Optimism Is a Skill
Are good things going to happen for you? If you believe they will, you are probably an optimist. And that’s good for your health.
Optimism is an individual trait that reflects whether you expect your future will be favorable (Carver, Scheier, and Segerstrom, 2010). It can be thought of as the opposite of helplessness, which is the idea that someone doesn’t have control over their future. Optimists see setbacks as temporary and circumstantial, whereas pessimists see them as more permanent and as the result of individual flaws.
Optimism is associated with better physical health, lower stress levels, and a happier life (Moore, 2019).
The great news is that optimism is a skill that can be learned and improved.
According to Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, life begins in helplessness. But young children learn to operate in our environment and master things, like walking, talking, and playing (Seligman, 2006). When they get older they learn more about their environment and how to regulate themselves within it. Then they begin to plan for the future and test things.
Just as young children learn that their futures are bright, adults can learn higher-order skills to cultivate optimism (Chadwick, 2019).
Here are five ways to learn and practice optimism in your own life.
Give yourself challenges
A version of goal-setting, giving yourself a challenge– then meeting that challenge– will trigger the mastery responses that you experienced as a child regularly. To give yourself a steady stream of these responses, it’s best to give yourself challenges in the appropriate doses.
If you are not already challenging yourself, take on something that you can accomplish in a few days, then build on it so you are meeting benchmarks regularly. You can layer on more complex tasks that take weeks while you continue to accomplish smaller things more frequently.
It might be a puzzle, a book, or a physical exercise. You could start an online class or begin learning another language using an app.
“Masterful action is the crucible in which… optimism is forged. Make a habit of persisting in the face of challenge and overcoming obstacles,” advises Martin Seligman (Seligman, 2007).
Think about the future
When you put your mind to the future, the planning part of your brain is activated. Planning triggers a host of cognitive functions that are good for your outlook and give you opportunities to think positively.
For example, it activates your imagination as you explore possibilities. It also helps you anticipate or make predictions, activating the problem-solving centers. Finally, it helps you to narrow down options and begin planning functions (Oettingen, Sevincer, and Gollwitzer, 2018).
Looking forward is an easy exercise to develop the skill of optimism.
Reflect on negative events
Ultimately, optimism, or the lack thereof, is a function of how you think. Reflection, and practice thinking differently, is the way to improve. Seligman has developed a model for responding to negative events and using them as a growth lesson.
It’s called the ABCDE model (Moore, 2019).
- Adversity. It starts with recognizing adversity or paying attention to any adverse incidents, thoughts, and feelings.
- Beliefs. Recognize how your beliefs are impacted by pessimistic thoughts.
- Consequences. Acknowledge that there are consequences of negative thoughts and feelings.
- Dispute or confront the negative thoughts, attempting to change them.
- Energize yourself to be more optimistic in the future.
Keep a journal
Writing down your thoughts is an effective way to reflect and reinforce positive thinking. It’s also one of the best methods to develop gratitude, which empowers the thinking patterns that lead to optimism.
Your journal can be a tool to help you acknowledge failures and setbacks. Failure is temporary, and writing about it gives you the space to realize that without being reactive. It helps you be accurate about your feelings, and also the causes of your setbacks. Accuracy is the foundation upon which mastery, and therefore optimism, can be built.
Writing in a journal compounds these benefits by making it formal and routine. Through the routine of writing, you can make your thoughts more purposeful.
Think and speak happy thoughts
Research tells us that, far from being immutable, optimism can be learned like any other skill. It is a cognitive skill that requires practice and often struggle. Don’t be afraid of the tension that comes with thinking in a new way.
Expressing positive thoughts results in better mood (Peters, et al., 2010).
Tell yourself that today will be good, or that you will do well on an upcoming exercise. Give yourself a mantra that helps you see things in a positive way. Optimists see there failures, and successes, as temporary and partly due to circumstance. This gives them reasons to work on putting themselves into other fortunate circumstances.
Planting the good thoughts into your brain, and giving them additional power by speaking them out loud, will orient you toward a more optimistic attitude.
Carver, Charles S., Scheier, Michael F. and Segerstrom Suzanne C.. 2010. “Optimism.” Clinical Psychology Review Vol. 30, Issue 7 (November): 879–889.
Chadwick, Melinda. 2019. “A reflection on harnessing learned optimism, resilience and team growth behaviour in order to support student groups.” Student Success. Vol. 10, Issue 3 (January): 104–111.
Moore, Catherine. 2019 “Learned Optimism: Is Martin Seligman’s Glass Half Full?” PositivePsychology.com, December 30, 2019. https://positivepsychology.com/learned-optimism/.
Oettingen, G., Sevincer, A. T., & Gollwitzer, P. (Eds.). (2018). The psychology of thinking about the future. The Guilford Press.
Peters, Madelon L., Flink, Ida K., Boersma, Katja, and Linton, Steven J. (2010). Manipulating optimism: Can imagining a best possible self be used to increase positive future expectancies?, The Journal of Positive Psychology. Vol 5, Issue 3: 204–211.
Seligman, Martin E. P. 2007. The Optimistic Child
A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience. HarperCollins.