Scanning the 50+ dating website your friends urged you to join after your divorce, you find your thoughts turning negative. I’ll never find anyone again, you sigh. Pessimism doesn’t just cause us to spin distorted narratives, it also worsens our mental and physical well-being. The cure? Rose-colored glasses. New research shows optimistic women are not only happier, but they’re also healthier. Read on for easy ways to shift your thinking and live a longer, more blissful life.
“In our study, the most optimistic women were 10 percent more likely to live to age 90,” says lead study author Hayami Koga, MD, a PhD candidate at Harvard. Optimistic people get a health boost due to everything from stronger social ties to lower stress. “When we believe in a better future, we help make that future a reality,” she says.
True optimism isn’t the same as “Pollyanna-ish” or wishful thinking. “It’s the expectation that things will work out, but if they don’t, it’ll still be okay,” says Catherine A. Sanderson, PhD, author of The Positive Shift (Buy on Amazon, $17.95). She illustrates this with a joke about twin little boys — one an optimist; the other a pessimist. For a Christmas gift, the boys are shown a room piled high with horse manure. While the pessimist holds his nose, the optimist cheers, “There must be a pony in here!” It may be tongue-in-cheek, but it shows a deeper truth: Optimists focus on what they can gain from challenges.
The great news is that optimism can be learned with simple mental shifts. Read on for easy ways to transform fear into hope, dread into joy.
Feeling Blue? Tally up and savor small wins.
It’s been a long year, and your mood has been chronically cloudy. “Pessimism is the belief that bad things are bound to happen, but it’s not your fault you feel this way,” assures Laura Heft, PhD, founder of GrowOptimism, LLC. “I was a pessimist for years, but optimism is simply making positive thinking a habit,” she says.
The road to optimism starts with small steps, or small joys. “We build confidence and change our expectations for the future with tiny, frequent wins,” says Heft. Whether you planted pretty mums in a container to brighten your front steps or you checked off a task on your to-do list, don’t just brush these small accomplishments aside, acknowledge them. While pessimists tend to believe their fate is out of their control, optimists think that with hard work, the future is largely in their hands. Says Heft, “Optimism isn’t something we need to be born with — it’s a perspective we can foster simply by tallying the small daily progress that adds up to big, positive change.”
Lonely? Give of your generous heart.
After moving to a new town, you miss your old friends and are certain you’ll always feel isolated. One of the key differences between pessimists and optimists is that the former see challenges as permanent, while the latter view them as fleeting, reveals Heft. “Like all emotions, loneliness is temporary, and we can feel better.”
When you feel bereft of connection, expand your world by tapping your big heart. “Giving back is proven to lift our spirits and make us feel more hopeful,” says Heft. Helping others not only lets us forge new bonds, it also boosts optimism by strengthening our sense of purpose. In one study, widows ages 51 and older who volunteered just two hours a week saw their loneliness decrease significantly. No time to volunteer? No problem. Even “micro giving,” from buying someone a latte to paying a stranger a compliment, strengthens ties and leads to a longer, more joyful life.
Catastrophizing? Picture your best possible self.
Amid rumors of a leadership change at work, you start prepping your résumé…but doubts soon creep in. What if I never get a new job? you worry. “Research shows when bad things happen, men tend to act, while women ruminate or rehash events in their head, compounding negative thoughts,” reveals Sanderson. “These fears are not accurate, but they feel real, increasing stress and pessimism.”
Instead of envisioning the worst future, picture your best possible self. “This simple intervention is shown to boost optimism, and it has the biggest benefits when we identify specific goals,” reveals Dr. Koga. Just close your eyes and picture yourself five to 10 years from now, happy and achieving your dreams. Then describe the details: How did you get there? What small steps did you take? The more vivid your visualization, the more likely you are to create an action plan, adds Sanderson. “Picture how you will feel when you succeed at your goal—it’s extraordinarily effective at increasing motivation and optimism,” she says.
Reeling from self-blame? Find hope and comfort in nature.
With everything you handle, from family obligations to work responsibilities, it’s safe to say you’re a modern-day Atlas holding up the world on your shoulders. Yet nothing ever seems good enough and you often blame yourself when something goes awry. While pessimists tend to believe setbacks are their fault, optimists are more likely to blame external factors like the situation itself, reveals Heft. She says shifting to a more positive mindset means adopting a broader perspective.
If you’re overwhelmed and focused on your perceived faults, step back a moment and step out. “Being in nature is among the most emotionally beneficial things we can do, increasing optimism and decreasing anxiety,” says Sanderson. Indeed, the great outdoors helps us feel smaller in comparison and more connected to a larger world. No wonder when we’re transported by the natural beauty around us, we not only become more hopeful about humanity but we also grow kinder to ourselves, trading pessimistic self-blame for optimistic self-love. In the end, the true definition of optimism is having faith in ourselves and hope in the world around us.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.
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