Optimism Therapy

So, you think you are a confirmed pessimist? Optimism therapy is like an attitude adjustment but focused on reframing responses as an optimist. Optimism may have a reputation as a deluded view of the world through rose-colored glasses, but, actually, optimists are happier and healthier because they tend to assume they have control over their lives, while pessimists tend to feel that life controls them.

Psychologists determine optimistic and pessimistic character based on a person's explanatory style when describing an unfortunate event. The explanatory style has three parts:

  • 1. The internal/external explanation. Optimists tend to believe that external factors cause misfortune, while pessimists tend to blame themselves (the internal factor).

  • 2. The stable/unstable explanation. Optimists tend to see misfortune as unstable or temporary, while pessimists tend to see misfortune as stable or permanent.

  • 3. The global/specific explanation. Optimists tend to see problems as specific to a situation, while pessimists tend to see problems as global — that is, unavoidable and pervasive.

How does an optimist body differ from a pessimist body? Profoundly. Studies show that optimists enjoy better general health, a stronger immune system, faster surgical recovery, and longer life than pessimists.

You can use a fun behavioral technique called “thought stopping” to nip your pessimistic tendencies, and any other mental stress reaction. To practice thought stopping, think of a negative thought you tend to have. Associate the thought with a clear image. Set a timer for three minutes, close your eyes, and concentrate on the image. When the timer rings, shout, “Stop!” Repeat several times. Then, whenever the image recurs, whisper, “Stop!” The interruption will stop the thought and give you the opportunity to consciously substitute the thought with a more positive one.

Because of their tendencies, pessimists may feel like they are under more stress than optimists, even though both are under the same amount of stress. How the stress feels may directly determine how the body reacts, making the stress response more severe in pessimists. Optimists are also more likely to engage in positive behaviors such as exercising and eating well. Pessimists may adopt a fatalistic attitude that what they eat or how much they exercise doesn't matter anyway, so they might as well do what is easiest. Pessimists also tend to be more socially isolated, lonely, or have friends with negative influences — other pessimists or people with habits that are destructive to health and well-being.

But what if you are a pessimist? Can you change? Sure you can. You just need to engage in a little optimism therapy! Studies show that smiling, even when you aren't happy, can make you feel happy, but optimism extends far beyond a forced smile. Pretending to be an optimist can actually make you feel like one and can help your body learn to respond like an optimist, too.

If your pessimism is temporary or recent, you can probably help yourself through your own personal optimism therapy sessions. At the beginning of each day, before you get out of bed, before you have time to get too pessimistic, say one of these affirmations out loud several times:

  • “No matter what happens today, I won't judge myself.”

  • “My life will improve from the inside out.”

  • “Today I will enjoy myself in healthy ways.”

  • “No matter what happens around me, this will be a good day.”

  • “This can be a good day, or this can be a bad day. I choose to make it a good day.”

  • Then, choose one single area or part of your day and vow to be an optimist in that area only. Maybe you'll choose lunchtime, or the staff meeting, or the time with your kids before dinner. During that period, every time you begin to think or say something pessimistically, immediately replace the words or thought with something optimistic. Instead of responding to a spilled coffee cup with, “I'm so clumsy!”, respond with, “Whoops! That cup slipped right out of my hand.” Instead of responding to a critique of your work with the thought, “My supervisor always hates my work,” change your thought and tell yourself, “She didn't like this part of this particular assignment, but the rest of it was great!”

    You may feel forced and unnatural doing this at first, but like anything else, the more you do it, the more it becomes a habit. You can adopt the optimist habit. It's good for your health!

    If you are a serious and fully committed pessimist, and/or if you suffer from depression, you could probably benefit from visiting a trained psychotherapist for cognitive therapy. Cognitive therapy is a kind of therapy in which the therapist helps patients discover the effect of pessimistic or depressed thoughts on mood, and also helps patients to discover the ingrained nature of these thoughts in order to catch themselves in the pessimistic act. Cognitive therapy can be very successful for depression, and some studies show it is as effective as antidepressant medication (for many people with depression, a combination of cognitive therapy and medication work best).

    1. Home
    2. Stress Management
    3. More Stress Management Tools
    4. Optimism Therapy
    Visit other About.com sites: