Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the
optimist as on the pessimist, but the optimist weathers them better.” Martin
“Sure!” answers the optimist in you.
“Unlikely”, answers the pessimist.
Sorry to disappoint your inner pessimist, but you can rewire
your brain to be optimistic, and the benefits are immense.
The pioneer of positive psychology and author of Learned
Optimism, Dr Martin Seligman, says “Pessimism is one of the personality
traits that’s highly heritable, but also modifiable by specific exercises.”
In fact, research on twins found that optimism is only
around 25 per cent inherited – the rest is up to us.
Surprisingly, the big difference between pessimists and
optimists is not what they think might happen in the future. Instead, the
difference is what they see as the cause of the problem.
“The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend
to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do,
and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard
knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to
believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to
this one case.”
In another win for optimists, it turns out that you can
learn to be optimistic.
“Pessimism is escapable,” says Seligman. “Pessimists can in
fact learn to be optimists, and not through mindless devices like whistling a
happy tune or mouthing platitudes… but by learning a new set of cognitive
Learning new cognitive skills might sound difficult, but
it’s actually quite fun and not too hard. Here are two exercises you can try
1.Imagine your ideal future
We spend too much time worrying about worst-case scenarios.
Take a moment to playfully imagine your future success. See yourself, say ten
years in the future, happy, thriving and loving life. Who is with you? What
does it feel like? What dreams have come true, and in what way?
This is called the best possible selves (BPS) activity, and
more than 30 studies have shown it can increase optimism, positive emotions,
health and wellbeing.
The trick is to do this exercise many times over, such as
once a week for eight weeks.
2.Argue with yourself
When you notice you’re having negative thoughts, argue with
them. Seligman says, “First recognise them and then treat them as if they were
uttered by an external person, a rival whose mission in life was to make you
You’ll find that you start standing up for yourself against
your own thoughts, in the same way that you’d defend a friend being unfairly
accused of wrongdoing.
When positivity becomes negative
If you haven’t heard of the term “toxic positivity”, chances
are you’ve seen it in action. It’s that friend who insists on everyone being
positive all the time.
Toxic positivity demands that we deny negative feelings and
pretend everything is OK, even when it’s not. It’s become more prevalent than
ever this last year, as people tried to cope with the challenges that the
pandemic has brought.
A tell-tale phrase is “at least.” “At least you’ve still got
a roof over your head.” “At least you can work while the kids are home.”
But ignoring negative feelings is like ignoring a physical
health symptom: it will fester. It’s vital that we acknowledge and address
difficult emotions – in others and in ourselves.
Next time you hear a friend say “gotta stay positive!”, use
it as a reminder to embrace your genuine emotions.