Choosing Optimism

Your genes and your environment are only part of what makes you an optimist or a pessimist. Scientific happiness research shows that you can adopt small daily practices to rewire your brain for a more optimistic worldview. In this episode, we talk about our own tendencies and the “happiness hygiene” habits we’re trying. 

Choosing Optimism

Conventional wisdom tells us that we are products of our genes and our environment when it comes to happiness and how we see the world – we get dealt a certain hand and there’s not much we can do about our tendency to be more optimistic or pessimistic.

But scientific research shows these identities aren’t fixed at all. Optimism is learned and flexible, and happiness is a choice and a habit.

Small Actions Matter

By adopting small daily practices, we can actually rewire our brains to have a more positive and proactive view of the world. This completely blew our minds when we learned about it! And optimism is worth pursuing – it’s linked with increasing resilience, happiness, productivity, physical and mental health, improving relationships and even extending our lifespans.

Melia says she can get caught up in the unfairness of being born with tendencies toward pessimism, worry and depression, while some people are naturally happy go-lucky and carefree. It’s not fair, just like some it’s not fair that people are born with learning differences or chronic disease. But it’s really hopeful that no matter what circumstances you were born into, you can choose to take actions to prime your brain to be happier.

We do want to make it clear that if you have clinical depression, you may need help from health professionals to get you to a place where you have the energy and clarity of mind to put these strategies into practice. We’re big advocates for getting the support you need, whether from medication, therapy or both.

Pessimistic Vs. Optimistic Explanatory Style

We’ve each independently had the book Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman on our shelves for years (Gill has moved with it, unread, at least two or three times!).

Melia studied Seligman’s research on learned helplessness as a college psychology major:

  • When animals experienced circumstances they couldn’t control, they learned to believe that they couldn’t control anything and didn’t even try anymore.
  • But when Seligman did similar experiments on people, he found that 2/3 of them experienced learned helplessness, but 1/3 didn’t. What was it about this 1/3 that made them not get stuck in helplessness and give up on the task at hand? It turns out that they had an optimistic vs a pessimistic explanatory style when misfortunes happened to them.

If you have a pessimistic explanatory style, you tend to think that your misfortunes are characterized by 3 P’s: they’re personal, permanent and pervasive. That is, if you make a mistake, it’s because you’re careless and stupid, you always will be, and that’s how you are in every area of your life.

It’s no surprise that people with a pessimistic style are more likely to get depressed easily. You can see why they would give up easily and collapse under pressure when they face setbacks, because they don’t think their actions will affect the outcome.

Here’s the key, though: Seligman wrote, “Pessimists can in fact learn to be optimists, and not through mindless devices like whistling a happy tune or mouthing platitudes…but by learning a new set of cognitive skills.”

Not Just “Think Happy Thoughts”

Here we do want to address the difference between blind, irrational optimism and realistic optimism.

It can feel like an uphill battle to remain optimistic when it seems like everything is falling apart. Gill says she’s often skeptical when she hears things like “learned optimism” and “happiness is a choice” – because the messages that say, “Just be positive and everything will be fine” aren’t helpful or true! At best, that kind of blind optimism doesn’t address the real struggles and suffering in the world – and at worst, it blames people who do experience bad things.

It also doesn’t take into account the nature of depression, an illness that saps your energy and distorts your thoughts and experiences. It’s not even possible to see through rose-colored glasses when the lenses are blurred and everything looks bleak. Melia says when she has been in that place, messages to “think positively!” just made her feel worse about herself.

Rational Optimism

Rational optimism, in contrast to blind optimism, starts by taking a realistic assessment of the present. Shawn Achor, a Harvard-trained positive psychology researcher and author, says, “If we sugarcoat the present with our optimism, we make bad decisions for the future.” Then we don’t make the changes we need to in order to create better world for other people. But rational optimism maintains the belief that our behavior matters – and that we have control over how we react to things outside of our control.

Where do you think you fall naturally when it comes to optimism? Do you consider yourself naturally an optimist or a pessimist? Take a survey to find out.

Melia thinks she’s more pessimistic by nature, but she truly strives to be more optimistic. She fights her natural tendency to jump to the worst possible scenario. Gill thinks she’s naturally more of an optimist, but she can get rundown or stuck in a negative spiral with bad news or past mistakes.

Strategies To Build Optimism

So what do you do if optimism doesn’t come naturally to you? Shawn Achor’s research shows that certain practices can turn genetic pessimists into lifelong optimists, regardless of circumstance. He says that most people don’t put in effort to counter their nature or circumstances, so their level of optimism is completely determined by those things. But in reality, we have the choice to take actions that train us to be more positive and happy.

He uses this analogy: he doesn’t care if you tend to see the glass as half full or half empty – what’s important is to see the pitcher nearby that you can use to fill the glass, and the glass of those around you.

So what’s in this magical pitcher?

It’s full of the building blocks of happiness: simple practices that you can do daily, which Achor calls happiness hygiene – like brushing your teeth or showering, they’re ongoing habits that contribute to good health. You can also think of it as cleaning the lenses of your glasses so you’re seeing things more of the good than the bad in life.

