The Chronic Pessimist's Guide To Being Optimistic (For Once!)

Get rid of that rain cloud, with very little effort.

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By Jane Meredith Adams

If you're a pessimist, you can vault yourself into a worst-case scenario in a nanosecond and immediately forget how to be happy.

You get an invitation to dinner from a new neighbor, and you imagine an awkward meal, followed by a lifetime of mutual dislike right on your own block. New clothes are a torment, lying in wait for a ruinous dab of salad dressing. A trip to one of the most beautiful ski resorts in the country? At best, you'll be miserably cold or break an ankle; at worst, you'll wind up snow-blind.


Negativity may appear to be a great defense mechanism: If you keep your expectations low enough, you won't be crushed when things don't work out. But new research has revealed that the tendency to be a wet blanket in just about any situation — a trait the experts call "dispositional pessimism" — doesn't merely ruin a good time and prevent you from making friends. It seems that it's a bad strategy by about every measure.

Optimists, it turns out, do better in most avenues of life, whether it's work, school, sports, or relationships. They get depressed less often than pessimists do, make more money, and have happier marriages. 


And not only in the short run. There's evidence that optimists and people who know how to be happy live longer, too. A 9-year study of cardiovascular health in more than 900 men and women in the Netherlands found that pessimists not only die sooner of heart disease than optimists, but they also die sooner of just about everything. And pessimism has even been linked to higher odds of developing dementia.

Fortunately, a grim outlook doesn't have to be permanent. Leading researchers say that optimism and pessimism are two ends of a continuum, with about 80 percent of the US population scattered from mildly to relentlessly optimistic.

But research reveals that if you're hunkered down on the other end, you can slide on over — or at least get some of the benefits that usually cluster on the optimistic side of the scale, says Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD, an optimism researcher at the University of Kentucky and author of Breaking Murphy's Law.


RELATED: Optimistic People All Share ONE Thing In Common: They're LATE

It takes only a few changes. They're small, gradual, and not what you'd expect.

1. Don't try to be happy.

In one of Segerstrom's favorite studies, researchers asked a group of people to use a beautiful piece of classical music to raise their moods, while telling other volunteers simply to listen to the symphony. The result: The concert didn't help those who were focused on lifting their spirits—but the others wound up feeling much better.


"To truly be happy, you have to stop trying," says Segerstrom. Even monitoring yourself — Am I feeling better yet? — gets in the way, studies show. Instead, aim to be engaged. "Engagement bypasses pessimism," she says.

One reason: When you're fully involved in something, it can distract you from a pessimist's favorite pastime: rumination. (That's what psychologists call the destructive pattern of obsessing endlessly over problems or concerns.) When you're ruminating, it's not just a bad day — it's always a bad day, and a bad life, and you're a bad person.

The habit will blow up even a minor problem to billboard size. It takes up so much bandwidth, who has room to focus on a solution? It's no surprise that optimists accomplish more than pessimists.

Attitude adjustment: Find quick distractions you can use when you realize you're stuck on the same negative thought, suggests Segerstrom. Try activities that demand your full attention: Go to a yoga class (or a kickboxing or aerobics class, where you have to commit fully to avoid falling on your face). At the office, try calling a friend or switching on some absorbing music.


2. Imagine that it's the end of the world.

Ruminating is just one road to pessimism. Another habit that dims your outlook: a process called catastrophizing, mentally rewriting grim possibilities until they become true doomsday scenarios. A simple cough turns into pneumonia (and not the kind you recover from, either). One missed deadline is the first step in a fast trip to permanent unemployment.

This rumination-and-catastrophization combo packs a terrible one-two punch: Worst-case scenarios may be absurd, but playing them over and over makes them seem not only logical but inevitable. And it sucks the joy out of life.


Attitude adjustment: Exaggerate those scenarios to the point of comic hilarity, says Karen Reivich, PhD, codirector of the Penn Resiliency Project at the University of Pennsylvania and coauthor of The Resilience Factor. "At some point you think, Oh, come on, now. Am I really going to be living beneath an underpass in a refrigerator box because I'm a day late on a project?"

Don't stop with the refrigerator box. Picture yourself trying to trap squirrels for supper — maybe even whipping up some squirrel fondue for the other bag ladies you've met under the bridge. Then paint the opposite scenario. Your project makes your company a million dollars! You're promoted to CEO!

Finally, write down the outcome that's most likely. Chances are, it won't include the executive suite or the one under the freeway.

"The beauty of this goofing around is that you feel a bit of power over your thoughts and the situation," Reivich says. "That sense of control is the antidote to pessimism."


3. Go ahead, blame someone else.

Researchers have learned that optimism and pessimism both boil down to little more than our "explanatory" style — a person's distinct way of interpreting life's ups and downs.

When a good thing happens, pessimists dismiss it as a fluke; optimists take the credit. When bad things happen, pessimists blame themselves and expect to suffer a long time, while optimists see bad events as having little to do with them, and as one-time problems that will pass quickly. A pessimist who misses a shot on the tennis court says, "I'm lousy at tennis"; an optimist says, "My opponent has a killer serve."


