Cultivating optimism: How can I gain a sunnier perspective?

Dear Alice,

How can I become more optimistic?

Dear Reader,

Always looking on the bright side of life isn’t as easy or breezy as people make it sound. But with a bit of persistence, patience, and practice, it’s possible to start seeing the glass as half-full. Not only will a more optimistic disposition help you feel better overall, but it may lead to increased physical and mental health — a great reason to opt for optimism!

Optimism is an explanatory style, or the way in which individuals explain how they see good and bad events. To best understand optimism, it helps to break situations down into elements of permanence (this event will reoccur), pervasiveness (this event will affect other circumstances), and personal (I made this event happen). An optimist perceives good events as stable (permanent), global (pervasive), and personal while the opposite explanatory style, a pessimist, perceives bad events as such. Conversely, an optimist understands bad events to be temporary, specific to the situation, and impersonal whereas a pessimist tends to perceive good events in that manner. For example, if a pessimist were to make a mistake while reciting lines on stage during a play, they would likely tell themselves that they’re a “terrible actor” (personal) who is “always forgetting their lines (permanence) and now the audience thinks they’re stupid (pervasive).” An optimist in the same situation would be able to perceive the incident as a one-time mistake (specific) likely attributed to opening night jitters or the absence of a lucky bracelet (impersonal) but they’ll reassure themselves that with practice they have the power to prevent future mistakes (temporary).

Some find it easier than others to adopt a positive, optimistic attitude, especially when faced with adversity. Explanatory styles have the power to influence your life beyond just your immediate reaction to a situation. Individuals who habitually explain situations with a pessimistic outlook are more likely to suffer from cognitive and emotional deficits, lack of motivation, and general helplessness. On the other hand, those with more optimistic mindsets are better able to deal with life’s stressors by adopting health-promoting behaviors, more effective coping strategies, and better physical health. Some studies have even found that the sunniest personalities may have higher educational attainment and incomes. One study even suggests that optimists live longer.

Clinically, optimism can be measured by responses to the Attributional Style Questionnaire. One such study using this questionnaire with fraternal and identical twins identified genetics to be a determinant of explanatory style. While many personality traits are known to be substantially heritable, the authors of this study note that genes get switched on or off in response to environment. As such, they conclude that while there appears to be a strong genetic component to optimism, genetics can't account for everything. In fact, another study suggests that genetic predisposition accounts for less than 25 percent of a person’s optimistic or pessimistic attitude. So, if you’re concerned that you relate more strongly to the pessimist explanatory style, the good news is that mindsets can be changed with a little time, energy, and effort. Useful strategies clinically proven to help improve outlook include:

  • Re-framing stressors: This practice allows you to restructure your thought processes to turn maladaptive negative thoughts into more realistic, positive ones.
  • Visualizing your best possible self: This is a daily exercise in which you spend a few minutes envisioning yourself acting out your “best possible self,” whatever that means to you. What do you want to achieve and how do you want to get there? By visualizing positive outcomes and seeing yourself succeed in your mind’s eye, psychologists believe you may increase your self-confidence and, as a result, improve your optimistic outlook. Jotting down notes about your self-imagery practice in a journal might also be helpful. In experiments, consistent use of this strategy led to marked improvements in optimism. It might be time to dust off that old journal!
  • Being a detective: Psychologists have found that the most pessimistic people tend to come up with unrealistically negative explanations for events. For example, did you really get turned down for a date because you're unattractive? Or could it have been because the person you asked wasn’t looking for a relationship or was too busy? Being a “detective” in your own life, evaluating the evidence, and coming to the most realistic understanding of why things happen may be beneficial. It’s been shown to help develop resilience to stressful situations and improve your level of optimism. It’s elementary, dear reader!
  • Finding humor: Attempting to bring humor into virtually any situation may help perpetuate an overall positive outlook. Additionally, it may make it easier to “let go” of your emotions rather than ruminating on bad events long after they occur.

If these strategies aren’t making things brighter, you may want to consider speaking with a mental health professional. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) aims to help people do just what you’re asking: become more optimistic! A mental health professional who specializes in CBT may work with you to identify dysfunctional thought patterns and reframe distorted negative thoughts into positive ones. All this to say, whether you’re looking to be more optimistic about your own life or about the state of the world, keeping tabs on your feelings — like taking the initiative to ask this question — is a positive step toward understanding and managing your mental health.

Last updated Feb 11, 2022
Originally published Dec 04, 2014