For some people, optimism feels a bit far fetched. Bad things happen all the time, especially lately, how can we stay optimistic? And how can we even think positive thoughts when life can have so much pain, and unrest and difficulty?
First let’s talk about what optimism is, and why we need it (actually we need it more than we even realize). Then we’ll get into how to do it.
Optimism vs Positivity
I define optimism as having hope or confidence about the future. And when I talk about positivity, I’m using the word interchangeably here, but I’m referring to it more from a lens of positive psychology. The scientific study of human thoughts, feelings and behaviour – to help build resilience, and strength and wellbeing.
A more optimistic attitude can help us to stay flexible and adapt more easily. I’m not just talking about thinking positive thoughts, although if you missed the previous episode on whether or not affirmations work, you can check that out.
I want to talk about how to actually change your thought patterns. Because we all get discouraged, feel defeated, and have setbacks. The difference is that some people are able to bounce back more quickly, and others struggle harder and for longer.
A key factor in that resilience is optimism. So if positivity and optimism can help us get up faster, go farther, try harder then why wouldn’t we want to learn how to do it?
What is toxic positivity?
I want to pause here and tell you a story. When I was in clinical practice, I met a woman who had experienced a miscarriage. Now I worked with hormones for many years as a Naturopathic Doctor so I met many women who had struggled, because that’s how most of my patients found me. They’d experience something traumatic or difficult with their hormones and then come to me to help them try to have a healthy period or healthy pregnancy.
But this particular woman was different. I remember having a very open and emotional conversation with her in my office, because she didn’t have anyone to talk to. Her friends and family would say things to her like “it happened for a reason” or “you can always try again”. Even her partner told her not to stress because it was not good for her body. Now she told me that these people in her life meant well. But since she hadn’t really shared about her pregnancy yet, not many people knew. And the people who did were trying to cheer her up. Which is nice of them to offer support, and they were trying to be kind. But not letting her open up about her pain, and her experience I thought was detrimental to her healing.
Toxic positivity and Ignoring Difficult Emotions
This is, while unintentional, an everyday example of toxic positivity. The idea that no matter how difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset.
Of course, in this episode we’re talking about the benefits of optimism and positive thinking, BUT we’re not talking about rejecting difficult emotions. We all deal with painful emotions and experiences. Those experiences need to be felt, acknowledged and processed.
So I didn’t want to focus on positivity without at least mentioning the dangers of not addressing difficult emotions. Or trauma or other mental issues for that matter.
Depression and Pessimism
The reason I wanted to cover this topic is because I think so many of us can get caught up in a cycle of fear, or pain or disappointment. And when we do, negative thoughts are plentiful. If we see the world in that way for long enough, and if we perceive things as pessimistic, we run the risk of having more problems, struggling more and falling deeper into negativity.
Eventually, that negativity and pessimism, where we expect bad things for the future, can actually lead to depression.
Pessimistic View Of Life
This is how it goes. You experience some challenge or difficulty, then you think about why it happened. If you typically have pessimistic or negative thoughts, you might start to ruminate about it (which means you have repeated negative thought patterns that loop in your head over and over), you might start to think that this is never going to get better, or that it’s your fault or that since it happened once, it could happen again. The more you think like this, the more you believe it. You almost don’t see any other option.
Then you start to expect bad things happen again and you feel like you can’t control it, you can’t change it and there begins a cycle of thought that is very difficult to get out of.
One that is a hallmark of depression. “There is something wrong with me”, “This will never work out”, “Everything sucks”. In the moment, it might feel true.
In fact, some negative thoughts might even feel helpful. They might make you think twice about taking a big risk, or keep you from making a rash decision, or feel more prepared for something to go wrong.
But the daily cut of negativity and pessimism eventually takes a toll on our brains and on our bodies. And once it turns into depression, it’s hard to see any other perspective.
Now depression of course is multifaceted. There are many different things that can contribute to it, whether biological, physiological, psychological, environmental. Pessimism is just one piece of the bigger puzzle, and it’s likely that pessimism both intensifies depression and actually results from it.
Because for a depressed person, the brain doesn’t see clearly, it doesn’t interpret events in the same way. So depressed people are more likely to see things in a pessimistic way. Just as pessimism or pessimistic people are more likely to have depression.
It’s also harder for a depressed person to change their negative thinking patterns into positive ones. They can do it, it’s just harder and they might need more support in different ways.
