Imagine the Glass is Full — Overflowing, Even.
You might see yourself as an upbeat type — or know that you’re on the pessimistic side. We tend to think of our basic outlook as a steady trait. In fact, your level of optimism shifts over time. After a series of reversals or disappointments, or a big tragedy, you might become gloomier, expecting more of the same.
It’s worth making a conscious effort to be optimistic, since you’ll be happier and a sunny vision of the future is good for your health. Studies have shown that optimistic people are less likely to have strokes or hypertension and may have stronger immune systems. Feeling optimistic helps you cultivate and maintain supportive relationships, exercise, eat healthily, and choose achievable goals.
When pessimists experience a good thing, they see it as random, not part of a pattern in their lives or reflecting who they are. Optimists are more likely to see the good thing as part of a happy vision of their life as a whole. If they hurt themselves and a stranger goes a long way to help, they think, “There will always be someone there for me.” A pessimist would think, “That was a lucky break. What if he didn’t show up? Most people wouldn’t help. “
Neither person is accurate. In reality, many strangers are kind, but thinking there will “always be someone for me” because you’re special isn’t correct. Aim to be realistic — with a tilt toward optimism.
So how can you boost your optimism?
Instead of playing out anxious scenarios, daydream happy ones. Take 10 minutes and tell yourself to fantasize an ideal outcome in an area that’s important to you.
Let’s say you’ve broken your leg. You can’t wave your wand and make it heal in an hour. However, imagining a quick, full recovery and next year’s skiing trip could make you happier and reduce your pain.
You might just think about skiing and feeling very fit. Or be more expansive and imagine a rosy future across the board, “your best possible self” — success in your dream career; a fun, sexy, intimate marriage; your children grown up and flourishing; a strong circle of caring friends.
The best possible self visualization exercise dates back to a study in 2001. Participants spent 20 minutes a day for four days in a row writing about their best possible future self while other people wrote about their most traumatic life event, both of these topics, or a nonemotional control topic. They answered questions about their mood and health. Five months after writing, it turned out that writing about trauma, one’s best possible self, or both were all associated with decreased illness.
So you can write about trauma, but it’s more fun to write about living well.
Writing by hand has benefits of its own, but research on this exercise found that it also works writing on a computer. If you’d rather, try talking out loud, or simply daydream. Be concrete. Imagine the award ceremony, and the party afterwards, or the barbeque at your beach house purchased with the earnings from your successful new business.
You can start by doing the exercise for 15 minutes once a week. In a 2011 study students who practiced this visualization 15 minutes a week for eight weeks were happier six months later. Another 2011 study documented benefits after participants conjured up their ideal for five minutes a day for only two weeks — writing down their thoughts and concentrating on one area of life. Fifteen minutes of writing about a happy future lowered reported pain in a group of patients.
Age doesn’t doom you to pessimism, despite seeing more of life’s tragedies. Among Americans, older people may be more optimistic, one study found. The shift may come around 50: in a 2008 telephone survey of nearly 341,000 adults in the United States, people reported less anger and worry after that age, regardless of whether they were employed or had romantic partners or children at home.
Older people may be better at predicting how they will respond to certain circumstances, which allows them to make happy choices, studies suggest. In a series of studies at Brown University, researchers concluded that people feel happy when they engage in activities that they consider self-defining.
Imagining your best possible self will tell you what you value most. During your daydream, you may find that you don’t imagine a promotion, but can see the healthy and abundant food on the table at a large family gathering. That should tell you something.
How realistic should you be? Don’t imagine you’ll be an Olympic gymnast at 60. But you can try imagining something that doesn’t seem possible to you now and surprise yourself by feeling better. If you’re happier and healthier, it’s easier to take the steps toward the dream.
January 16, 2017
Janet O’Dell, RN