Looking at world events and considering the impact they may have on our lives, it is easy to fall into a pessimistic view of the future, but you can change that and improve your well-being now and create a healthier and happier tomorrow.
Well, thanks to the effects of the pandemic coupled with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the global economic market is not so great. Many countries are experiencing high commodity prices, supply disruptions, increased food insecurity and poverty, sky-high inflation and heightened political uncertainty that tends to negatively affect those markets. Here in the U.S., gas, food, rent and mortgage rates are all rapidly increasing and shortages are on the rise.
Not only is Covid 19 still impacting people, but experts predict more pandemics are coming. Then there’s climate change. Spain is in the grip of a heatwave with temperatures hitting 111 degrees last week. Sydney started their winter with the coldest day of the year and 70 mile per hour winds. Temperatures soared in India and Pakistan as early as March, hitting above 120 degrees. Iraq just endured its 9th sandstorm in less than two months, shutting down much of the country. Brazil is experiencing massive rainfall and floods in some regions and severe drought conditions in others. Temperatures in the western United States climbed sharply last week, as high as 117 in some places and the predictions for the summer are not good between heat, drought and fires. Speaking of fires, wildfires are burning in northern Siberia and Alaska.
Crime rates are up, at least in the U.S., and we sadly continue to experience mass shootings in public spaces, including schools. It feels like no matter where you look, there’s trouble on the horizon. Considering all of this, how can we be optimistic about life or our futures? Or maybe the better question is, why should we? First and foremost, studies show that psychological health is a major factor in our mental health and our longevity. According to researcher Jennifer Boylan from the University of Michigan, “How people feel about the way their life is going is important for their health and survival.” So at a time when we feel threatened from multiple sources, it might be a good time to ensure our health and survival by working on improving our state of mind.
Three factors appear to be critical in boosting our psychological well-being: optimism, purpose and happiness. Today I want to focus on the first one, optimism. Studies show that optimism is about 25% inheritable. There are also other factors that affect our positivity, like socioeconomic factors that are often out of our control. But that still leaves plenty of room for us to develop a more optimistic outlook on life and we can train our minds to be more optimistic, despite our circumstances.
Experts claim that the real difference between optimists and pessimists isn’t in their level of happiness or in how they perceive a situation, but in how they cope. Keep in mind that optimism is a mindset and it enables people to see the world, other people and events in the most favorable, positive light possible, or a half glass full mentality. Being optimistic doesn’t mean that we don’t acknowledge negative events, but simply that we process those events differently. Optimists are more likely to avoid blaming themselves for the negative outcome, inclined to see the situation as temporary and tend to expect further positive events in the future. That again leads to improved psychological health that supports us through our most difficult challenges.
Research indicates that by consciously altering our thought processes, we can literally rewire our brains to be more optimistic. Science also shows that optimistic people have better cardiovascular health and a stronger immune system, earn a higher income and have more successful relationships, so if you’re feeling pessimistic, here’s more evidence as to why you may need to consider taking action to be more positive.
A large study conducted by the Harvard School of Health found that the most optimistic women were 30% less likely to die from serious illnesses, including cancer, heart disease and stroke. A recent study from the University of Michigan showed that people who are psychologically healthy tend to take better care of themselves by being physically active, sleeping better, and engaging in more preventative health care. Also, being mentally healthy might help people cope better with stress, reducing the harmful physiological responses, like increased heart rate or blood pressure that come with it.
Since we can’t control any of those negative, stressful factors I opened with, it makes sense to do whatever we can to better cope with stress, doesn’t it? So how do we start training our brains to better support us?
Start with where you are right now. Mindfully, without judgment, simply write down how you’re feeling about various aspects of your life. Work, health, finances, relationships, and any specific circumstances you’re currently experiencing. Then try reviewing the list with a positive lens. This is called positive reframing and you can try it on with any situation to see if you can achieve a different perspective. Making this conscious shift trains our brain to think more positively, firing up circuits in different regions of the brain and eventually altering our response to negative experiences.
