Good news: neuroscientists tell us that humans are hard-wired for optimism. Makes sense when you think about it — our ancestors went hunting and gathering and sailing and sewing and so on because they expected something good.
Optimism itself is good — good for our health. According to a recent New York Times article, more and more long-term studies show that optimism fosters “exceptional” longevity and lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic ailments. Other studies have concluded optimists have better pain management, immune response and physical function. But with all that is going on in the world today, how can we be optimistic?
Optimism does not mean we do not feel. We can feel sad and be optimistic, or feel angry and be optimistic. Optimism means that we anticipate a generally positive outcome from the experiences and events in our life. It’s having what research psychologist Carol Dweck calls “a growth mindset,” meaning that we expect to learn and develop from life’s challenges.
Even so, our optimism can use a little care and feeding from time to time. How?
- Connect with your body. We don’t need faith or intention — if we have a body we have the basis for optimism. Start by closing your eyes. Experience your own tremendous vitality. “My body knows what it is doing. My breath is coming in and out of it. It wants to be here. It’s designed to heal itself. My heart is pumping. My senses work automatically and bring me some kind of gladness every day.” For extra endorphins, take a bath, a walk, or workout.
- Savor your gladness. Gladness is that joyous wordless whoosh we all recognize that arises from countless experiences: glorious weather, a mouthwatering meal, a belly laugh, a warm embrace, a spell of light, a gift of nature and the myriad of daily pleasures that delight even if — and maybe because — they are familiar. (Morning coffee steams to mind.) Why is gladness important? Because that coursing sense of well-being connects us with each other and all life. Be on the lookout for what makes you glad and savor those moments. Humans love to discern and create patterns. Noticing your pattern of gladness fosters a sense of optimism that more will be forthcoming.
- Broaden your bandwidth. Feel the creative energy we share with all beings. If cells weren’t glad to be cells could they metabolize? Grow into organs? If atoms were ashamed of being atoms, could they join atomic hands? No whirling around tonight, honey. I’m just not up to making a cell. Why bother anyway? I’m not that great at it, and cells only die, so why even make one? We laugh because we recognize that gladness is the essential motion of creativity. And whatever exists, creates. Atoms and cells may not comprehend they create our bodies, but they’re drawn to do so. Likewise, we may be part of a larger system we don’t comprehend, but we can feel its “organs” when we are drawn together to create a symphony orchestra, a sports team, a school, a hospital, a movie set. These larger entities need us functioning well just as we need healthy atoms, cells and organs. It feels great to be part of something larger than ourselves.
- Opt for healthy connection. Disaster can strike. Humans can behave badly. But when we persistently focus on the worst, we pickle ourselves in damaging stress hormones which undermine our health and cloud our judgment. Extreme pessimism makes us want to disconnect from the human race itself — which is not good for us or for the human race. As the pandemic reminds us, human life is ultimately about connection. When we find ourselves spinning off into Gloomtown, connection puts us back on track. Wander in nature or the neighborhood. Visit with a friend virtually or physically. Help a cause or organization you believe in. If you are feeling solitary, connect with your emotions in vigorous movement or pour them out on a page.
- Pilot your imagination. Our imagination is our primary instrument of creativity. It has such a powerful effect on our behavior that some people make it their life’s work to hijack it for their own purposes or profits. But the ship and the ship’s wheel are ours. Use your strong desire as fuel and steer it into the physical life you want to create. Nothing fortifies our optimism more than creating the world we want, one action at a time. For example, I love when a cashier gives me back too much change. The world I want to create is peopled with honest folk, so I always return it. “You’re so honest,” they say. What’s fun is that not only have I reinforced an honest world for myself, but I have created tangible evidence for another person, thus expanding that honest world. We can constantly build our stash of evidence for ourselves and others.
- Cultivate your gratitude. Sharpen your daily attention. Our five senses, our fantastic curiosity, our exhilarating emotional capacity are just a few of our avenues to gladness. Even when headlines clamor, or life deals tough challenges, we can find numberless reasons to feel grateful and hopeful. We find them in simple moments as we repot our plants or tackle creative projects; as we explore other cultures down the street or over the sea; and as we witness or perform acts of beauty in the face of our common sorrows.
- Keep your sense of humor. It’s tempting to take life seriously. But that just collapses the whole soufflé. Groucho Marx said, “If you find it hard to laugh at yourself, I would be happy to do it for you.” And here’s Charles M. Schulz: “Don’t worry about the world coming to an end today — it’s already tomorrow in Australia.” “Like a welcome summer rain, humor may suddenly cleanse and cool the earth, the air, and you,” Langston Hughes tells us, and we can smell the truth in it.
Remember: nature is by nature optimistic. Growth is optimistic; healing is optimistic. These processes remind us there’s reason to continue being here. Even when we don’t feel optimistic, we can always look forward to the day we will.
Popova, M. (2012, Dec 13). Why We’re Born Optimists, and Why That’s Good. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/12/why-were-born-optimists-and-why-thats-good/266190/
Brody, J.E. (2020, Jan 20). Looking on the Bright Side May Be Good for Your Health. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/27/well/mind/optimism-health-longevity.html
Rasmussen, H. N., Scheier, M. F., & Greenhouse, J. B. (2009). Optimism and physical health: A meta-analytic review. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 37(3), 239-256.
Popova, M. (2014, Jan 29). Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives [blog post]. Brain Pickings. Retrieved from https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/01/29/carol-dweck-mindset/