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How to train your brain to be more optimistic

The glass is half full -- here's how to see it that way.
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This article first appeared on NBC's BETTER.

Do you tend to see the positive, even in trying situations? Or do you immediately assume the worst and focus on the negative?

When it comes to how we view the world, most of us fall into one of two categories: optimist or pessimist. And according to experts, whatever category you fall into has a lot to do with your upbringing.

“From my experience, optimism is both a personality trait and a product of our environment,” says Karol Ward, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist. “From an early age, babies and children pick up the emotional vibes in their homes. If the atmosphere is relaxed and loving, children blossom even if they innately have a tendency towards anxiety. But if the home environment is tense and filled with dysfunction, optimism is one of the first things to go. It's hard to be emotionally open and hopeful when that is not being modeled for you by your caretakers.”

But if you recognize yourself as someone who tends to default to the negative, your childhood isn’t completely to blame.

Studies show that optimism is about 25 percent inheritable, and then there are other factors that affect our positivity — like socioeconomic status — that are often out of our control. Yet that still leaves a solid amount of wiggle room for us to develop a more optimistic outlook as adults. So if you’re someone who tends to see the negative in a given situation, there's hope.

“Some people are optimistic by nature, but many of us learn optimism as well. Anyone can learn to be optimistic — the trick is to find purpose in work and life,” says Leah Weiss, Ph.D, a Stanford professor specializing in mindfulness in the workplace. “When we work with purpose or live with purpose, we feel more fulfilled and better equipped to see the glass ‘half full.’”


Many equate optimism with happiness. But while one can breed the other, they aren’t the same thing. And while optimists are usually pegged as those who only see the positive in every situation, experts say that’s not true, either.

“Positive thinking doesn't mean that you ignore life's stressors. You just approach hardship in a more productive way,” says Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW. “Constructing an optimistic vision of life allows one to have a full interpersonal world in spite of unfortunate circumstances ... [it] reduces feelings of sadness/depression and anxiety, increases your lifespan, fosters stronger relationships with others and provides a coping skill during times of hardship. Being optimistic allows you to handle stressful situations better, which reduces the harmful health effects of stress on your body.”

Science shows that those with an optimistic outlook have better cardiovascular health and a stronger immune system, earn a higher income and have more successful relationships.

In fact, 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.

“Optimism is a mindset that enables people to view the world, other people and events in the most favorable, positive light possible. Some people describe this as the ‘half glass full’ mentality,” says Dr. Aparna Iyer, psychiatrist and assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. “Optimists do acknowledge negative events, but they are more likely to avoid blaming themselves for the bad outcome, inclined to view the situation as a temporary one and likely to expect further positive events in the future.”


So what exactly is happening in the brain when we have a positive or negative response to a situation?

Research shows that positive moods are associated with more left-side activity, while negative emotions, like being angry or depressed, are associated with more right-side activity.

"Just about anyone can be classified by their brain wave patterns as one or the other type," said Dr. Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, who has conducted numerous studies on the link between activity in the frontal lobes and emotions. He found that only 15 percent of people have no inclination one way or the other.

Another one of his studies published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology confirmed that these brain pattern activities are strong predictors of how we will react to certain situations. Volunteers with more left-side activity who watched amusing films had a far stronger pleasant response, while those with more right-side brain activity who watched distressing films had far stronger negative feelings.

Positive moods are associated with more left-brain activity, while negative emotions fire up the right side of the brain.

The good news: By consciously altering your thought processes, you can literally re-wire your brain.

Davidson conducted an experiment to see if it was possible to shift the activity of those who had a tendency towards right-brain activity. Mindfulness was taught to workers in high-stress jobs who, on average, tipped toward the right in the ratio for the emotional set point. The findings were promising: After two months of training (for three hours each week), their emotions ratio shifted to the left and they reported feeling less anxious, more energized and happier.

Yes, the workers proved that we are able to change how our brains respond to experiences.


Is making the effort to train your brain to be more optimistic worth it? Science says yes. Research shows that the sunny worldview has some very real benefits for your health and productivity.

According to a study published in Clinical Psychology Review, optimism is closely linked to resilience. “Optimism has been shown to create physical and mental resilience for people, even those who have been through extraordinarily traumatic life circumstances or medical situations,” says Iyer.

Science also shows that those with an optimistic outlook tend to be more proactive when it comes to their health, have better cardiovascular health and a stronger immune system, earn a higher income and have more successful relationships.

With all of these suggested benefits, it’s not surprising that research also shows that being optimistic can lengthen your lifespan.

A large study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that the most optimistic women were 30 percent less likely to die from any of the serious illnesses tracked during the 8-year time period, including cancer, heart disease and stroke.


Convinced it’s time for a shift in perspective (and to take advantage of the perks that come with it)? You’ll be happy to hear that experts believe optimism is a trait that can be learned pretty easily.

“Previous studies have shown that optimism can be altered with relatively uncomplicated and low-cost interventions — even something as simple as having people write down and think about the best possible outcomes for various areas of their lives, such as careers or friendships,” said postdoctoral research fellow Kaitlin Hagan, co-lead author of the Harvard study. “Encouraging use of these interventions could be an innovative way to enhance health in the future.”

“Optimism can definitely be a learned trait,” agreed Iyer, who says she works with many clients to cultivate a more optimistic outlook. “Just because you have been a pessimist for most of your life does not mean that you are destined to always be a pessimist. In fact, there are many effective ways to adopt an optimistic mindset.”

