If there were one thing you could do that would improve every single aspect of your life — your physical health, your self-esteem, your relationships and career — wouldn’t you do it? And if this thing were free, did not require any special equipment, and took very little time at all, wouldn’t that make it even more appealing to try?
Chances are, you answered yes to both questions. You might be wondering, What is this magical cure-all, and where can I get my hands on it? But it isn’t magic, it isn’t tangible, and it’s something you already have within you — if not currently in effect, then waiting to be adopted. Researchers call it “dispositional optimism,” a fancy term for something that is both surprisingly and deceptively simple: A positive mindset.
If that doesn’t seem like much of a revelation to you, or if you’re like countless people who believe only Pollyannas view the world through rose-colored glasses, read on.
During the past three decades, science has focused more and more on the power of positive thinking as its benefits have become more evident. Scientific and psychological studies, along with countless personal anecdotes from motivational speakers and regular folks alike, have shown that viewing life through a negative lens makes everything appear, well, negative — but that this is not necessarily an accurate reflection of reality. Perhaps even more importantly, they have shown that the opposite is also true: Choosing to view life through a positive lens improves everything from one’s health to one’s friendships and the opportunities that come one’s way. And all it takes is practice to perfect this life-enhancing technique.
Blaming oneself when things go wrong and assuming the worst of situations and other people are two common responses of the pessimistic mind to life’s various ups and downs. Someone with a negative outlook views the world as a hostile place, or at least a cold and lonely one; this person expects disappointment, and so, as if by self-fulfilling prophecy, disappointment inevitably comes.
Pessimism has a certain psychological function and appeal: If we keep our expectations low, our subconscious thinking might be that we can’t be disappointed when life doesn’t work out as we might have hoped. We might believe that a negative view of the world is realistic, and that optimistic people are simply fooling themselves, pulling the wool over their own eyes in order to avoid the depressingly harsh reality of life.
Yet people who view the world with hope and optimism are actually employing a highly effective coping skill, one that even allows them to accept reality and move on when necessary. Positive thinking is a conscious choice, after all, and one with wide-reaching benefits. For example, research has shown that positive thinking can lower stress levels, improve mood, and help the body recover more quickly from illnesses and disease. Positive thinkers tend to adopt healthier lifestyles, such as exercising and eating well. And the benefits don’t stop there: Like a pebble tossed into water, an optimistic outlook creates a ripple effect that ends up touching every aspect of life.
All of this is not to say that becoming an optimist is a simple, easy switch, especially for those who suffer from depression or anxiety, or whose negative outlook has become a habit. It takes practice to change one’s way of thinking — to switch, for example, from habitual suspicion of others to giving them the benefit of the doubt. But start working on it today and you’re likely to feel certain benefits — less worry, a lighter mood — very soon.
Negative self-talk is one of the main ways in which negative thinking manifests; therefore, it is the first change to tackle as you move toward a more positive mindset. Self-talk is simply the stream of thoughts running through your mind throughout the day. Unfortunately, many people send themselves negative, self-defeating messages: “I’m so fat,” for example, or “I’ll never get ahead at work,” or “I’m so lonely — I have no friends.” Over time, these repetitive thoughts become so ingrained in your mind that you begin seeing them as the truth, even if they are anything but.
Interrupting and ultimately stopping negative self-talk requires attention and focus: You must first recognize the message you’re sending yourself, then consciously replace it with a new, more positive message. For example, instead of thinking, “I can’t do this — this is too hard,” try telling yourself, “Maybe I can approach this from another angle.” Instead of thinking, “There’s no way this will work,” try telling yourself, “Hey, I’ll give it a try — it might work out after all.”
If you find this difficult, don’t worry; many people do, at first. Try setting a rule for yourself: Don’t tell yourself anything you wouldn’t say to a beloved friend. This can be the first step toward treating yourself with the love and respect that you deserve. You’ll also find, in time, that treating yourself better extends outward. As you view yourself with more gentle compassion, you’ll be able to extend the same toward the people around you.
Remember that overcoming both negative thinking and negative self-talk is a process, and it takes practice. Don’t let taking two steps forward and one step back become a source of disappointment. Rather, understand that you are forming a new habit of thinking positively and viewing the world around you with optimism. Many say that it takes at least three weeks to develop a new habit, so give it time, and keep practicing. Soon, you’ll feel more accustomed to your positive outlook; viewing the world through an optimistic lens will become second nature. And you’ll begin to appreciate how much rosier life looks and feels when you allow a sense of hope to permeate your mind and heart.