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How to Teach Yourself to Be (A Little Bit) More Optimistic

"How well you handle anything depends almost entirely on how you think about it. And that is something over which you have great control.”  

Connor Robinson for Fatherly

When something doesn’t go your way, how do you react? Do you immediately zero in on the negatives and hear an internal dialogue that sounds similar to, “Of course it would happen that way. Nothing good ever happens to me.” Or do you take the opposite approach and try to look at things with a more hopeful spin? If you fall more into the former category, you might want to start flipping the script a bit and train yourself to be a bit more of a bright-side thinker. While it may feel inefficient or even laughable right now to be optimistic, pessimism is not only a downer for everyone around you, but it can also be harmful to your health. 

“Studies have shown that a positive attitude and outlook is important for maintaining good emotional and physical health,” says Dr. Natalie Christine Dattilo, a Clinical Health Psychologist and Mental Wellness Expert who is an Instructor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School

Now, being optimistic, Dr. Dattilo points out, does not mean you ignore or deny negative things. Rather, she says, “it means you acknowledge them while also being confident that you can overcome them.” That’s a powerful distinction, as optimism is about accepting a given reality and feeling as though you have the ability to work through it. 

In our current world, optimism can feel hard to muster. Or then again, you may simply not be an optimistic individual. Regardless, there are ways to train yourself to increase your optimism — and use it to you and your family’s advantage.  

“In psychology we know that when a situation feels out of our control, how we manage our reaction to the situation matters,” Dr. Dattilo says. “A powerful way to do this is to monitor and modify the way we think about it. We have a choice in how we think about any situation we face.” 

If you are not necessarily a positive thinker, taking measures to rewire your circuitry is a worthy pursuit. Research confirms that optimism significantly influences physical and mental well-being and that parents’ optimism (within reason) is often correlated with positive child outcomes.

So how do you train yourself to steer more to the side of positive thinking? The key, according to Dr. Dattilo, is to delve into the realm of “Radical Optimism” — that is, consciously choosing to see the upside in everything, while also recognizing that you can feel such feelings as sadness, anger, or anxiety. 

“Optimism is a mindset that’s rooted in reality,” Dr. Datillo explains. “And, although a situation can be objectively bad, you can still believe that humans are extraordinarily resilient. Bottom line is: How well you handle anything depends almost entirely on how you think about it. And that is something over which you have great control.”  

 To that end, Dr. Dattilo suggests three steps that a person can undertake in order to train themselves to be optimistic. They require focusing on how you explain what happened to yourself and how that explanation will impact the way you cope with your circumstances. This concept, pioneered by psychologist Martin Seligman, is called “Explanatory style.” 

Explanatory style, per Dr. Dattilo, considers the role of three things: time, space, and person. Those who believe a particular setback will affect them ‘forever,’ affect ‘everything’ in their life, and it’s ‘all my fault’ are more likely to cope worse and feel depressed. Those who believe a particular setback will affect them ‘forever,’ affect ‘everything’ in their life, and it’s ’all your fault’ are more likely to cope worse and feel angry. “In either case,” she says, “thinking that way is counterproductive and, in most cases, inaccurate.” 

So, in order to practice more radical optimism, Dattilo says you need to ask yourself three things: 

  1. “On a scale from 1-10, how likely is it to be like this forever?”
    When you’re in the middle of a crisis, it can feel as though things are always going to be this way. Whether it’s a problem with your finances, your love life, or a hefty car repair, sometimes a bad situation can send us tumbling down a rabbit hole of negativity. Taking a moment to honestly assess the situation can help bring you back to reality.
    “It is true that some setbacks are permanent, and it’s important to acknowledge that too,” Dr. Dattilo says. “But more often than not, it just feels that way. Using a ‘rating scale’ helps bring a level of objectivity to the situation and allows you to see the picture a little more rationally.” 
  2. “On a scale from 1-10, how likely is it to affect everything in my life?”
    Similar to the above, putting a rating on a negative situation can allow yourself to honestly assess how much of your life will actually be impacted. By doing this, even catastrophic situations can be assessed more realistically and let you see that, just because a situation is bad in one area of your life, it doesn’t have to affect all areas.
    “It doesn’t have to impact how you show affection for your children or your partner,” Dr. Dattilo says. “It doesn’t have to impact how you take care of yourself physically. There are limits you can place on how much of your life you will let it impact.” 
  3. “What other factors likely contributed?”
    When something goes wrong in our lives, very rarely is it entirely one person’s fault. However, during those situations, pessimists tend to take a very black-and-white approach, placing all of the blame on their or someone else’s shoulders. But, if we can take a moment to look at the situation objectively and from multiple angles, we might realize that no one person is to blame for our circumstances.
    “While it’s important to take responsibility for our lives, it’s also important to consider all the relevant factors – including situational or circumstantial ones,” Dr. Dattilo says. “It’s also easier to assume that everyone is just doing the best they can, including yourself. Self-compassion goes a long way when it comes to coping with life’s difficulties.”

Training yourself to ask these questions requires time and patience. So does learning how to speak to yourself in a kinder way. But these simple steps can provide the groundwork for becoming a more optimistic thinker, and meet problems head on.