Your thoughts say a lot about the kind of person you are. According to Gautama Buddha, “With our thoughts, we make the world,” implying that our reality is determined by our perception of it. People who have a sunny outlook towards life tend to perceive the future as positive and hopeful, and generally think there is a great deal to look forward to are naturally happy people. Studies have shown that when we focus on positive states, internally there are tangible changes in the brain forming fresh neural pathways and creating healthy patterns of positivity, emotional stability, self-worth, fulfilment, and happiness. Externally, people who are optimistic tend to be viewed as being more persevering, successful, and healthy, having higher morale and coping with adversity better than their pessimistic counterparts.
Due to a host of reasons however, most of us have at some time or another worn “gloomy spectacles” through which we look around and notice what’s wrong over what’s right, focus on problems rather than solutions, and generally end up feeling negative about the future.The good news is that looking at life through rose-coloured glasses, so to speak, is all about perspective, and can be learned.
Here are some ways to help you overcome negative ways of thinking, and cultivate optimism in your regular life:
1. Be present. It’s difficult to have a positive outlook on the future if you cannot appreciate what you already have. Research shows that small but consistent action towards achieving a goal or solving a problem on a regular basis, leads to favourable future outcomes. Simply put, cultivating optimism starts with being positive and hopeful in the here-and-now, as your present attitude determines your forthcoming decisions and actions that in turn affect how things actually turn out in the future.
2. Count your blessings. Being optimistic has little to do with attaining goals or receiving rewards – rather, it is an encouraging outlook of seeing potential and hope in situations, even in instances that seem bleak. According to recent studies in the field of positive psychology, practicing gratitude regularly is a highly affirming exercise in itself, which in turn conditions the mind to recognise positivity in one’s surroundings. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude as optimism is about the means rather than the end.
3. Develop self-efficacy. Renowned psychologist Albert Bandura first introduced the concept of self-efficacy – that is, one’s belief in his/her ability to succeed in something. Simply put, self-efficacy entails believing in yourself. According to this concept, believing in your own ability and competence to perform certain tasks actually increases your chances of success at it. This trait of confidence is a characteristic that increases our sense of optimism, helps us learn from our mistakes rather than feel defeated by them, and enables us to deal with unpleasant changes, stressful situations and unavoidable disappointments.
4. Take care. Certain factors such as unhealthy eating habits, lack of sufficient rest, little exercise and low energy lifestyles interfere with our ability to moderate our moods and our positive energy levels. A holistic approach to health – both physical as well as psychological, helps cultivate optimism. This has further substantial health benefits – studies show that optimists have better cardiovascular health than pessimists, more responsive immune systems, and higher resilience to stress. Feeling good about the future has a lot to do with feeling good yourself.
5. Challenge your negative thoughts. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) practitioners have identified the problem as being negative thought patterns that we have consciously and unconsciously adopted over the years. According to Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology – following along the lines of Albert Ellis (founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, a form of CBT) – the important thing is to unearth and dismantle negative thoughts by disputing them, and replace them with more realistic and helpful thoughts. Therefore, challenging one’s negative core beliefs goes a long way in cultivating optimism.
6. Connect with people. Isolation from people around us and our surroundings, though often unrecognised and unacknowledged, in fact makes us more susceptible to fall victim to negative thought cycles, subsequently making it harder to stay positive. Making an effort to connect with new people and reconnect with existing relations goes a long way not only in developing a brighter view of life but also acts as a protective factor in maintaining it.
7. Let go. Being optimistic doesn’t mean being blind to the possibility of undesired outcomes. Realistically speaking, one can do everything right and things could still not work out the way one hopes. In such cases, holding on fruitlessly to the undesired outcome and generalising it to all of one’s attempts is likely to kick-start a negative thought cycle – an unhelpful and unhealthy response. Learning from it and letting it go is a sure-fire way to make the most of the situation, a distinguishing characteristic of a true optimist.
In the end, it is seldom about how positive or negative the situation objectively is, and much more about the perspective you take on it – how you interpret what happens is often far more important than what actually happens. Gloomy days and dark clouds cannot always be avoided, but if you take a moment to look at the bright side, it won’t be long before you can see the silver lining.
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