But for those of us who may have not quite clinical depression, maybe just sadness or frustration or generalized negativity about the world, maybe we have chronic stress. If we don’t turn our negative thoughts around, it’s very likely that they’ll start eating at our mental health and physical health too.
Can we learn to be more positive and optimistic?
Optimism and pessimism, as measured in research, are significant predictors of health.
Studies show that the most optimistic individuals had an approximately 50% reduced risk of experiencing a heart attack compared to less optimistic people. Optimistic people had higher levels of good cholesterol and lower levels of triglycerides.
Other research showed that optimistic people had a 55% reduced risk of all-cause mortality and a 23% reduced risk of cardiovascular death.
In people who already have heart disease, those who were optimistic were likely to live 15 years longer than those with a pessimistic outlook. In fact, heart patients who were pessimistic about their condition were 30% more likely to die during the study period.
Optimists tend to have better health habits, lower stress levels, and a stronger immune system. Pessimists suffer chronic disease earlier and more severely. Pessimists tend to be more stressed, which impacts cortisol and impacts the stress response. Optimists are generally happier, have few health complaints, have healthier relationships and live longer than average.
It’s also been found, that destructive thoughts damage your telomeres. Telomeres are the protective caps on the ends of the strands of DNA. They shorten over time, with each cell division, eventually the cell stops dividing or dies. It’s like an internal clock.
Pessimism was identified as a toxic thought pattern that shortens your telomeres prematurely.
Studies show that if you’re an optimist, you’re more likely to have more career success, faster and farther than a pessimist. One study showed that sales personnel with an optimistic outlook sold 37% more in their first two years than pessimists.
Pessimists that have little hope for the future were more at risk for depressive and anxiety disorders. And they suffered subsequent impairment of social functioning and quality of life.
Among patients with cancer, optimists had significantly greater survival rates a year after diagnosis when compared to pessimists.
Even if you’re not a full fledged pessimist, negative thinking has been shown to drag down performance in school, at work and in sports.
That’s a long list, if that’s not reason enough to try to learn to be more optimistic, I don’t know what is
It’s not about IF the glass is half full, it’s about WHY
You’ve probably heard about the analogy with the glass of water. You know the one, is the glass half empty or half full? Well stay with me, I have a different take on this.
Whenever we talk about positive thinking or having an optimistic attitude, people tell us to think of the glass as half full. Because when the glass is half full, we appreciate that there is still water to drink as opposed to being upset that half of the water is gone, or that it wasn’t filled to the top.
The amount of water is the same in both cases. So this is just about how we frame our view (like a lens that focuses on one perspective). Do we have a positive frame (seeing what you gain) or a negative frame (seeing what you lose)? It’s true that framing is very important because it can impact your decisions. If you’re concerned about your blood sugar level, you’ll more likely choose a chocolate that is ‘90% sugar-free’ over one that is ‘10% sugar’, even though it’s the same thing.
So when people use this analogy, you likely already know if you think of the glass is half full or half empty, you will already know if you’re generally a more optimistic thinker or a more pessimistic thinker. And if you’re a pessimistic thinker, you probably feel like it’s not easy to just magically switch to become an optimistic thinker. In fact, research shows that when you see something from a loss frame, it’s really hard to change your opinion into a gain frame. You can do it it just takes more effort.
How to think more optimistically
So here’s my different take on this analogy.
So instead of just trying to look at the glass as half full, Have you ever wondered, why is the glass half full or half empty?
Turns out that how we interpret things, why things happen or don’t happen, makes a really big difference. researcher and author Martin Seligman talks about the three P’s of explanatory style, permanence, pervasiveness and personalization.
I want to go through them here in more detail, because I think this is the key to changing our view. And the way we learn to be more positive and optimistic.
It’s one thing to know that we can change our thoughts. It’s another thing to know how.
Negative thinking patterns
Sometimes, negative thinking patterns are developed, at least in part, as a response to what you’ve been through.
Optimistic Thinking Patterns
Let’s first talk about permanence. Permanence is the idea that when something happens, you think it’s never going to change. Or that it will never get better.
Failure and challenges hurt everyone. It’s like a punch in the stomach. You’re at least momentarily impacted. For some people, the hurt goes away more quickly, for others, it takes days or months, even after only small setbacks.
It’s hard to see the positive when you’ve had difficult things happen to you. And I don’t at all want to diminish the extent of those experiences.
