How to learn the skill of optimism

Life is full of ups and downs, and being able to remain optimistic can help you to move through even some of the darkest times. Optimism is not about seeing rainbows and butterflies around every corner, but allowing us to learn from situations, find small positives and see new opportunities – even when things get tough.

It’s often assumed that optimistic people were simply born or raised that way – but it’s a skill that people can learn and develop at any age.

With this in mind, we’ve pulled together a selection of tools to help you take a more positive, proactive approach to every situation. At a time when there is much uncertainty surrounding the future, a little optimism can go a long way in restoring some hope and happiness.

What is optimism?

In a nutshell, optimism describes a person’s ability to be able to have hope and confidence in the outcome of a situation, even in the face of adversity. Optimists can generally extract the positives from all kinds of situations, and tend to believe that a situation is more likely to have a good outcome, than a bad one.

If you’re an optimist you will typically accept that you can’t control every situation, but that you can control how you think about and react to things. When a problem arises, you will usually be more focussed on solving that problem, than trying to manage any feelings or emotions that arise from it. You will also see each problem as being caused by a specific set of circumstances, rather than taking the view that problems happen because the world is against you.

Why is optimism important?

Optimists can typically see that every situation has the possibility for change, which can help them to keep moving forward. There are also many links between optimism and good health. Research has shown that optimistic behaviour can lead to:

  • Increased engagement in healthy behaviours, such as exercise and eating a balanced diet.
  • A decrease in unhealthy behaviours such as smoking and excessive drinking.
  • Better quality sleep.
  • An increased ability to deal with stress and setbacks in life.
  • A greater social network – as people tend to enjoy spending more time with optimists than pessimists.

6 tips to help you learn the skill of optimism

1. Everyday, write down what you are grateful for

It’s not unusual for one negative thought to lead to another, and before we know it we are caught in a spiral of pessimistic thoughts and are struggling to see a way forward. One way to break this cycle and to inject a little positivity into your life, is to write down at least one thing that you’re grateful for each day. This could be anything; from the roof over your head, to your friend on the other end of the phone, through to the sunshine peeking through your blinds in the morning.

Even in the most difficult times, we can usually all find something to be grateful for and it’s important to remind ourselves of the things that we do have – rather than dwelling on the things that we don’t, or on the things that we simply can’t change. For those who have been through life changing injuries or medical conditions, the advice is always to focus on what you can still do, not what you can’t. The more time that we spend practicing gratitude, the less time we will have to spend thinking negative thoughts.

2. Try to see your outlook as a choice

It’s easy to become so used to thinking negative thoughts, that we forget that there is any other way of thinking; but there is. We have many choices in life and optimism is one of them. In the same way that you can choose whether to spend the evening chatting to a friend on the phone, or catching up on your favourite TV show with a glass of wine – we can also choose whether to have positive or negative thoughts.

In difficult times, it can be hard to accept that we can change our thought patterns, even if we can’t change what’s happening to us – but once we do, it’s much easier to start practicing optimism – in the same way that we would any other skill.

Example

If your car breaks down on the way to the supermarket, you can choose to think about this one of two ways.

A negative response could be:

“Now I can’t go and get my shopping and I will have to wait ages for someone to come and tow me home. My day is ruined.”

When things go wrong like this, it might feel like you have every right to be fed up and angry – and you do! It just won’t help. Such a response will only serve to increase the levels of stress hormones in your body and won’t help in solving the immediate challenges facing you.

In contrast, an optimistic response could be first recognising the facts of the situation – that your car has broken down and you won’t be able to continue your drive to get your shopping. You may initially find this annoying, which is normal. However, you don’t dwell on this, you instead work out what to do next – which is to call your breakdown cover provider or a friend/family member for help.

You will also be able to consider the bigger picture. Yes this is frustrating – but there are also many things to be grateful for, such as:

  • the fact that you have someone to call to come and help you.
  • the fact that you can afford to have a car and to go shopping.

You may also think about other ways you can collect your shopping. Perhaps you can still walk to the supermarket and collect your shopping whilst you wait for help (providing that your car has been left in a safe place), or maybe you could arrange to have it delivered instead.

As Maya Angelou famously said:

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

Maya Angelou

3. Acknowledge negative thoughts

If you want to steer away from any existing patterns of negative thoughts, then it can be helpful to acknowledge them as they enter your mind – this can help stop them circling around. The key here isn’t to banish any negative thoughts entirely, but to not let these negative thoughts impose too heavily on your general wellbeing and stop you from moving forward.

