Optimism is the single most frequently cited attribute of healthy and happy people. But who is truly optimistic?

Research psychologist Martin Seligman

Dr. Martin Seligman

found that, to be effective, optimism must be embodied. Putting up a false front of optimism isn’t enough. In fact, trying to be optimistic can create emotional distress, which can then negatively impact health.

By contrast, people who naturally tend toward optimism are more likely to have far less distress, better health, and greater success in all endeavors as compared to people who are filled with doubt or who have pessimistic expectations.

The big question is, for those of us who naturally tend toward pessimism, how can we develop optimism and environmental mastery?

The first step involves developing the awareness that we are practicing pessimism, and this is quite difficult. The most evidence-based method of developing this awareness is mindfulness practice, which can be learned at meditation centers or an MBSR class.

The second step is to be clear on our intentions and to consciously engage in a number of practices, one of which is gratitude.

Cave paintings dating back forty thousand years reveal that prehistoric humans knew that by imagining the results they wanted to achieve (in their case—successful hunting) that they could improve the outcome.

There are many practices that will be described over time in this blog that serve to increase natural optimism. For example, consciously and intentionally thinking of 3 things each day for which we feel authentic gratitude tends to increase natural optimism.

2 replies
  1. Gregory Wilker says:

    You bring up an interesting point today; introducing the idea of “naturally tend(ing) toward pessimism”.

    So often we hear that the natural way/manner of an individual cannot be changed – and often doesn’t want to be changed.

    However, you are stating that one can change their natural tendency. Again, if I take the label/word natural to infer that it is a deeply rooted state – one that can occur without effort or consciousness – then to hear/read that one can change and influence such states is very uplifting.

    It truly gives hope to any and all beings, no matter the past or current environment in which they have found or find themselves in (at least regarding one’s mental state).

    I wonder if any extreme cases of natural behavior have been documented as having been changed through meditation or a similar practice. I also wonder if perhaps one can be trained in having a natural behavior that by another might seem miraculous or magical in nature.

    This to me brings up the question of demeanor and thought in influencing our physical world and actions; how influential is thought in one’s physical environment? Completely? Partially?

    • Larry Berkelhammer says:

      There is now mounting evidence from researchers who use fMRI and a multitude of brain scan protocols as well as electroencephalographic protocols that the brain actually goes through anatomical and physiological changes when we engage in mindfulness practices. Buddhist monks have been found to have more evolved brains. Their intensive, long-term mindful approach to life results in more positive affective states. Unfortunately, one must practice for life because when we stop practicing mindfulness, the brain, being very plastic, reverts back.

      There are many, very simple practices that when practiced routinely, can evolve the brain and result in more positive affect. Examples include breathing diaphragmatically at slower than usual rates, maintaining good postural alignment whether standing, sitting, or walking, and even hanging out with good friends.

      As for the influence of thought, when we are unable to defuse from our thoughts, unable to step back and observe them the way we would observe clouds floating across the sky, then, those thoughts directly influence brain function and affect. However, even the most negative thoughts can do no harm when we are able to avoid fusing or identifying with them.

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