University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman, PhD, author of Learned Optimism and a pioneer of positive psychology, was the first to discover that a person's explanatory style is fairly stable and that it often explains why pessimists fail when optimists succeed. After all, it's easier to keep practicing your tennis serve if you're sure you'll do fine against someone at your level.

Thanks to the power of their explanatory style, optimists have an easier time even when things go wrong. Optimistic breast cancer patients are just as depressed by bad news as their pessimistic counterparts. But women with an optimistic disposition are more likely to expect their cancer ordeal to have a positive outcome, studies show; not surprisingly, these women report significantly greater emotional well-being during treatment, while pessimists suffer more distress.

The good news: Researchers have found that pessimistic, self-blaming people can learn to come up with alternative explanations for setbacks and move forward to problem-solving. However, making a long-term mindset switch takes continuous effort.

RELATED: Why Pessimists Have Longer, More Satisfying Marriages, According To Science


Attitude adjustment: When you catch yourself thinking like a pessimist, reframe the problem so that it's not all your fault. Instead of standing alone at a party thinking, "No one is interested in talking with me — I look pathetic!" try something like "Where's the hostess? I'd never let a newcomer fend for herself without making introductions!"

Of course, a true optimist wouldn't go looking for a scapegoat and you do have to acknowledge your contribution to a problem if you want to make it better. But it helps to recognize that you're not the problem, even if your behavior could use some tweaking.

Finally, set a small, achievable goal: Find that hostess and ask her to introduce you to three people at the party.

4. Try, try again.



Why do optimists tend to end up with so much to feel good about? Long after pessimists have given up and gone home, optimists keep trying to solve problems. In one study, optimists continued to work on unscrambling an impossible-to-solve anagram 50 to 100 percent longer than pessimists.

There wasn't a lot of payoff for persistence in the anagram exercise (and the pessimists are still thinking, suckers!). But in the real world, studies show that persistence leads to more success in school, a fatter paycheck, and a host of other perks.

In fact, in a study of law students, Segerstrom found that a person's level of optimism in the first year of law school corresponded with his or her salary 10 years later. The impact wasn't measly: On a 5-point optimism scale, every 1-point increase in optimism translated into a $33,000 bump in annual income.

Attitude adjustment: The quickest way to get yourself into the positive-feedback loop that keeps optimists going strong (hard work leads to success, which leads to more self-confidence and a willingness to work even harder, which leads to...) is to act like one. What's more, studies looking at the "fake it till you make it" approach show that it can have a surprisingly strong and immediate impact on your emotions.


In research at Wake Forest University, for example, scientists asked a group of 50 students to act like extroverts for 15 minutes in a group discussion, even if they didn't feel like it. The more assertive and energetic the students acted, the happier they were.

What's best about this kind of cognitive-behavioral change is that it doesn't even require much faith, Segerstrom says. "You don't have to believe an antibiotic is going to work for it to work." The same is true of reaping the benefits of adopting a positive mindset.

5. Make friends with an optimist.



If you're not in the mood for playacting, hooking up with an optimist may be the next best strategy. A year-long study of more than 100 college-age couples from the University of Oregon found that both positive thinkers and their partners have greater satisfaction in their relationships than optimist-free pairs, in part because happy-go-lucky types tend to see their partners as supportive.

"If you are the partner of an optimist, both of you will be more satisfied in the relationship and more constructive in resolving conflicts," says Sanjay Srivastava, PhD, lead researcher on the study. It's not that a rosy worldview is contagious, it's just that you'll feel more positive about the relationship.

Attitude adjustment: Besides "slipstreaming" on your partner's optimism, socialize with cheery friends and bounce ideas off your more positive colleagues; research hints that these kinds of relationships with up-side types can make you feel better, too. And if you happen to be married to a pessimist, or are on your own? Your optimistic friends and coworkers are your best sounding board.


6. Try these 3 quick, feel-good moves:

You don't have to spend years in therapy to become more positive. Studies have shown that these three strategies take just 1 week to make a real improvement, according Seligman.

  1. Use your signature strengths in a new way: Researchers asked study participants about their top five strengths—generosity, for instance, or creativity—and then told them to use one of these strengths in a new and different way every day for 1 week. The result? The volunteers measurably increased their happiness for a full 6 months.
  2. Write down the good things: Every day, a group of adults was asked to write down three things that had gone well and why they happened. And again, even though the experiment lasted only 1 week, participants reported feeling happier for 6 months afterward.
  3. Pay a gratitude visit: People were given 1 week to write and then deliver a letter of gratitude in person to someone who had been especially kind to them, but whom they had never thanked properly. The happiness boost from this experiment lasted about 1 month.

RELATED: These Are 3 Most Pessimistic Zodiac Signs (So Prepare For The Worst)


Jane Meredith Adams writes frequently about women's health and well-being.

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