Can You Learn to Be Optimistic?
The world could be split between the optimists and the pessimists. It’s the age old question of the glass being half full or half empty. While both statements are equally true, it’s the perspective that you take that matters.
There are a lot of benefits to being optimistic. Better health, more resilience, and higher achievement. But not all of us our optimists. The human mind can default to the worst outcomes, or tend to be more negative about outcomes in the future.
For those who may want to see things a bit more on the bright side, you might ask yourself:
Can you learn to be more optimistic?
Learn Optimism: The Evidence
There’s good news for you pessimists. There is research-based evidence that a person can, indeed, learn to be optimistic.
It may seem like the stuff self-help books are made of. All fluff and not enough cold, hard evidence.
But a paper published in the Journal of Positive Psychology says that optimism is a learn-able skill. And that you can even teach yourself.
The team of researchers scoured through academic papers to identify studies that have tried to raise levels of optimism. Something researchers like to call a meta-analysis. They identified a total of 29 papers that included more than 3,300 participants.
They found a variety of different methods were used, with some methods being more successful than others. But the key takeaway being that there was an overall significant increase in optimism as compared to control groups.
The Most Effective Optimism Technique
When the team looked at individual optimism techniques, there was one that stood out.
The technique that seemed to have the largest effect was a simple intervention labeled “Best Possible Self”, and participants would do it for about 30 minutes. It may work because it’s literally an exercise in actually being optimistic.
The researchers describe it as:
Imagining yourself in the future, after everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all the goals of your life…
That’s not to say that this is the only technique. Other methods included things like mindfulness, self-compassion training, or cognitive behavioral therapy.
There have been other areas that have also been associated with optimism. Nostalgic memories and gratitude have also been correlated with raised levels of optimism. They have mostly been correlations, but further research in the future may reveal that the techniques share similar psychological mechanisms.
Change is Hard
One thing that needs a mention, was that the effects do fade over time. If you want a more optimistic outlook on life, you can’t expect a one shot cure. Just doing a practice exercise once won’t give you a sunnier disposition over the long term.
It can give you an immediate boost, sure. And the analysis showed that the short term advantages of optimism included increased mood and even pain reduction.
You can learn to be optimistic, but you’ll most likely need to keep exercising your optimism muscles in order for it to become your normal perspective or mindset.
Like any change in behavior, perspective, or personality, it takes time. Real change isn’t easy, but usually worth it if you can stick to it over time.