Consuming daily news can lead to developing a pessimistic attitude.
Yet research shows an important link between an optimistic attitude and better health, both mental and physical1. People that radiate optimism tend to have better self-esteem and are generally considered more fun to be around.
So why aren't we all optimists?
Many things influence our optimism. Global research has shown just how effective misinformation can be at affecting pessimistic attitudes2. The threat of misinformation is especially real in the age of social media. But there's one thing that has the final say in whether your glass is half empty or half full.
And that's you.
You can't control the world around you, and you can't control how others act or behave. What you can control is your approach to life. You can choose to be more optimistic.
Yes, optimism is a choice.
Don't worry if it sounds too, well...optimistic. There are plenty of tips and tricks that will help you overcome your chronic pessimism for good.
Catastrophizing is a new hip word used to describe a very uncool thing. When we catastrophize, it means every little setback becomes a catastrophe. Things snowball in our minds until we're picturing the worst possible outcome, even if it's unlikely to happen.
For example, a minor reprimand from your boss may lead you to panic that your boss will probably fire you soon, which will, of course, mean you may lose your home and be out on the streets.
According to clinical psychologist Joe Dilley, imagining the worst can trigger some of the same areas of your brain that activate when the worst does come true3. For example, worrying that a cancerous tumor is causing your recent headaches can mimic the brain state you would have if malignant tumors were present. In other words, mountains of unnecessary stress and fatigue over situations that may never actually come to pass may manifest into a pseudo-reality.
So how can you stop imagining the worst-case scenario? The first step is to notice it when it happens. Accept these feelings without judgment. Once you've recognized what your mind is doing, you can address it.
Face the fears that you have. If you're worried about a bump on your skin, see the doctor. If you're confident that you've found your way onto your boss's hit list, talk to them and address it. Whether the answers you get are good or bad, you'll be able to stop speculating and move on.
With time, you'll find it easier to avoid catastrophizing all together and instead place yourself in a better, more positive headspace.
A lot of pessimism comes from harsh self-reflection. Sometimes it can be useful to give yourself an honest appraisal, but not if it comes at the expense of your mental and emotional wellbeing.
"Be the change that you wish to see in the world."
- Mahatma Gandhi
Use the following thought exercise as a way to pin down some goals for yourself. Without being unduly critical, take some time to fashion the perfect "you" in your mind.
When you think of your optimized future self:
Try to include as much detail about your ideal self as possible.
Knowing what you're working towards will give you hope for the future and make optimism that much easier.
Reflecting on a failure from an outside perspective can be difficult, but the benefits are undeniable. When you encounter failure or some other setback, take a moment to pretend you're someone else. Then, while embodying this stranger's persona, argue with yourself.
That's right, pretend you're someone else and argue against your doubts and fears from the perspective of an outsider.
Putting yourself in this headspace can be a great way to break yourself of bad habits like self-blame and catastrophizing. You'd recognize these poor excuses for pessimism in a friend or colleague. Try to understand them in yourself, as well.
We've talked before about how it pays off to surround yourself with positive, helpful people. Still, the same goes for entertainment. Be selective about the media you consume. Movies, books, television, and music all have a significant effect on our mindsets. Too much depressing or negative media can put you in a pessimistic mood about the world.
You don't have to lock yourself in a media bubble wherein you refuse to ever watch movies with sad endings. That said, it's essential to look for inspiration and optimism where you can find it.
The answer to becoming a more positive person is sometimes to start taking action, no matter how small. Force yourself to act positive, especially when you recognize thoughts of pessimism. Repeat positive mantras to yourself like "I can do this" or "things will get better."
In other words, fake it until you make it. Nothing great comes without practice. Optimism is no different. Build on taking small steps toward your ideal self and best life. Your optimistic confidence will grow, and you'll start to see your positive attitude begin to charm those around you.
(1) Harvard Men's Health Watch (2008 May) Optimism and your health
(2) Roser M, Nagdy M (2020) Optimism and Pessimism
(3) Tartakovsky M, M.S (2018 Jul) Catastrophic Thinking: When Your Mind Clings to Worst-Case Scenarios