How To Grow More Optimistic and Why It Matters to Your Health and Wealth

Suzie Glassman

Use the 3P’s to stop your negative self-talk. by Nolan Simmons on Unsplash

I’m an optimist. The glass above is half full. Like most people, I had big plans for 2020, and when they started evaporating, I easily found the bright side.

Spring Break canceled? At least we had a vacation already this year!

Restaurants closed? We’ll save money!

Gyms closed? I can try new workouts!

Kids home indefinitely? Well, that’s a lot harder, but I’m already starting to appreciate the time together.

Yet, one thing I’m noticing is that as the pandemic stretches on, it’s getting harder and harder to remain optimistic. We’ve just started our hybrid learning schedule (they go two days a week and learn from home the other three), and I’m not finding any silver linings.

Are we destined to lose our sense of optimism as pandemic life continues?

Not necessarily. Here’s what experts are saying about optimism, why it matters, and how we can improve it.

What it Means to Be Optimistic

The main difference between optimists and pessimists is how they respond to adverse events.

An optimist believes the root cause is external, unstable, and specific. External implies the adverse event wasn’t your fault. Unstable means it’s not permanent. Specific means whatever happened doesn’t define who you are; for example, I had terrible luck today vs. I’m an unlucky person.

Pessimists explain events in the opposite way. Negative events are internal, so I’m the reason this bad thing happened. They are stable, so nothing will ever change. Lastly, poor outcomes are global — implying you are a poor performer vs. your performance was poor on one particular task.

Truth is most of us fall somewhere in the middle.

There are plenty of people who are right smack dab in the middle, where they’re optimistic about some things, pessimistic about other things,” says William Chopik, assistant professor of social and personality psychology and director of the Close Relationships Lab at Michigan State University.

This study explains we inherit only 25% of our optimism level, which is good news for born pessimists. We can use our environment and experiences to alter our natural sense of optimism.

Does Optimism Change in Response to Life Events?

Chopik and a group of researchers recently set out to determine how optimism and pessimism change throughout our lives. They also looked at whether significant life events play a role in our optimism levels.

They studied more than 76,000 people in the U.S., Netherlands, and Germany.

They found younger adults tend to increase in optimism, and older adults tend to decrease. Experts theorize when we’re younger, we’re looking forward to significant life events — starting college, finding a partner, embarking on a career.

With so much life in front of us, when bad things happen, it’s easier to see them as temporary setbacks.

Later in life, declining health and losses of loved ones make it easier to seem like your actions now won’t generate happiness in the future. Difficulties are more likely permanent and specific to you.

While it’s far too early to know how the current pandemic will enhance, destroy, or remain relatively neutral to our sense of optimism, the results are promising that our outlook isn’t doomed.

The researchers looked at significant events like the death of a loved one, unemployment, birth, marriage, and divorce (among others). Specifically, they found important life events were inconsistently related to optimism/pessimism.

Chopik found such large one-time, significant events don’t predict whether people will become more or less optimistic. Side note — he admits the study didn’t examine what happens when negative life-events happen repeatedly.

He theorizes optimists have convinced themselves that even the worst in life has a silver lining. Also, two people will view the same life event differently. For example, one person might consider divorce as devastating, while another finds it liberating.

There is hope that while this pandemic is disruptive and consequential, we will rebound as optimistic as we were before.

Why Optimism Matters

More and more studies point to evidence that optimists live longer, have better health, and suffer far less from depression and anxiety than pessimists.

Published in Circulation, this large scale study found people with dispositional optimism, defined as the general expectation that good things, rather than bad things, will happen in the future, have a lower risk of rehospitalization after bypass surgery and are at reduced risk of mortality.

Angela Duckworth, in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, comments that better health isn’t the only favorable outcome. Optimistic students are more likely to earn higher grades and stay in school.

They are also twice as likely to stay in their jobs and earn more money than their pessimistic peers.

A year-long field study of MetLife employees found those hiring candidates who failed the company’s aptitude test but scored well on the optimism test did 57% better than the pessimists in the second year, suggesting that optimism played a more significant role than selling proficiency.

Duckworth notes other studies of sales professionals show optimists outsell pessimists by 20 to 40%, which will make a notable impact on your wallet.

Becoming More Optimistic

It turns out our brains are highly adaptable. Your level of intelligence isn’t fixed for life. Want to become more optimistic? The good news is you can.

Marty Seligman’s book Learned Optimism recommends the ABC Technique.

ABC refers to:

  • Adversity — e.g., attempting to homeschool my daughter.
  • Beliefs — e.g., “Wow, I’m a terrible teacher. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
  • Consequences — e.g., I don’t try to learn how to better work with her because I will always be a horrible teacher.

Your outlook depends on how you get from A to B to C. You can learn to change this outlook by confronting those thoughts and learning to replace them with more optimistic statements.

Let’s change the example around. I can take the adversity and think, “This is hard. We’re struggling, but we can work at communicating better.” I can learn how to help her by emailing her teacher and finding the answers to our questions. I can get better with practice.

Think about the 3'Ps of cognitive distortion:

  • Personalization — learn to attribute failure or negative outcomes to something other than yourself. It doesn’t mean you deflect responsibility. Instead, you acknowledge other factors at play than yourself.
  • Permanence — realize setbacks are temporary. You may have performed poorly at one particular task. It doesn’t mean you’re bad at what you do. See failure as limited in scope.
  • Pervasiveness — Circumstances are not fixed. Are you experiencing rejection? It doesn’t mean no one will ever accept you. Keep trying.

Other ways Seligman suggests to improve optimism:

  • Being grateful for your blessings;
  • Helping others in greater need than yourself;
  • Challenging the utility of your negative thoughts and beliefs; and
  • Tackling negative self-talk head-on.

No one is 100% optimistic or 100% pessimistic. Keep in mind your outlook partially depends on circumstances and age, but with practice, you can grow your ability to look on the bright side.

Just this afternoon, I said to my friend, “the school situation has to get better.” I believe it will. As an optimist, I know nothing is easy right now, it’s not my fault, online school won’t last forever, and I’ll keep trying to improve.

Next time you’re stuck in negative self-talk, take a step back and consider the 3'Ps. I promise it’s worth the effort.

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I write about health and fitness with the goal to help you live a healthier, happier life.

Denver, CO

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