Everyone has that friend who’s so cheerful it’s almost annoying. But while some people just happen to be more positive than others, optimism isn’t strictly a personality trait–it’s a learnable skill.
The positive psychologist Martin Seligman coined the term “learned optimism” in the ’90s; it’s the idea that with a little conscious practice, we can strategically tamp down our brains’ “negativity bias,” the tendency some people have toward seeing the downside of things. We call those folks pessimists. On the opposite end, those with a “positivity bias” are termed optimists. But Seligman’s key insight, which has since been deepened by brain science, is that where we fall on this spectrum isn’t as fixed as those identity labels suggest.
Fortunately, there’s a simple mental exercise you can practice in order to nudge your brain toward optimism when it may be more useful–particularly in decision making. Here’s how it works.
How Optimism Helps You Make Choices
For starters, negativity bias isn’t a bad thing. It’s what helps you pay more attention to threats and risk, for one thing. Still, being able to intentionally shift your mind-set toward optimism can activate the brain areas involved in creativity and problem solving. It can also lower stress (another key to making good decisions) so you can see your options more clearly and choose among them unclouded by fear or irrational emotion.
Needless to say, there’s a big difference between adaptive, learned optimism and just being out of touch with reality. In many work-related situations, optimism isn’t about just “thinking positively” and suspending critical analysis. It’s about tapping into your brain’s problem-solving apparatus and creating a state of calm that lets you examine all the issues in the clear light of day.
If you tend be negative, pessimistic, and have frequent low moods, your brain’s “aversion network,” centered around the right frontal lobe, may be somewhat overactive. The more negative thoughts we have, the more this aversion network deactivates the opposite brain system, the “approach network,” which is associated with positive mood and resilience. The approach network is seen in a more activated left frontal lobe.
Over months and years, negative thinking and pessimism becomes a “brain habit” that can make you more prone to feeling overwhelmed, burned out, and mentally fatigued. Pessimists, for example, interpret unknown future occurrences or outcomes the same way as negative events that have actually happened–the same brain-patterned responses kick into gear. That means turning unknowns automatically into negatives, which may cloud your judgment and make it harder to see the potential benefits. (It also helps explain why optimists, who are more confident they’ll succeed, tend to put more effort into tasks–which of course improves their odds of success.)
How To Train Your Brain To Think Positively
Shifting some of the brain activity away from your aversion network and toward your approach network starts with just becoming aware of your negativity bias. This quick exercise can help you do that–and it only takes five minutes. Here’s how it works:
For one minute: Identify a negative thought pattern you’re caught in the middle of: “Now I’m worrying” or “I’m going over this same fear in my head all morning.” That’s your brain cue that you may be entering into pessimism mode–and maybe for good reason! Don’t miss potential threats; write them all down to get them out of your head (a quick SWOT analysis can help, where you jot down the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of a given situation).
For the next three minutes: Now that you’ve quarantined and catalogued those possibly legitimate risks, it’s time to shift your brain activity toward your approach network (this routine also works before heading into big decisions even when you aren’t caught in a pessimistic mind-set to begin with):
- Calm the mind. Close your eyes, and focus on where you feel the air moving into your lungs. When your mind wanders, bring your attention back to your breathing.
- Tune in. After you’ve focused on your breathing for a minute, take a moment to watch your thoughts. Zero in on any self-defeating or pessimistic beliefs that pop into your head (they’ll likely be the same ones that cued you to start this exercise in the first place). Don’t worry about why those negative thoughts are there–just observe them.
- Visualize. Envision the best possible outcome in as great a detail as possible: Where is this scene? Who is present? What emotions are you feeling? What are you saying and doing? What are other people’s responses, right on down to their facial expressions or the actions they take?The more you practice the three-minute routine whenever pessimism strikes, the faster your brain will learn to revert toward optimistic thought patterns–and, hopefully, the better decisions you’ll make.