Are you someone who sees setbacks as temporary? Do you tend to view misfortune as a one-time event, a challenge to work through and triumphantly overcome? When you fail, do you believe it was because of the circumstances or just plain old bad luck?
Or do you go around thinking that whatever can go wrong will go wrong? Do you tend to personalize defeat? Do you think that misfortune follows you around like a shadow?
Psychologist Martin Seligman, dubbed "the father of positive psychology," says that these two ways of thinking and reacting to situations are "habits of thinking," habits that can lead to dramatically different consequences. According to Seligman, pessimists tend to give up more easily, feel depressed more often, and have poorer health than optimists. Optimists, on the other hand, generally do better in school, work, and extracurricular activites. They also often perform better than predicted on aptitude tests, are more likely to win elections when they run for office, have better overall health, and may even live longer. That, says Seligman, is the incredible power of positive thinking.
Psychologist and author Suzanne Segerstrom concurs, but notes that optimism is not just about feeling positive. It's also about being motivated and persistent. In her book, Breaking Murphy's Law: How Optimists Get What They Want From Life—and Pessimists Can Too, Segerstrom explains that optimists tend to deal with problems head-on. Instead of walking away, they plan a course of action, seek advise from others, and stay focused on solutions. Segerstrom also says that optimists tend to expect a good outcome, and even when they don't get it, they find ways to learn and grow from the negative experience.
So what can you do if you're a glass half-empty kind of person?
Most psychologists agree that everyone holds the power to change how they view their experiences and their lives. In his book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Seligman writes, "Our thoughts are not merely reactions to events; they change what ensues. For example, if we think we are helpless to make a difference in what our children become, we will be paralyzed when dealing with this facet of our lives. The very thought, 'Nothing I do matters,' prevents us from acting" (p. 7). So the key is to change the way you think about your experiences. Instead of seeing yourself as a helpless observer in this journey called life, view yourself as an active participant.
Here are eight simple strategies to get you started down the path of optimism:
1) Capitalize on the power of positive thinking. Segerstrom says that even if you're not completely feeling "it," you should "fake it until you make it." By merely acting more optimistic, you're likely to be more engaged in the process and the outcome and are less likely to give up after an initial failure.
2) Spend a few minutes at the end of your day writing down your postive experiences. This exercise will help you end each day on a strong postive note.
3) Reframe negative thoughts into positive thoughts. Find something good about what you're doing. What can you learn from the experience that will help you grow from it?
4) Spend time with positive people. Optimism can be contagious.
5) Avoid negative people whenever possible, and if you can't avoid them, develop strategies to help you limit your exposure to them as much as possible. Just as optimism can be contagious, so can negativity. (See Dealing with People Who Drain You).
6) Focus on what you can control, and let go of what you can't control.
7) Focus on the here-and-now and the future. Although we all can hopefully learn from our mistakes, we can't change the past. So rehashing what happened is unproductive.
8) Reduce (and try to ultimately eliminate) negative language from your vocabulary. Replace phrases, such as "I can't ..." or "That is never going to work" with "I'll try ..." or "Let's see how that will work out."
© 2012 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved
Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).