Your Health

Look on the bright side

Change your outlook, change your life, enhance your well-being

Change your outlook, change your life, enhance your well-being

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, January / February 2016

Being an optimist is a way of viewing the world and responding to circumstances in a positive and productive way. Research has shown that there are many benefits of optimism including better health, even when illness is present, more satisfying relationships, lower rates of anxiety and depression, and longer life expectancy. In essence, people who have an optimistic mindset tend to report increased life enjoyment.

So what does it mean to be an optimist? People who are optimistic see the good in situations even when faced with major life stressors such as disasters or life-threatening events. Having an optimistic viewpoint helps people adapt to change, manage stress, problem-solve, and cope better.

Optimism is more than just thinking positively. Many studies have shown that there is a relationship between the way we think (positive or negative thoughts), our beliefs (hope or lack thereof) and our behaviours (whether we manage problems effectively or are overwhelmed by them). People have the ability to learn skills that enhance optimism including developing hopefulness and resilience. These skills are directly linked to psychological and physical well-being, allowing people who practise optimism to face problems in a proactive rather than reactive way.

On the flip side, people who get trapped by negative thoughts and pessimism experience more stress, which can contribute to sleep problems, anxiety, or depressed mood.

Expecting the worst, not seeing options, or feeling hopeless in a situation wears down our resources and leads to ill health.  Optimism is about making sense of daily pressures that are a normal part of life, while being aware of our reactions, choices, and opportunities when faced with challenges.

We all know people who have lived through hardships, even tragedy, yet they remain hopeful and resilient. They view their difficult experiences as part of life's journey and often say they wouldn't change a thing because these experiences have helped them to discover their personal strengths and abilities. People who are optimistic rarely become overwhelmed by occurrences around them and instead tackle problems confidently as they arise, often seeing problems as temporary and solvable.

Want to build optimism in your own life? The good news is that researchers agree that developing optimism is possible. Here are some practical steps you can take to build personal optimism:

Accept things as they are

Try telling yourself that you are doing your best with what you have to offer today and identify an area in your life that is good right now. This shifts your train of thought towards acceptance and thankfulness.

Address problems in a planned way

Take time to look at the issue - what can be tackled today to make a change for the better? Develop a plan, talk with others to come up with ideas, and do something towards solving the problem. One quality of optimistic people is perseverance - being persistent in searching for options to address problems and taking action.  

Look for opportunities and life lessons

Believe in yourself and give yourself permission to make and learn from mistakes. Making room for errors takes away the pressure and perception that everything must be perfect in order to feel content. Acknowledge your personal growth and successes. One strategy is reading inspirational stories about people who have overcome significant challenges and how they used those experiences to create something good.

Surround yourself with positive people

Spend time with people you like to be around and trust. Together, share personal strategies and approaches to problem-solving and use your supports as a sounding board: "Is this the worst-case scenario?" Often times it is not, and having other people give feedback can help keep things in perspective.

Schedule optimism

Use the "three good things" exercise. Make a conscience effort to reflect on three positive moments in your day, how you felt, and how you contributed to them.

Use thought stopping or blocking

Catch negative thoughts quickly. Identify the thought, label it, let it go and move on. An additional step is replacing your negative thought with a positive one.

Try distractions

Try distracting yourself rather than going down a negative path. Take a walk, listen to upbeat music, call a supportive person, stretch and take deep breaths while clearing your mind of all thoughts and worries.

Practise mindfulness

Be attentive to the sights, sounds, and experiences around you and be aware of the here and now. What makes your life enjoyable, enriching, or worthwhile? Being mindful throughout your day is an effective strategy to avoid dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.

Keep a gratitude journal

Journalling supports people in self-discovery and personal reflection. Journalling can also be a tool to re-train our brains towards more optimism. Write freely for 15 minutes about positive life events, including people, places or experiences you enjoyed. Recalling these good life moments rekindles positive emotions associated with those memories.

We cannot always control what happens to us or how people treat us; we do, however, have control over how we view, accept, and respond to any circumstance. Being an optimist does not mean we ignore or deny that problems exist. Optimism means living life to the full in the moment, and perhaps it even gives us an edge in managing life's struggles while still embracing life's joys each and every day.

Karen L. Kyliuk is a mental health resource and education facilitator with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Wave: November / December 2015

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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