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3 Tips to Practice Optimism and Live Longer – From a Harvard Psych Instructor

Published on October 26, 2021 by   ·   No Comments Pin It
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The way we think has a powerful influence on our health and well-being, potentially adding years to our lives. Research has shown that having optimism – a mix of positive thinking, goal-driven behavior, and confidence – can help achieve exceptional longevity. This stems from a combination of how we explain what happens to us and what we expect to happen in the future.

According to Dr. Natalie Dattilo, we can train ourselves to be optimistic and change our mindset. Here are some simple tips to ‘practice’ optimism now;

How we think has a powerful influence on our health and well-being. Recently, a large-scale study suggested how we think can potentially even add years to our lives. Specifically, the type of thinking we call “optimism.” Optimism is a mix of positive and future-oriented thinking, feelings of hope, goal-driven behavior, and confidence. It stems from a combination of how we explain what happens to us and what we expect to happen in the future. For instance, a person with an optimistic thinking style will view setbacks differently than someone with a pessimistic thinking style. When things go wrong, a pessimistic person is more likely to believe that it will be that way for a long time, that it will affect everything they do, and that it is entirely their fault. An optimistic person, on the other hand, is more likely to believe that when things don’t turn out right, that it is merely a temporary setback, limited to just this specific set of circumstances, and is able to see that there are probably multiple causes. For those who have always had a pessimistic outlook, they can find it hard to shift their thinking to something more positive, however, taking this on slowly and using supportive tips can provide a better outlook from this. Some people may use things such as marijuana or cannabis-based products to help them with their ‘attitude’ by looking into some of the best dispensaries in vancouver or in wherever they are based, as treatments like these have been noted as helping people calm their stress response which can produce a better outlook for the situation, however, this may only be seen as temporary.

I am often asked: Can we learn to be optimistic? Can we actually change our mindset?

My answer: 100% yes. When I work with clients and patients I help them examine their experiences under a “psychological microscope” – so to speak – where we take a recent upsetting event or setback, and through a series of questions we begin to see the individual’s “explanatory style” – how they explain what happened. What was going through their mind as it did and how are they thinking about it now. What information and ideas are being extracted from it. How they are using that to predict how things will go in their life from now on. How much blame they are taking and how hopeless or discouraged it makes them feel. Then we test those thoughts. How accurate is that explanation, really? Do you really deserve all the blame or could other factors have contributed? How likely is it that it will really be like this forever?

I was recently asked, can being optimistic help with anxiety? Which I thought was a fascinating question, because we so often link optimism (and pessimism) with depression.

My answer: Indeed, if we consider anxiety the result of a psychological “miscalculation.” Anxiety happens when we overestimate the likelihood that something bad will happen and underestimate our ability to handle it. People with chronic and problematic worry, which we sometimes diagnose as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, tend to use what we call “catastrophic thinking,” they are very good at imagining the worst-case scenario, are always a little keyed up or on edge, and have a very hard time relaxing. I sometimes see this in my practice as a “crisis of confidence.” When bad things happen to us repeatedly, over time, we may begin to lose confidence in ourselves, or maybe we were taught to think this way because it’s “better to be safe than sorry.” If the way we explain the bad things that happen to us as something that overwhelms us, devastates us, and we feel powerless to control, then it’s likely our confidence has suffered. It’s also possible that we then avoid activities we might enjoy, set fewer goals for ourselves, have less to look forward to, and may be generally dissatisfied with the quality of our life. You begin to think like a pessimist.

So how does someone “practice” optimism?

When things go wrong, ask yourself three things:

  1. On a scale from 1-10, how likely is it to be like this forever?

  2. On a scale from 1-10, how likely is it to affect everything?

  3. What other factors likely contributed?

It also may be helpful to remember the “confidence quotient.” While it may be true that optimistic people are more likely to underestimate the likelihood that something bad will happen and overestimate their ability to handle it – our goal is to strike the “right balance” here – we strive to more realistically assess the likelihood of negative events AND more accurately assess our ability to handle it.

I would also suggest that if you’re skeptical about optimism, or positive thinking in general, consider “pragmatic optimism.” What I mean by that is, if we know that thinking in more optimistic and uplifting ways can be beneficial for your health and well-being, why not just try it? Challenge yourself to see the upside, the “silver lining” so to speak. Remind yourself of the times when you have overcome obstacles in the past. You can train yourself to be more resilient. Be encouraging in your self-talk. Tell yourself, no matter what happens, I got this. As an optimistic myself, I truly believe, that no matter what happens, it’ll all work out.

So to nutshell it:

When things go wrong, ask yourself three things:

  • On a scale from 1-10, how likely is it to be like this forever?
  • On a scale from 1-10, how likely is it to affect everything in my life?
  • What other factors likely contributed?

By asking these questions you begin to think like an optimist, who is more likely to believe that when things don’t turn out right, that it is merely a temporary setback limited to just this specific set of circumstances. You are then able to see that there are probably multiple causes for this event and no need to catastrophize what occurred.

Remember the “confidence quotient.” Our goal with optimism is to strike the right balance as we strive to assess the likelihood of negative events more realistically AND more accurately assess our ability to handle it.

Consider “pragmatic optimism.” If we know that thinking in more optimistic and uplifting ways can be beneficial for health and well-being, why not just try it? Challenge yourself to see the silver lining and remind yourself of times you have overcome obstacles in the past. You can train yourself to be more resilient.

Be encouraging in your self-talk. Anxiety happens when we overestimate the likelihood that something bad will happen and underestimate our confidence and ability to handle it, falling into a pattern of pessimism. Begin to tell yourself, no matter what happens, that you’ve got this and are able to move forward. Because you are!

Happy Thinking!

Dr. Natalie Dattilo is a licensed clinical & health psychologist who specializes in the treatment of depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia, and other health conditions. Currently, she provides psychological evaluation and treatment at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and is an Instructor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Piece originally published here, posted with permission of author.

Photo by CARL HUNLEY JR on Unsplash

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