Ever noticed how some people seem to remain upbeat, regardless of what life throws at them? Optimism is said to be the holy grail of wellbeing, but is it something we can learn?
Everyone knows one. And while we’d all like to be one, that’s not always the case. We’re talking, of course, about optimists – those sunny souls who always manage to see the upside. For the rest of us? Well, it can sometimes be a struggle. While most of us would like to think we’re generally cheery, despite our best intentions, gloomy weather or global politics can occasionally cloud over our inner sunshine.
Optimism is often seen as something you’re either born with or not, like being a morning person, or having natural rhythm. This enigmatic quality is perhaps enhanced by how hard it is to define. “Optimism is entwined with your outlook on life,” explains Clare Heneghan, founder of The Happiness Coach (the-happiness-coach.co.uk). “If you are optimistic, you will have a positive mindset, perspective and perception of events that are happening now, in the past or in the future.”
Gratitude is also linked with optimism, but while optimism is a hope for the future, a positive outlook. Gratitude is grounded in the present, an appreciation for what we have right now. Both help feed a joyful life.
To some, it’s almost a character trait. “It’s a result of genes and learned experiences,” suggests Dr Sally Ann Law, personal and executive coach (sallyannlaw-lifecoach.co.uk). In fact, a study of 500 pairs of twins found that optimism is about 25 percent inherited, meaning some people are naturally more disposed to optimism than others.
And while optimism is linked to happiness, they are also quite distinct. “Happiness is an emotion, a feeling of contentment,” Dr Law adds. “You could still feel happy with a closed mindset, albeit a lot less than someone with a positive mindset.”
However you define it, igniting gratitude and being optimistic is important because of the raft of benefits for our wellbeing. “There is lots of research out there that shows the more optimistic you are the better your health outcomes,” says Dr Law. Several studies have shown that optimists are more likely to enjoy better physical health than pessimists, including a 50% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and greater cancer survival rates. Other studies showed that optimists going through breast cancer treatments experienced a higher quality of life.
When it comes to gratitude, studies have found that it can improve sleep, lower blood pressure and even strengthen the immune system.
And in daily life, grateful and optimistic people have also been shown to experience less stress and even perform better at tasks – because they created more positive energy.
But just because something is good for you, doesn’t mean you can always tap into it. “At times, life can feel like one big challenging moment, and it can be hard to remain optimistic,” acknowledges Carly Rowena, personal trainer, author and influencer.
In fact, rather than being a fixed ‘trait’, optimism and gratitude are things that can wax and wane throughout your life. “We experience a range of emotions each day and you can't stop your mind and body from feeling them all,” says Heneghan. “But you can stop them from escalating. You have to have the lows to have the highs.”
But now the good news. Even if you don’t feel naturally sunny at the moment, experts say even the most defeatist brains can be rewired to seek out optimism and gratitude. “We know from positive psychology research that it is possible to change our mindset,” says Dr Law. “It will take time and patience and you have to approach it with compassion – remember you are retraining your brain to go somewhere different than the place it normally wants to jump to.”
Heneghan knows from experience that you can train your brain. She had been living with depression and anxiety for years, suffering from panic attacks and even being hospitalised due to stress. But after life coaching “opened my eyes to what my reality could look like,” she has learned techniques to help her enjoy the brighter side of life. “Through coaching, I was taught about mindfulness, which has been a huge factor in helping me come off anxiety medication. I now feel a general level of contentment every day,” she says.
Here, Rowena and other experts share their tips for creating a more optimistic and grateful mindset, whatever life throws at you…
FIND YOUR BASELINE
“To cultivate optimism, you first have to reflect on your current mindset,” Heneghan says. “Be really honest with yourself - do you generally think in a positive or negative way?” Then think about what triggers you. “Write down when you feel your mindset is becoming closed or negative. What situations are you in? Who are you with? Is there a common theme?”
FIND YOUR PESONAL RESET BUTTON
If you’re in a negative spiral, plan an activity that helps you reset. “Some people find mindfulness, painting, gratitude journaling, or exercising can help,” suggests Heneghan. For Rowena, it’s taking a pause before she does something. “We don't need to react to most situations instantly, so allow yourself the time to pause. Remove yourself from the situation, think about the more optimistic options that could arise, and even put yourself in someone else's shoes, and think about how they might react to what you’re facing.”
TAKE TIME OUT
Even if meditation is not part of your regular practice, Rowena suggests “simply lighting a candle and watching the flame. It works wonderfully at calming the body and mind and lets your thoughts wander gently. Just two minutes can make a real difference.”
“We all want to be optimistic, happy and fabulous all of the time,” Heneghan says. “But we often forget that we are not an iPhone that we can upgrade every year. We have to put in hard work and be aware that we will make mistakes and have moments where our optimism dips. That's ok, as long as it doesn't spill into everyday life and affect the way you want to live. If you find that your emotions are more in control of you than you would like, I recommend speaking to a counsellor or coach for advice.”
POSITIVE GRATITUDE AFFIRMATIONS
“It is much easier for our mind to think negatively than positively, so a beautiful way to rewire your thoughts is to use positive affirmations,” Rowena says. “You can either write them down in a journal, stick post-it notes on your mirror, or say them out loud. Repeating these daily and making a habit of challenging negative thoughts with positive affirmations will start changing the way you see yourself.”
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