Becoming an Optimist

by Mara Karpel

Dear Dr. Karpel:

My children accuse me of being negative and pessimistic.  They say I always “see the glass as half empty.”  I’m 67 and I feel that I’m realistic.  I have several chronic illnesses and have had a hard life.  What is there to be positive about?  I’m writing to you at the insistence of my daughter, who wants me to ask if there’s any truth to the idea that my negativity may be the cause of some of the hardships I’ve faced and if there’s any truth to the fact that seeing “the glass as half full” can help me to live out the rest of my years in better health.  My question is, even if what she says is true, can you teach an old dog new tricks?


Dear. Al:

Yes, yes, and yes… if the “old dog” is willing.

Dr. Martin Seligman, a very well-known psychologist, found through his research that depression stems from a pessimistic mindset.  Pessimism is a tendency to always see the negative side of things and to believe, in most situations, that no matter what you do, you have no power to improve the circumstances, seeing “the glass as half-empty.” Seligman found that optimism is good for you in every way that pessimism is bad for you.  Optimists persevere and persist in the face of insurmountable obstacles, they carry on even when it may be futile to do so, and they don’t know the meaning of the word “quit.”  This positive attitude, he found, is good for both your health and your state of mind.  In his book, “Learned Optimism,” Seligman teaches pessimists to become optimists.

Back to your questions:
Can pessimism make you sick or cause greater hardships in your life?
a) Pessimism causes a weakened immune system, leading to a greater likelihood of becoming ill.  Also, pessimists are less likely to seek medical advice when ill or follow recommended regimens of diet and exercise because they think, “nothing I do really matters anyway.”
b) Pessimists are less resilient than optimists following a negative life event.  For example, pessimists are more likely than optimists to die within the first 6 months following the death of their spouse.
c) Pessimists are less likely to seek and keep social supports and friendships, leading to social isolation.  Social isolation leads to depression.

2:  Can a positive attitude lead to a happier and healthier life?
Optimism boosts the immune system, fends off chronic diseases, and keeps one in a better mood and state of mind EVEN IF being optimistic is “unrealistic.”  How many “miracles” have we heard of when someone refused to believe that they wouldn’t recover from a so-called “incurable disease”…and they, in fact, recovered?
Optimists are more likely to stick to healthy regimens of diet and exercise and they are willing to seek medical advice when needed.
Those with a positive attitude about aging live on average 7.5 years longer and are happier and healthier than those with a negative view of growing older.

3:  Can you learn to be optimistic, even if you’ve always been a pessimist?  Yes.
Here are some suggestions from Dr. Seligman’s book to turn your attitude around:

Don’t obsess about unpleasant events.  If something unpleasant has occurred, before you spend time thinking about it, do something you enjoy to get yourself into a better feeling state.  Then come back to the problem with the goal of coming up with a plan to improve the situation in some way.  With this approach, you’ll be more likely to think of better, more creative solutions.

“Thought stopping” is a technique for stopping the negative obsessing of pessimism.  Wear a rubber band around your wrist and whenever you notice you’re having repetitive negative thoughts, snap the rubber band as a signal to STOP and change your thoughts to more positive ones.

Disputing your negative thoughts.  Ask yourself, “Where is the evidence that this is true?”  Look for alternative explanations rather than assuming the worst. Ask yourself, “If I hold onto this belief, what good does it actually do for me?  What harm does it do to me?”  This might motivate you to let the thought go.

Tips for a quick attitude change:
Exercise:  Exercise causes your brain to release endorphins, which are natural pain relievers and mood elevators.
Eat well:  Your body and your mind need good nutrition to function well.
Get enough sleep.
Practice relaxation.  This reduces stress, which creates a more positive attitude AND it gets your brain to release endorphins.
Breathe in slowly.  Say silently to yourself, “One.”  Breathe out slowly.  Say “One” (or any other word).  Do this several times.
Listen to relaxing music.
Listen to a CD with nature sounds…or go out into nature and listen to the sounds.
Laughter ALWAYS turns a bad attitude into a good one!

If you use these techniques enough, they might become habit…and EVEN YOU can turn yourself into an optimist… someone who sees the glass as half full!  Are you willing to give it a try?

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