When we're going through a hard time, our outlook can be the vehicle to a better place.
This concept of learned optimism relies on the idea that we can teach ourselves to overcome negative thoughts; psychology research shows that college students who participate in a learned optimism program experience less depression, anxiety and improved health and wellness. Ready to give it a try?
Basics of optimism
The first steps toward developing a sense of learned optimism are to start viewing bad events within the following guidelines:
- A setback or failure is only temporary.
- It is specific to only one situation and not our whole lives.
- It isn’t personal: Setbacks are largely caused by circumstances and can be overcome.
For example, a bad grade is only a temporary condition limited to that one assignment. You can bounce back by asking for help with the material, improving your study skills and dedicating more time to classwork going forward.
The bad grade doesn’t define you as a person, and it doesn’t set the tone for the entire semester. The same rules apply to other difficult situations.
We don’t become eternal optimists overnight. Learned optimism is about practicing a new way of thinking. In the meantime, if something negative happens, there are other techniques you can use to help you along.
Positive psychologists recommend healthy distraction as an immediate help. Instead of lying in bed consumed by worries about classes, work or relationships, you might pick up your favorite Harry Potter book to distract yourself until you can deal with the concerns properly.
Distancing and identifying alternatives can also be helpful when it comes to dealing with negative thoughts. There are often multiple circumstances that contribute to a setback or failure, and once you see them objectively, you can make a plan to move forward.
If you catch yourself in a tailspin of negative thoughts, it’s important to take a step back and make sure you’re treating yourself like you’d treat your best friends, while thinking about ways to improve next time.
You also can interrupt negative thoughts with evidence about the reality of the situation. For example, while you may worry about a “worst case scenario,” things rarely play out that way. And, even if you feel the “worst case” is possible, you can rationally think through a variety of options for getting help—whether that’s by talking to a professor, seeing a counselor or finding new coping mechanisms.
Leading an optimistic life
Your thinking patterns aren’t the only changes you can implement; positive psychology research has shown that being mindful can improve mood and health. This means taking time each day to connect with the present moment.
For example, on the bus in the morning, you can take five minutes to clear your head and focus only on your immediate surroundings. Worries get put on hold as you focus on the moment, paying attention to the sounds, sights and experiences around you.
Savoring simple moments also makes a difference. Next time you’re having a good time with friends, take a minute, snap a “mental picture” to remember how you feel and even express it out loud by telling your friends how much you value them.
Expressing gratitude like this is also linked to improvements in mood and health. Some researchers recommend jotting down three things you’re grateful for at the start or end of every day, like being surrounded by the mountains, having a warm cup of coffee or hearing a good joke.
If this structured approach feels like too much, just finding more ways in daily life to let others know when you appreciate them has health benefits for you and them. Thank the barista, a study partner, a coworker—whoever had a positive impact, however small—and watch the difference it can make.