Let’s say you had to cancel a vacation because airfares have jumped so high. Consider how you might benefit from not traveling right now. Less exposure to contagious disease, like Covid or Monkeypox? How much money did you save by not going on the trip that you can either put toward an even better trip later when the economy calms down or put toward the purchase of something you’ve been wanting? How about not having to endure the stress involved with travel these days, like security checks, delays, flight cancellations and over-packed flight cabins?
A job loss could be viewed as an opportunity for an even better job. A health challenge might be an opening for dedicating time and attention to your self-care. Climate catastrophes could be the wakeup call we need to take positive action for our environment. Supply shortages could allow us to reconsider our spending habits and consumerism. Mindfulness includes acceptance of the fact that whatever is happening has occurred, but we have a choice in how we respond to it. That’s really all this reframing is, taking control of our minds in response to the events. We choose how we think about it. If it feels negative, we can choose to view it differently so not as to further cause ourselves psychological harm.
Another powerful method to shift our brain’s response to negative events is gratitude, which you’ve heard me recommend many times. I think this one’s difficult for people because it sounds too simple, but there are many studies showing how powerfully effective it is. Start a gratitude journal and at the end of each day, write down something that you’re grateful for that occurred. It may be 100 degrees outside, but I’m so grateful for my cold drink and for my air conditioner. Groceries may be exorbitantly expensive, but I’m so grateful that I have food in my refrigerator. I couldn’t afford to fill up my car today because gas is so high, but I’m grateful for the quiet, restful day I ended up with by staying home. Writing down what you’re grateful for is linked to greater feelings of optimism, so the more consistently you do it, the more consistently your brain will start responding from a grateful perspective.
Another contributor to optimism is to lessen rumination. Mindfulness is very effective in reducing the tendency to ruminate over daily stressors which directly feeds into creating negativity. When we stay present, without judgments or thoughts about the past or future, there’s a lot less room for pessimism. Focus on the task at hand and as negative thoughts pop into the mind, simply allow them to enter without attaching to them and notice how they gently slide on by. If you have challenges staying focused, pause and notice your breath for a few minutes. Just simply breathe and pay attention to the feelings of the breath, the smallest details as you breathe in and out for just a couple of minutes. Then return to the task, focusing on as many details of the task as you can. You may have to do this multiple times, but your mind will catch on and start cooperating with you more.
We can’t ignore the negative around us, nor do we want to. Being optimistic doesn’t mean pretending that the world is all rainbows and puppy dogs. We want to aim for optimism combined with realism. Being optimistic means recognizing that there are some things in our control and some that we have no control over. We acknowledge those areas we can’t control but put more energy towards what we do have control over. Return to your list of your life circumstances right now. Divide that list into areas where you do have some control and the areas where you have no control. Focus on those areas where you can take action or can shift your perspective.
There are a significant number of simple actions you can take to support your psychological well-being and increase feelings of optimism in your day-to-day activities. Stop watching the news. Reduce social media and doom scrolling. Eat healthy and get exercise. Enjoy your relationships and have fun, even if just a little each day. Perhaps most importantly, sleep. You already know that when you sleep well, you feel better the next day and are better able to cope with daily stressors, so make sleep a priority as you work on rewiring your brain towards more optimism.
Finally, remember that everything changes all of the time and that everything runs in cycles. Today’s economic woes will eventually turn into a time of prosperity. Today’s illnesses will be solved by tomorrow’s scientific discoveries. Political strife and war will evolve into a period of peace at some point. While we can’t control the timing of these factors, it is the same with our individual lives. We all have periods of stress, sadness and challenges, followed by periods of ease, happiness and flourishing. If we can accept the situation we are currently in for what it is and recognize that it will change, we can stop worrying so much about it and simply focus on the present moment, getting the most out of life and maintaining our psychological well-being so that we can find joy through optimism, regardless of what is occurring around us.