There is currently a trend on Facebook of listing three positive things a day for seven days. I really like that idea. I am fairly convinced that Optimism is a skill and we can teach ourselves to be more optimistic. And since optimists tend to be healthier and live longer (as well as being less depressed, stressed and have better coping skills for hard times) it is a skill that is well worth learning.
Here are some simple ways that you can train yourself to be more optimistic
1. Look For The Positive
Cognitive Bias Modification (CBM) is a process that trains us to alter our biases to what we pay attention to (it was the one of the subjects of a recent Horizon episode “The Truth About Personality” with Dr Michael Mosley ). If we habitually pay attention to the negative this will effect how we feel. So practice paying attention to the positive, the happy and the meaningful.
2. Be Grateful
“If you can’t enjoy what you have, you can’t enjoy more of it.” Richard Bandler
Bradley Cooper, the Hollywood actor, says that he starts each day by listing things he is grateful for. And if it is good enough for him, it is good enough for us all! Start the day by looking at the positives you already have in your life. Once you practice gratitude for a while you will start to notice that the things you are most grateful for are the simple things.
3. Keep A Journal
It may be interesting and useful to keep a note of these two things in a diary or note book. This serves two purposes; you can track your moods and state of mind more accurately and, if you find yourself being a bit down in the dumps, it can act as a reminder or a trigger to change your state.
4. Be Mindful
I have been practicing meditation and Buddhism for around 20 years so it is nice to see that psychologists have caught up with 3,500 years of Buddhist thought! Mindfulness has been the hot topic recently. Studies have suggested that by developing a regular mindful practice (you do not need to sit cross legged on a mat staring at your navel to be mindful) you can reduce symptoms of depression, chronic pain, anxiety disorders and OCD. It can also reduce stress, lower blood pressure, treat heart disease and improve the quality of your sleep.
It can even make physical changes to our brain, resulting in brain changes that may be protective against mental illness.
5. Be Compassionate
When you harbour ill thoughts about someone, or get angry and annoyed with someone (or everyone!) the only person you are actually making feel bad is yourself. So, it is better for you (and for the world around you) to be understanding and compassionate.
Being compassionate is not about being a drip or a push over. It is about acknowledging that we are all doing the best we can on this crazy planet.
Make the effort to be polite and well mannered. If you make the effort to be nice to people around you, you will feel nicer yourself.
When we are happy we smile and when we smile we are happy. Studies have shown that simply by smiling our brain releases the same cocktails of neuro-chemicals that we would release if we were actually feeling happy. So plastering a big fake smile your face you will start to feel happier and soon that fake smile will become a real one.
Our body and mind are one system (or at least, interconnected systems), what happens in one effects the other. Psychological stress can manifest itself in physical ways, in the same way that illness or injury can have a negative affect on our mood and psychological wellbeing. So, relax your body and your mind will follow. For a full relaxation primer, please click here.
8. Change The Picture
When you are in the depths of a negative, pessimistic thought (and the same goes for a positive, optimistic thought), we get so wrapped up the content that we rarely pay attention to the fact that we are seeing the pictures in a particular way.
Fritz Pearls, the Gestalt Therapist and major influence on NLP, recognised that the pictures we create in the “cinema of our mind” are coded by our emotional state. So by changing the pictures you can change your emotional response to them.
If you find yourself indulging in negative thoughts, step out of the pictures, make them black and white, push them further away or make them smaller. If you are recalling a good time, make the picture bigger and brighter, step into it and relive it as if you are back there now.
9. Change What You Say (and How You Say It)
There is an old saying that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all”. So, pay attention to how you talk to yourself, are you constantly muttering and moaning? Putting yourself down? In a bad tone? Change the voices. When criticising yourself change the voice to someone who you think talks nonsense. Make the effort to say nice things to yourself in a nice voice (maybe don’t do this out loud, you may get some odd looks).
10. Finally, Accept the Bad Times
We tend to pay attention to what is different. if something is the same all the time we stop consciously noticing it (it is a process known as habituation). If it was sunny all the time, we would soon stop appreciating it. The bad experiences are what make the good times feel so good. So if you find yourself going through a dark patch for awhile, be mindful of it, don’t fight it, accept it as the natural ebb and flow of life.
This post contains edited excerpts from my forthcoming book “How To Think”.