Strategy 1: Take 2 minutes a day for these positive practices. They can start to rewire your brain if you do them for 21 days:

  • Come up with 3 new things you’re grateful for. Research shows that if you do this at dinner every night with a default pessimistic child, you can turn them into a lifelong optimist. And the same habit, after 21 days, turned pessimistic 80 year-old men into low-level optimists.
  • Sit quietly and watch your breathing, in and out. A study at Google found that this could drop employees’ stress levels and improve accuracy by 10%.
  • Write a 2-minute positive email or text, praising or thanking someone. He says the practice becomes addictive, and 21 days later you’ll find your social connection is off the charts.

These practices prime us for happiness, getting us to a place where we can start being happy even if we’re feeling down. They also have ripple effects that create more happiness around us. You’ll make someone’s day with that kind message, and they may send one back to you and share kind words with other people, too.

Melia is building a gratitude practice right now. She writes three things she is grateful for every day before going to bed (or “victories and gratitudes”). This habit reframes even a tough day as positive and worthwhile! She and Darren also want to start a dinner table ritual of having each person share one thing they’re grateful for today to cultivate gratitude in themselves and their kids.

Strategy 2: Practice positive reframing. This helps you train your brain to think more optimistically by consciously trying to look at scenarios from a positive perspective.

In an NBC News article, Dr. Aparna Iyer, a psychiatrist and assistant professor, says she does this with clients who lean toward pessimism:

“For example, if a client expresses that an entire day was ruined because it was dark or rainy outside, I would challenge him to focus on what may have been gained during that time. Often, he will reply that he did end up spending time indoors relaxing, reading or cuddling up to somebody he loves. Instead of looking at events in the most negative possible light, I encourage clients to make an active effort to ‘try on’ positive lenses as much as possible. After a while, this will become effortless, a more automatic and optimistic frame of mind.”

Research suggests that the more we use positive reframing, the more we can rewire our brain pattern activities to react better to negative situations.

Gill put this strategy into practice a lot when Brian was still active duty in the Navy. There were always so many things outside of their control, but reframing tough situations – like an unexpected deployment to Iraq – helped her from getting stuck in a negative place.

Strategy 3: Practice an optimistic explanatory style. Protect against helplessness and depression with this strategy based on Seligman’s research.

Seligman gives an example of an 11-year-old girl sitting in the cafeteria at lunch, and she sees all of her friends sit down together at a table on the other side of the room. With a pessimistic explanatory style, she starts catastrophizing: “I’m a loser and nobody likes me. I guess I’ll be eating alone from now on.” The unfortunate event is personal, pervasive and permanent.

Seligman is now working in many schools to teach kids to catch themselves and argue with those thoughts, attributing them to external, temporary and specific causes.

That 11-year-old girl could think, “What’s another reason they could be sitting together without me? Ohhh…they’re all on the volleyball team. That must be a volleyball meeting. We can probably have lunch together tomorrow.”

He found that optimists do this. They make only the good events personal, permanent, and pervasive, thinking things like “I’m a capable person” / “Good things happen to me” rather than “It must have been a fluke” when things do go their way.

It’s human nature to tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world, so we might as well make them good stories!

Strategy 4: Journal about the good.

Pick something good that happened today and write down what happened in detail, including how it made you feel at the time and how it made you feel later. Our brain also doesn’t know the difference between a visualization and reality, so when you write down a positive experience in detail, you’re literally doubling your happiness.

Journaling is linked with all kinds of positive physical and mental health benefits. And journaling about positive experiences gets you in the habit of zooming in on the fortune in your life, rather than the misfortune. We have some of each at all times, but what matters is what we choose to pay attention to and cultivate.

The practice of writing down three good things is actually part of resiliency training in the Army, called “Hunt the Good Stuff.” We have both found that as we have shared more Get It Together / Got It Togethers on the podcast, we’ve had an easier time naming Got It Togethers. In the beginning, we would have a long list of Get It Togethers, but the practice of hunting the good stuff is retraining our brains.

Even if all of this doesn’t come naturally, stick with it! The research shows that you can rewire your brain to interpret the world more optimistically, even if you’re a genetic pessimist, and even if you’ve faced a lot of challenges in life.

Listener Takeaways

Here’s a recap of the strategies for building optimism:

  1. Take 2 minutes a day for 21 days to practice happiness hygiene: write down 3 new things a day you’re grateful for, meditate, or share words of praise and thanks with someone each day.
  2. Reframe the situation positively. Look for the silver linings in even the toughest times.
  3. Practice an optimistic explanatory style. When things don’t go your way, tell yourself that they’re because of external circumstances, temporary, and specific to that situation. When things do go your way, take time to feel grateful and recognize that they often do.
  4. Journal about the good. Zoom in on a positive experience you had that day and write it down in detail.

Get It Together / Got It Together

We each share something that’s going well for us at the moment, and something else that we’d like to work on.

Melia Get It Together: Road rage

Melia Got It Together: Treating herself to little comforts at work

Gill’s Get It Together: Letting things pile up (both literally and figuratively)

Gill’s Got It Together: Booking a trip to the States

Get In Touch

Do you tend toward pessimism or optimism? Which happiness hygiene habits are you practicing? Let us know how they’re working for you.

Email us at podcast[at]semitogether.com, or record a voice memo on your phone and email it. You can also leave a comment on Facebook or Instagram. We’d love it it if you’d subscribe, rate and review this podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.