What I want to highlight here is that if you don’t believe things will get better, and instead that things are permanent, and more likely that you will essentially give up hope and control over your future.
The way the world has changed over the past few years, a lot of us have found it hard to see a happy future. It sometimes feels like things will never get better. Especially when we are consumed by heartbreaking news and we feel withdrawn from our loved ones. In those instances, it can be helpful to remind ourselves of the times when the world has survived and that innovation is rapid so solutions are closer today than they ever have been in the past.
Sometimes big global issues are hard for me to view as temporary, but I need to focus on our progress towards helping the planet and people who are in trouble, the capacity we have to come together and hopefully to get through to the other side of what feels like darkness.
If we can find some way to see that maybe a setback, like losing a job, is temporary, and see an end to that challenge in sight, it enables us to gain hope for the future.
Does the challenge that you’re going through, overlap to other areas of your life? Or can you compartmentalize your struggles? If you’re looking at things from a negative lens, one bad thing bleeds into everything else.
If you’re looking at things from a positive lens, there is a specific cause or reason for that bad event and it’s isolated from the rest of your life.
We can think of pervasiveness like this, is it generalized or isolated? If you make a mistake at work, if it happened because you were up all night with your sick child and you weren’t able to concentrate, it was an isolated event.
On the other hand, if making a mistake means that nothing ever goes well for you, or that you always have to prove yourself, that’s a more generalized explanation, which will impact your confidence and likely your future performance as well as other aspects of your life.
I’ll give you a couple more examples. Let’s say you get passed up for a promotion. For an optimist, it’s an isolated event. They think “It wasn’t the right fit, or the right time”. For a pessimist, it’s a generalized sign that “my whole life sucks and everything is ruined”.
Interestingly, It’s the opposite with good events. If you get an award, an optimist thinks that it’s a sign about all the awesomeness going on in life. A pessimist might dismiss it as just a lucky break.
In fact when good things happen, it’s actually better to think of them as permanent, pervasive and personal.
It doesn’t have to be situational either. Pervasiveness can come out with broader more global beliefs.
For example, I’m not a superstitious person but somehow when I was a kid, I got it in my head that Friday the 13th was good luck. I don’t watch horror movies so I didn’t get the message that it’s supposed to be bad luck.
Thinking it’s bad luck would be facilitating pessimistic pervasive thinking. I would feel like I was doomed to have bad things happen that day and I can’t do anything about it. BUT since I actually think it’s good luck, all day I’m looking for wonderful surprises to happen and this makes me more positive and optimistic!
When bad things happen, do you blame yourself or do you blame the circumstances? If you blame yourself, you end up with lower self-esteem.
You might think yourself worthless, talentless, unlovable.
If you blame the circumstances, you don’t lose your value or self-worth.
I’m not talking about shifting the blame.
Like the first time I tried to surf, I fell more times than I stood up. I barely ended up riding some water, forget about an actual wave. But it was my board. The fin at the bottom was broken, or at least bent. So it was the situation, nothing to do with the fact that I didn’t know how to surf.
But seriously, we can joke about faulty equipment and we can even fake self-esteem.
Of course, when something happens, you still need to take responsibility for your role in it. You can’t just always blame someone else for doing a bad job. Accountability is important. But pessimistic and depressed people often take much more responsibility for bad events than is warranted. And that often leads to guilt, and a spiral of more negative thinking.
What’s worse is that if you blame yourself, and think that is a permanent condition (like I’m stupid, I have no skills, I’m ugly), then you also believe that it can’t be changed. And again you lose control, and you lose the opportunity to change.
We’ve all experienced these harsh, critical thoughts about ourselves. I got into more detail about it on the Good Enough episode on perfection. But if we can find a way to separate our personal worth, value and identity from our life situations and circumstances, it’s easier to find hope and opportunity.
If we look at the theory as a whole, personalization is responsible for how you feel about yourself. Whereas pervasiveness and permanence control what you do about it and how long you try.
Why you need optimism
To emphasize why this is so critical in life, and why you need optimism more than you realize, I’m going to tell you another story.
After high school I spent a summer in Edmonton. I was visiting family and one day I went with my cousin to their bison farm, yes I said bison farm. I was helping to fill up the hey and check on the land, and as the bison realized it was lunch time, they started coming towards me. At first I thought it was beautiful, they looked amazing. But as they came closer I realized how huge they actually are.
