Being optimistic in the face of life's struggles might feel impossible, but research suggests that it's not only possible, it can also have a positive effect on your mental and physical health. A 2007 study from New York University researchers found that optimists are happier, more creative, faster at solving problems and have increased mental alertness compared to pessimists. Optimists also have less cortisol (the stress hormone) and more serotonin (the mood-boosting neurotransmitter) flowing through their systems.
But if being optimistic is something you struggle with, you're certainly not alone. We all find ourselves being negative more often than we'd like to, especially in the face of hardships like health issues or the loss of a job. And while it may seem like some people are just born optimistic, we've got good news: You can train your brain to be more optimistic.
Just like with any other habit, your brain learns through repetition. When you frequently practice positive thinking, your brain will be primed to continue the habit, thanks to the formation of neural pathways. Here are eight ways you can start training your brain to be more optimistic — right now!
1. Be Present Every Day
Being present is more than just a physical act. It also relates to your ability to be present mentally and emotionally. Psychologist, author and breast cancer survivor Paulette Sherman, Psy.D., says that to be present, you need to make the distinction of whether your thoughts are in the past, present or future and bring them back into the moment.
"The majority of negative thoughts are about the past and future, which can't be addressed," she says. "The point of power is the present, so try to address what is in front of you in the most adaptive, constructive way."
2. Engage in Quiet Self-Care
Part of being present involves practicing quiet self-care daily. To do this, Dr. Sherman recommends finding ways to relax your autonomic nervous system, which regulates functions you do without consciously thinking about, such as breathing or regulating heart rate and blood pressure. "This promotes wellness, centeredness and peace," she says. Some methods include practicing yoga, meditating, deep breathing or taking a bath.
3. Access Spiritual Strength
L.A. Barlow, Psy.D., a psychologist at Detroit Medical Center, says finding ways to connect or re-connect to your spiritual self can help train your brain to be more optimistic. And Dr. Sherman agrees: "Accessing divine power greater than yourself helps you tap into faith, hope and unconditional love."
If that seems too "woo-woo" for you, try focusing on something bigger than yourself instead of any one particular god, religion or spiritual ideology. "Pray to whatever speaks to you, listen for guidance and replace worry with higher messages of love," Dr. Sherman says. It's more about getting outside of your own head and worries than following a specific religion.
4. Give Thanks
Gratitude is good for you! When you give thanks, these thoughts help improve immune function, reduce the risk for depression and anxiety and enhance motivation and overall happiness.
Start by writing down at least three things you're thankful for each day. Even in the face of life's toughest circumstances, it's always possible to recognize the little good things that surround you — if you make a point to do it.
And who knows? This practice could evolve into a formal habit of acknowledging things you're grateful for and writing about them in a notebook that you carry with you. The more often you focus on gratitude, the more optimistic your brain will become.
5. Pay It Forward
Acts of kindness increase the production of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. Even something as simple as giving someone a smile or a compliment can leave you both feeling happier. Challenge yourself to do at least one kind thing for someone else each day, such as sending a thank-you email, buying a stranger's cup of coffee or donating to a cause that matters to you. You'll reap more benefits than just good karma.
6. Laugh Out Loud
And if you're struggling to find a reason to laugh out loud, it might be time to reach out to others for help (and a few laughs!). Dr. Barlow says having a positive network of friends, family, coworkers or even a formal support group can really help boost your mood during difficult times.
7. Challenge Negative Thoughts
When you find yourself overwhelmed by scary thoughts about the future, Dr. Sherman says it's a good practice to challenge them. So for example, you may think, "I have cancer, so I'm doomed." Dr. Sherman says you can challenge this by saying, "Many people with cancer live long, wonderful lives." Just a slight shift in words can change how you feel and the outlook you have about a situation.
8. Find Time to Get Sweaty
Exercise elevates endorphins, serotonin and other pleasurable brain chemicals, which promotes a sense of well-being. It also discharges negative emotions and reduces cortisol levels. Dr. Sherman recommends finding a form of exercise that you enjoy doing. When you participate in a form of physical activity that brings you joy, your thinking clears, and you'll likely feel more positive afterward, she says.
If it's hard to find time to get to the gym, there are many exercise videos you can follow online. There are even routines you can do while standing next to your desk. The main objective is to break a sweat and do it regularly.
And if you're not constantly feeling as bright and cheery as Pollyanna? That's OK! Everyone has ups and downs, and it's perfectly normal not to feel happy all the time. In fact, that's not the goal; the goal is to not get overwhelmed by negativity and to keep doing things that are healthy for you — mentally and physically!
- Clinical Psychological Review: Optimism
- Psychology Today: The Neuroscience of Optimism
- UC Davis Health: Gratitude is Good Medicine
- Journal TOC: Do Unto Others or Treat Yourself? The Effects of Prosocial and Self-focused Behavior on Psychological Flourishing.
- Harvard Health: Understanding the Stress Response
- American Psychological Association: The Exercise Effect