The power of optimism

There’s no sugar-coating it: 2020 has been a stinker. But you can get your glass to at least half-full again – science says so!

So far this year, our kitchens have become classrooms, our holidays relocated to the Costa del Back Garden, and our families existed solely in pixel form. We’ve also discovered just how loudly our other halves talk during video conferences! Yet some people seem to have been resilient to all that the global crisis has thrown at them. Their secret? Optimism: the hopeful mindset that’s been scientifically linked to increasing life expectancy by up to 15%, better problem-solving and happiness in relationships, and bigger salaries.

Optimism is also being touted as the must-have skill for us to thrive going forward. Data research company Wunderman Thompson Intelligence identified positivity as a global trend for post-pandemic life, while LinkedIn named adaptability (a hallmark of optimists) as one of its most-needed skills in the 2020 workplace.

But what to do if your mood is feeling as worn out as a used face mask? Here’s how to flip the switch and channel the power of optimism…

Understanding optimism

There’s more to it than just being a cheery sort. ‘Optimism is a form of positive thinking, where you believe you’re responsible for your own happiness and that good things will happen to you in the future,’ explains psychologist Richard Reid*, who worked in Transport For London’s Trauma Department, supporting 7/7 survivors. Having an upbeat skew – that life will work out – brings advantages. Bad stuff is seen as temporary, ‘which bolsters resilience and encourages us to withstand challenging circumstances,’ Richard says. It also makes optimists do-ers: they think up creative solutions rather than assume problems are beyond their control. And if you believe things will work out well, you’re more likely to feel happy with life right now.

Brain power

So why is it that some of us will sprint towards the future, Googling ‘beach holidays 2021’, while others just get stuck on the words ‘global recession’? The difference isn’t about being born an optimist or not (only around 25% of our optimism or pessimism is hereditary), but from two brain structures we all have.

According to optimism researcher Elaine Fox, professor of psychology & affective neuroscience at the University of Oxford, we have a ‘sunny brain’ – our grey matter’s response to good things – and a ‘rainy brain’ – which alerts us to danger and threat. ‘But the potency varies from person to person,’ she adds. ‘Some people react instantly to pleasure and fun, while others take longer to warm up. Some fret about the slightest threat or fear of rejection or embarrassment, while others have a much higher danger threshold.’

“The greatest thing about optimism is its ability to kick in when life throws its worst at us”

A quick test is to imagine you’ve unintentionally arrived late to a Zoom meeting and a colleague shoots you a half-smile. Do you assume they’re relieved to see you or annoyed you’re late? If you went for the rainy option, don’t worry: it’s an evolutionary throwback that our brains focus on threats, which explains why scary news headlines suck us in. ‘The good thing is that the circuits underlying our rainy brain and our sunny brain are among the most plastic in the human brain,’ adds Elaine. In other words, we can mould them.

The positivity prescription

Keen to identify how to reshape those brain circuits, Elaine examined decades of optimism research for her book, Sunny Brain, Rainy Brain, and created a five-step approach. The first is positive but realistic thinking. ‘Optimists aren’t naïve: they don’t feel positive all the time, or believe nothing will ever go wrong. But they do have a deep-seated conviction that they can cope,’ she explains.

Second is positive action: exercise, eating healthily and prioritising good sleep hygiene. These put into practice your realistic, goal-accomplishing thoughts from step one. For example, don’t just wish you could get more sleep – say no to a Netflix movie, be tucked up by 10pm, and give yourself the tools to wake up with a spring in your step.

Third is tenacity: optimists keep going, no matter what. A way to flex your persistency muscle is to do a positive action you don’t want to, such as sorting out your wardrobe or paperwork. The benefits segue into part four: having a sense of control over your life. Because being the boss of small elements of your day-to-day is really empowering. Think about it: control is why we often feel happier driving a car than being a passenger.

The final element is looking for positive cognitive biases. This is geek speak for reducing the power of your pessimistic rainy brain, which hunts for danger. So, stop mindlessly scrolling through bad news and seek out positive websites, such as goodnewsnetwork.org, or print media such as The Happy Newspaper. ‘Even looking at happy faces will boost your sunny brain,’ Elaine enthuses. No, you’re smiling.

covid lockdown, lockdown, optimism during lockdown, optimism during pandemic

A tonic for tough times

Perhaps the greatest thing about optimism is its ability to kick in when life throws its worst at us. If you’ve lost a loved one, optimism makes you still capable of laughing at a Dad joke, despite feeling sad. We see it on a larger scale, too. Elaine explains that post-9/11, psychologists feared a pandemic of anxiety and PTSD in New York. ‘Instead, fears gradually faded, people returned to their normal lives, and a small percentage even experienced “post-traumatic growth”, a resilience that allows someone to flourish because of their traumatic experience.’ An example might be setting up a charity that lets you channel your difficult experiences into an outlet to help others.

There’s also evidence that optimism is infectious, inspired by community. A study in lockdown  found that only 9% of Brits want life to go back to the way it was pre-Covid-19, while 85% would like social changes to continue, such as a stronger bond with the local community and keeping more in touch with family and friends.

Psychotherapist Mark Newey, who recently launched a mental wellness education program, Headucate.me, believes the upside of coronavirus (spot the optimist!) is how it’s helped us evaluate what makes us happy. ‘Since the 80s, we’ve been guided into a glass-half-empty view of life: an obsessively competitive corporate world with vicious office politics and long working days. Before the virus, one in six of us was struggling with stress, anxiety and depression,’ he says.

While lockdown initially caused a spike in anxiety, as routines and future plans fell apart, a growing spirit of ‘being in the same boat’ reignited optimism. ‘Thoughtfulness and acts of kindness by millions of people tipped the balance from competition back towards cooperation. Now, let’s retain the optimistic changes, healthier work-life balance, and worry less about keeping up with the Joneses.’

Silver linings of 2020 have, at times, felt in very short supply. But with the hope that the worst of times could lead to the best of humankind, the future is suddenly looking… sunnier.

Three fast mindset flips:

How to send pessimistic thoughts packing, by psychologist Dr Elena Touroni, co-founder of My Online Therapy

‘My career is doomed’
THE FAST FLIP: Write that down on a piece of paper, then bin it. Researchers found that physically throwing away a negative thought made people mentally ditch it, too.

‘There’s nothing to look forward to at the moment’
Reliving a happy time can help, because a nostalgic, feel-good memory can trigger an optimistic mood.

‘I constantly feel drained and negative’
THE FAST FLIP: Facebook and Instagram could be secret causes. A study found that low mood actually spreads among users. So follow positive accounts or switch off!


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