Here are a handful of tactics that will help you begin to see the glass half full.


Yes, shifting your perspective is as easy as consciously thinking happy thoughts.

“For my clients who have historically tended to be pessimistic, they habitually view things as negative. I will ask them to challenge themselves to always consider that there may be another way of looking at things,” says Iyer. Experts refer to the tactic as "positive reframing."

“For example, if a client expresses that an entire day was ruined because it was dark or rainy outside, I would challenge him to focus on what may have been gained during that time. Often, he will reply that he did end up spending time indoors relaxing, reading or cuddling up to somebody he loves. Instead of looking at events in the most negative possible light, I encourage clients to make an active effort to ‘try on’ positive lenses as much as possible. After a while, this will become effortless, a more automatic and optimistic frame of mind.”

Making this conscious effort not only shifts your viewpoint in the short term, but it may actually train your brain to think more positively. As Davidson’s research revealed, the more we consciously reframe scenarios in a positive light, the more we train our brains to fire up circuits in different regions, eventually altering our response to negative experiences.


We all have those friends who are chronic complainers or gossipers. After spending a few hours with them we find ourselves jumping on the Debby Downer bandwagon. It’s clear: Negativity is contagious.

Luckily, positive emotions can be contagious, too.

“Just as some diseases are contagious,” Christakis says, “we’ve found that many emotions can pulse through social networks,” says Nicholas Christakis, an HMS professor of medical sociology and of medicine who has researched the contagion of emotions within the larger context of social networks, His research found that happiness may be a collective phenomenon: Having a happy spouse, or a friend or neighbor, who lives within a mile of you appears to increase the probability that you will be happy as well.

Which means it’s time to add some optimists to your network.

Having a happy spouse, friend or neighbor who lives within a mile of you increases the probability that you will be happy as well.

“Start noticing who you spend time with on a daily basis. If you start connecting to people who are optimistic and grounded in life, you will start to be affected by their positive energy," says Ward. "The same goes for the time you spend with pessimistic people. The more you spend time with negativity, the more negative you are bound to feel.”


Five minutes of the morning news is enough to send anyone's mood in a downward spiral.

“The news and current state of media and politics can make it very hard for people to be optimistic. The reality is that the moment you turn on the news or read the paper, you are likely to be barraged with negativity and a bleak outlook on the world,” says Iyer. “This, however, is an imbalanced view on the world, so I suggest that people try to limit their consumption of the news. I typically recommend allowing yourself just enough time to learn the news, after which I suggest that you turn off the media and instead spend time doing activities that help maintain your health and a positive outlook. If you feel a need to process the current state of political or world affairs, you may want to consider having a healthy discussion about it with a friend or family member; this still allows you to absorb the information but can also offer you a good level of discourse and balanced views on the news.”


Researchers define gratitude as the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself, or a general state of thankfulness — no doubt a mental state that fosters an optimistic outlook. But it can be easier said than done to remain grateful throughout day to-day stressors .

A smart way to ease into it is by journaling, a popular technique for cultivating gratitude that takes just minutes each day.

“I will often ask my clients to keep gratitude journals. At the end of each day, they will write down one or two things that they experienced or witnessed during the day that filled them with gratitude, says Iyer. “It is really important to note that this could be anything — a cup of coffee that filled you with joy, a random act of kindness by a stranger or even breathing in some fresh air on your morning walk. This will allow you to focus on the positives of your day and cultivate an optimistic mindset, a perfect note on which to end your day.”

One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that writing in a journal about what you are grateful for was linked to greater feelings of optimism, while another published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that keeping a journal in which you write down your own acts of kindness can also give you optimism a boost.

Writing down what you are grateful for is linked to greater feelings of optimism.

Not to mention that writing down what you’re grateful for comes with some pretty impressive physical benefits as well, including better sleep, improved heart health, reduced aches and pains and fewer depressive symptoms.

While you have your journal open, jot down some of your accomplishments as well. “It may sound corny but start acknowledging your personal and professional achievements. Doing so creates a sense of self-esteem and healthy self-esteem builds confidence. When you feel confident, you feel much more optimistic about life,” says Ward.


“While some people may be unable to deal with uncertainty, positive individuals are able to adapt and thrive. Accept what you can and cannot control in the situation,” says Hershenson. “For example, if you lose your job you cannot control the fact that you were fired or laid off. You can control whether you take steps to find a new job as well as whether you take care of yourself with proper nutrition and sleep.”

Practicing mindfulness is a great way to help combat the tendency to ruminate over daily stressors, which is a breeding ground for negativity.

“We often ruminate endlessly without really focusing on the task at hand,” says Weiss. “If you can learn to be in the present space (while allowing other thoughts to enter your brain but then pushing them gently away) without judgement or thought about past or future, you will find that there’s less room for pessimism,” says Weiss.


It's important to remember that making an effort to be more optimistic doesn’t mean walking around wearing rose-colored glasses. While it's good for our mental health to see the positive in situations, not acknowledging the negative can hinder you in the long run.

“Optimism can be detrimental if it keeps you locked into fantasy and you are in denial about your current reality. You may be optimistic about finding a more lucrative job or loving relationship, but if you do not address the issues that are keeping you from those goals, you will not be able to create what you want,” says Ward. “A combination of optimism and realistic thinking help people navigate through life. Realistic thinking does not mean never seeing the bright side of life; not at all. It is simply a way of supporting your optimism with the action steps so that you can create a positive future as opposed to being stuck in fantasy.”