For example, if you have a video-based job interview coming up and you’ve never been interviewed by video before, it may be natural to think “Well, I’ll be awful at it and I’ll never get the job.” This way of thinking has the potential to affect how well you prepare for the interview and how you come across during it – you may think there’s little point in preparing too much because you won’t appear well on video. This way of thinking can not only sabotage your chances of actually doing well in the interview, it can also affect your confidence and self-esteem.

Instead of assuming the worst, it’s important to rationalise any negative thoughts and adopt a healthier, more realistic view of the situation. For example, “I’ve never done a video interview before, but I’m willing to give it a good go. Regardless of how well it goes, at least I will be able to learn from it and become familiar with how video interviews work, which could be helpful in future.” This is when we can see that being optimistic isn’t always about assuming that the absolute best outcome will happen – it can also be about reframing thoughts that are excessively negative.

4. Imagine a positive future

imagine a positive future

Sometimes it can be scary to allow yourself to think too positively about the future because you’re worried about being disappointed, getting let down, or about things not working out that way. It’s common for us to think that setbacks may hit us less hard if we’ve mentally prepared ourselves for the worst case scenario.

The reality is that nothing in life is certain and that if we always catastrophize situations and plan for the worst, we could actually help to create some of the outcomes we fear without meaning to. For example, if you hear that your company is taking cost-saving measures, and you convince yourself that you will soon be made redundant (even though you’ve not been told that you will be directly affected by the measures), then you may find yourself becoming less productive at work. If your company was never thinking about making you redundant, but notices that the standard of your work has dropped, then they may start to think about the possibility of letting you go – even if this wasn’t on the cards before.

The mind is incredibly powerful, and in many cases, how we visualize our futures can actually contribute to the outcome itself. Visualisation is a tool used by many Olympians to help them excel in their sport, and research has shown that people who visualise themselves performing a task successfully can actually improve their performance in that task. For example, maybe you’re thinking about joining the gym but feel too embarrassed, or think you’ll be bad at it. Often these thoughts may be enough to put you off joining the gym at all. Instead, by reframing these thoughts and visualising yourself in the gym, working out and reaping the benefits – chances are, you’ll be much more likely to join, to go and to enjoy it.

5. Spread positivity

Making others feel positive, can in turn affect your own outlook. This doesn’t mean that you should strive to constantly please others. But making an effort to give someone a compliment, or telling a loved one how much you appreciate them can make a big difference to how they feel.

And whilst it’s good to make others feel good, don’t forget to give yourself some praise too. At the end of every day, try to spend a few minutes reflecting on how the day went and give yourself some credit – even for the little things. Whether you made a tasty dinner or made the effort to get out and go for a walk, make sure you big yourself up. Simply telling yourself, “I did okay today” can go a long way.

6. Spend time around positive people

Whether we realise it or not, the company we keep can have a significant impact on the way we view life. If we spend time around pessimistic people who frequently express negative thoughts, then it’s easy to adopt some of these thoughts as our own – or just end up feeling more negative about the world in general.

Negativity is highly contagious, so consider spending less time with people that bring you down, and more time with people who are pragmatic, proactive and positive. You might be surprised at how much more energised you feel as a result!

And finally…

Optimism is a great skill to learn and use in a range of different situations. However, try to avoid using it as a tool to suppress your feelings and give the impression to others that you’re okay, if you aren’t. We’re all human and we all have emotions, so if you want to smile and laugh then let yourself, and if you want to cry – then that’s okay too. The most important thing is that you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep going, even when life feels hard or unfair. Try to remember that few feelings or situations in life are permanent and there will always be a better day.

Are you learning to be more optimistic later in life? We’d love to hear from you! Email us at [email protected] or post on the community forum.

5 thoughts on “How to learn the skill of optimism

  1. Avatar
    Liz P on Reply

    Great optimistic piece! Very helpful. Could develop by shining a light on how people have turned life or their minds around to be in a more optimistic place

  2. Avatar
    Anonymous on Reply

    Liz P
    Very helpful points I agree. Starting the day by keeping a gratitude journal is a great way of beginning the day on a positive note., for example.
    Liz P Do you possibly have a contribution to make to illustrate the points in the article, as you suggested?

  3. Avatar
    HJ on Reply

    I am about to start trying this as a person in later mid life. It would be lovely to hear about others who have experienced a positive outcome as a result of changing their mindset in this way.

  4. Avatar
    TickTock on Reply

    Very helpful piece; however, the OCD in me has noticed that tip number 3 is missing …. what have you done with it??? 😉 My positive outlook here is that you will find tip number 3 and enlighten us all further!

    1. Avatar
      Helen on Reply

      Hi TickTock. Thank you so much for pointing out that error. This week’s mystery is: ‘where is tip number 3?’ Our positive outlook is that the 5 tips were just the right amount of information and all you needed (or that tip 3 shows up!) Thank you again, we’ll get that amended.

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