And then one saw me. And came right at me. Fast. I have never run that fast in my life, I sprinted as far away as I could. Through the grass, past the hay, over the long rope at the edge of the field and I kept on running for the hills and didn’t stop. At this point, my cousin laughed at me. Probably at the terror on my face. And she called out to me, you’re fine now, you’re over the fence.
I stopped and looked, what fence?
Of course the little rope that was the size of a hose just over the ground was a fence. And sure enough, Mufasa (that was the bison’s name, I asked) stopped right on the other side of it.
If you’ve been around this type of situation before, you’ll know that animals are essentially trained not to escape. At first, ropes or other restraints might hold the animals back, especially if they’re babies. The animals learn early that they can’t get away. Once they believe that they cannot escape from the rope, they carry the same belief for the rest of their lives. So even though, when I was there, Mufasa could have easily taken me out. He didn’t even try.
And that’s where we get to the heart of the matter. The real damaging, hurtful, harmful effects of pessimism. A lack of control over life. You become helpless, so you lose hope, and you give up.
This is called learned helplessness. It’s essentially a giving up reaction. The fact that you believe whatever you do doesn’t matter, means that eventually, you’ll quit trying.
And the main determining factor for feeling helpless is that if you interpret things that happen to you as permanent, pervasive and personal, you will be less energized, more distraught, find more setbacks and eventually you’ll stop trying.
Often you don’t realize that it’s even happening. You might just feel frustrated, let down, like you don’t want to put in any effort or ask for help, maybe you feel apathetic or unmotivated, you might procrastinate or feel a lack of confidence. If any of this is happening, try to take a step back, outside of yourself, and look at yourself objectively. Are you giving up? Do you feel like trying is futile?
It can be in any aspect of your life.
Have you ever tried a new activity, or exercise and then didn’t do well and decided what’s the point of trying again, I’m so bad at it.
People exposed to uncontrollable events develop an expectation that they do not control anything, which biases them towards judging that in the future, nothing they do will help. Also, neurologically, depressed people are less likely to feel in control.
Think about the fight or flight response. Our brains are wired to panic under pressure. However, researcher Steven Maier discovered that there is a part of the brain that activates to regulate this response when it feels that the situation is under control.
With learned helplessness, that controllability mechanism never kicks in. You don’t perceive that you’re in control, and so, paradoxically, you’re less able to exert control.
What we need to find is HOPE. We need to expect a better future.
How do we find HOPE and OPTIMISM?
When bad things happen we need to find temporary explanations that limit the problem instead of permanent ones that foretell a bleak and helpless future.
We need to find a specific cause for this particular issue, not a universal cause that spreads the helplessness to every aspect of life.
And while we need to take responsibility for our part, we don’t need to personalize bad traits, or set undue blame where it doesn’t belong.
Addressing the 3P’s will allow us to develop a more positive and optimistic outlook that will in turn, give us more psychological flexibility. We can be dynamic, adapting to different situations more easily, shifting our mental energy more effectively and efficiently, we can react better in stress and see more options. Most importantly we can have more perceived control over our circumstances so that we don’t feel helpless.
How to be more optimistic
The big takeaways here, are that we can change our thought patterns. I’m not saying it’s easy. And we certainly can’t do it in isolation. Perhaps we need community, other positive people around, or other people who understand and empathize with our pain. But at some point in the process, we need to not let ourselves spiral down into the loop of negative thinking, and believing we are helpless. Because that’s how we lose hope for the future. And that’s how we give up.
So that that’s the big, the big thing is if you can find a way to have some control or feel like you’re in control of something, it doesn’t have to be everything. But something you have some control over some part, it helps, then you don’t give up and you’re able to keep your mind open enough to find opportunities to adjust to adapt to be flexible.
And the way we can do that, is through the 3Ps. Is this circumstance or situation permanent, or temporary? Is it pervasive and impacting everything or can it be isolated to just one aspect of your life. And is it personal?
If we can find an end, a way to see things as temporary, compartmentalized or isolated and external and not internal (or not personal), then it’s also easier to see hope for change. You have more energy to deal with it and more literal brain power, more cognitive resources to deal with it and find positivity in the present and in the future.
After all, if we didn’t have positive and optimistic thoughts, our lives would be missing the great plans, the dreams, and the hopes. We would never accomplish anything difficult and intimidating, we would never even attempt things that seem out of reach.