by Michelle Sutton-Kerchner
How are eye color and attitude related? Hair color and personality? Height and your outlook at the day’s start? Although random, these traits are linked …
Along with brown eyes, red hair, and short stature, some personality traits are also inherited. Your view of the world began taking shape before birth. And that mold forms your thoughts today. With some effort, it can be reformed when needed. Whew– because there are sulky moments when we all need to reshape our thoughts.
Studies show optimism and, unfortunately, pessimism, can affect your health and well-being. A positive attitude helps reduce stress and the impact it has on your health. One such study followed optimists at age 25 years and found them significantly healthier at ages 45 and 60 years old than their pessimistic counterparts. Those with a pessimistic approach to life were shown in other studies to live shorter lives and suffer more health issues.
If you are striving to be a star athlete or performer, studies show pessimistic thinking leaves you and your team more vulnerable. Those who obsess over a poor performance or loss inadvertently set themselves up for future failures. One study examined pessimistic swimmers who were led to believe they did worse than they had. Their future swims were poor, a reflection of this mindset. As master of your mind, you can make amazing things (good and bad) happen.
Long Live the Optimist
A positive outlook changes one’s approach to everyday life. Stress is reduced by seeing negatives as isolated incidents. Therefore, the harmful effects of stress on body and mind are diminished. Optimists tend to feel more in control. Belief in oneself and one’s ability to influence fate allows them to more readily accept challenges, which provides more opportunities for positive outcomes.
Negative outcomes are framed as learning experiences in the positive mind. They also provide additional practice for habitual positivity, the theory that finding sunshine amidst clouds can become a habit. A healthier lifestyle ensues as confidence leads to more social interactions, physical activity, and better nutrition. Happy, optimistic people tend to rely less on vices such as cigarettes and alcohol as coping mechanisms.
During an eight-year study, the health and outlook of 100,000 women, age 50 years and older, were followed. Those with an overall optimistic attitude lived longer, healthier lives. They were 30 percent less likely to die of cardiovascular disease and 14 percent less likely to die from other causes, compared to the pessimistic participants.
This was further validated by a Mayo Clinic Study that followed over 800 people and proved a 19 percent increase in fatality risk in the population of pessimists. Think positive; live longer and healthier. Now, there’s a bright side!
If you’re a pessimist and you know it, you are probably thinking: “Great, another strike against me! I tend to be realistic (okay, pessimistic) and now know the many ways I pay for that.” Worry not– thought patters can be altered. Sure, an optimist would have an easier time acting on this. Choose to accept the idea anyway. It can be your first step toward a more optimistic lifestyle.
Make Happiness a Habit
Experts believe in cognitive restructuring, a practice where negative, self-limiting thoughts are replaced with positive ones. Research shows you can increase your level of happiness by 40 to 60 percent by taking proactive measures to a more positive life. Through this learning process, we can discover the good in ourselves and attribute it to our successes.
Simultaneously, those inevitable failures can be seen as limited events, often resulting from external causes. When responsible in this sense, we are less a victim of fate. We accept control of our destiny. With that comes the relentless desire to persist, despite setbacks.
Practice makes perfect. Take time to nourish your successes. If you increased reps in your workout, acknowledge it as a personal win. Consider how you accomplished it– through strength, sweat, and exercising when you could have opted for a night of TV.
Focus on the significance of this small coup. Where will it lead tomorrow? You’ve raised the standard on your workout. Chances are– you will stay at that level again next time. It is natural progression.
Blame it on the rain, if you fall short. A bad day on the Exercise Floor probably has nothing to do with your capabilities. Perhaps weather is affecting your joints, which scream with every leg lift. A series of extenuating circumstances probably led to a missed workout, which has nothing to do with personal laziness. Outside circumstances– life– sometimes get in the way of best intensions. Stop blaming yourself.
Keep perspective. A day of junk food, or even a weekend of poor eating, does not translate into bad nutrition. First, congratulate yourself for recognizing the little binge fest. At least you are mindful. Hopefully, you enjoyed it for the splurge it was– and that is all it was.
A weekend bonding with Ben & Jerry and Little Debbie does not signify a failed diet. In fact, optimists would consider this respite an opportunity taken to avoid feelings of deprivation. You relented to cravings, now get back on track. Next time, use your planning skills to create a more active weekend beyond range of the kitchen or donut shop. Food temptations abound. Give yourself a break.
An optimistic approach is part of a healthy lifestyle. It becomes easier to commit to fitness, proper nutrition, fulfilling relationships, and a satisfying career. Navigating the journey, with all its detours, is less distracting when you enjoy the mental energy needed to travel.
Study Your Thought Process
We all have the ability to do basic self-analysis. Whether we officially call it meditation or find it easier to randomly zone-out in thought, to become an optimist we must examine our reaction to life’s ups and downs. Consciously, we must emphasize successes. Use them as a springboard for action. Try to downplay failures. See them as isolated incidents in a world comprised of imperfect human beings. Failures are opportunities to improve.
Take a few minutes either throughout your day or as you unwind. Determine if you have given yourself enough credit for the good. Put the negatives in perspective.
Shifting your thoughts is possible; however, it takes time and examination. Mountains are not as easy to move as the optimists’ mole hills. At the start, it will seem forced and over-thought. Effort needs to be made to take pause and evaluate situations as they present themselves. It helps to have counter-thoughts ready to respond to typical everyday scenarios.
For example: My bum knee is acting up again. I’ve never been athletic. (Attributing situation to personal shortcomings.) Every time I start to make progress with my workout, something sets me back. (Over-generalizing and casting doubt on the future.)
Counter-thought: There goes my bum knee. I must have pushed it a little too far with my workout. I’ve really been making progress. (Minor setback from good intentions and overzealous determination.) Maybe I’ll check in with a personal trainer for a way to modify my routine so I can continue to advance. (Solution to assure future improvement.)
With practice, counter-thoughts to pessimistic viewpoints will surface naturally. They will no longer feel like “thoughts” but rather comfortable “reactions.” Slowly, the combination of genes, nature, and nurture that formed negative thought processes will be replaced. This permanent change can brighten all aspects of life. One day, you even may overhear yourself being called “the eternal optimist.”
When tangled in negative thought patterns, remember you are a budding optimist now. Believe in yourself. You are capable.
Forget about the glass being half full or half empty. Be the pitcher and fill it to the rim.
“Become More of an Optimist,” by Elizabeth Scott at www.about.com.
“Optimism and Health,” by Maryann Schaefer at www.athealth.com.
“Positive Thinking: Reduce Stress by Eliminating Negative Self-talk” at www.mayoclinic.com.
Sun through clouds (introductory photo): www.flickr.com/photos/andersbachmann/5851350183/
Think positive: www.flickr.com/photos/mazzastick/8608591828/
Filling glass: www.flickr.com/photos/dazjohnson/8247616305/