How to Think Like an Optimist
Written by: Kelly Martin
Updated: September 10, 2019
Photo courtesy of Monroe Alvarez
Optimists are ignorant of reality. They wear rose-colored glasses. They’re probably skipping around a field somewhere, having a perfect day, because of course they are. Except: They’re not.
Deepika Chopra, PsyD, has a doctorate in clinical psychology and is known by her clients as the optimism doctor. Meaning she uses evidence-based techniques to help people move toward a better outlook. And she says that it’s not about ignoring the bad in the world or having a string of exceptional days. It’s a process of reorienting the mind toward the positive and cultivating expectations that things will, ultimately, despite everything, turn out okay. And that can have some potent benefits—for our day-to-day disposition, yes, but also for our overall health and well-being.
Deepika Chopra, PsyD, has a doctorate in clinical psychology and is known by her clients as the optimism doctor. Meaning she uses evidence-based techniques to help people move toward a better outlook. And she says that it’s not about ignoring the bad in the world or having a string of exceptional
days. It’s a process of reorienting the mind toward the positive and cultivating expectations that things will, ultimately, despite everything, turn out okay. And that can have some potent benefits—for our day-to-day disposition, yes, but also for our overall health and well-being.
Whether or not you can make it to one of Chopra’s in-person workshops (if you can, you must), picking up a deck of her new optimism cards, called Things Are Looking Up, is a simple daily step toward a sunnier outlook. It contains fifty-two in-the-moment practices to up your optimism. The cards are thoughtfully designed with beautiful colors and illustrations. We keep them by our bedsides and on our desks and have a few wrapped for the optimists—and the pessimists—in our lives.
Because we think this optimism thing could be worth a go for all of us.
A Q&A with Deepika Chopra, PsyD
Optimism is hopefulness: positively anticipating something in the future—that could be a few moments from now or a few days or weeks or even years from now.
The whole basis of optimism is that our brains are anticipatory organs. Meaning the brain is extremely future-oriented. It’s constantly anticipating what will come next. For example, our brains predict what our eyes will see before our eyes actually see it. And with this in mind, the question really becomes: Are we predicting something good or are we predicting something bad? And how do these predictions fuel our feelings?
Optimists, like everybody, experience a full range of emotions, and that includes emotions that don’t always feel good. The difference is that an optimist or someone who is being optimistic sees setbacks, roadblocks, and problems—anything unideal—as temporary, as things that they have the ability or power to overcome.
On the flip side, someone who leans toward pessimism might see the same problems that an optimist sees but register those problems as permanent and not really in their power to move through.
There was a study that looked at 500 sets of twins and showed that only about 25 percent of an individual’s optimism is inherited. Which is so cool; it leaves us with so much room to work on our optimism factor.
We know that the more optimistic we are, the more positive moods we experience. With more positive moods, there aren’t just mental and emotional benefits; there are also measurable physical benefits. For example, people live longer and better. Studies suggest happier people might live longer, or get sick less often, or bounce back faster from health conditions, or experience less pain, etc.
The Optimism Doctor Says:
Surround Yourself with Happy People
Happiness is contagious; science confirms it. Happy people tend to cluster together, and unhappy people tend to have friends who are unhappy as well. And research shows that within a social group, happiness spreads among networks up to three degrees of separation. So when you share your happiness, your friends and your friends’ friends—and even their friends—have a greater likelihood of feeling happy, too.
Take a social network sweep: List out how many people around you are truly happy, and identify those you’d like to spend more time with. And then actually do it.
Give yourself permission to unfollow anyone whose posts bring you down or make you feel less than. The happiness factor of social networks is consistent across real-world and virtual settings—so this practice extends to social media.
Raising our optimism point really takes work. In my work with clients, we focus on perception and collecting believable evidence. Like, maybe there’s a handful of really crappy things that have happened to you, and you put so much attention on those things that it’s created a perceptive imbalance: You focus on the bad things and somewhat ignore the good or neutral things that have happened to you. And if you actually take a closer look at the evidence, maybe you’d start to see that more often than not, you’re doing okay, and that more happy things happen than unhappy ones. And from there, you can make that shift toward anticipating positive things in your life.
Still, we have different optimism set points for different aspects of life. Through all my work and even in my practice, what I find so interesting is that I can’t really call someone an optimist or a pessimist. For example: I’m on the optimistic side in most areas of life, but anything medical-related is my optimism Achilles heel. If a doctor tells me there’s a 2 percent likelihood of my getting whatever symptom, I’m pretty sure I will get it. So that’s the area I know I can do a lot of work on. I have to focus on the fact that more often than not, I’m healthy. It’s a conscious effort to put in energy there.
Move to your favorite music.
Music and movement are significant ways to increase happiness and optimism. And it’s a great in-the-moment practice: Turn on some music that makes you happy and dance, even if it’s just for thirty seconds.
Spend time in nature.
Get outside for twenty minutes. That’s it. You don’t even have to be active; you can just sit down in the grass. Contact with nature increases positive mood, and we know that when our mood is increased, our brain also anticipates events more positively.
We’re getting so familiar with the idea of gratitude—it’s one of the most researched concepts in mindfulness. But I rarely see people express thanks for themselves in their gratitude journals. Celebrate your wins, even if they’re super small. Actually, the smaller the better. When we’re celebrating something we’ve achieved, we’re so much more likely to focus on what we want or what good things are up next than on what is not going well.
I always ask groups this: Who wants to win the lottery? Everybody raises their hand. Everyone wants to win the lottery. And then I ask: Well, who bought a lottery ticket this morning? And nobody’s hand goes up.
And that makes a lot of sense. If you don’t believe that you can win the lottery, you will not buy a lottery ticket, even if you so badly want to win the lottery. And this is the key to evidence-based manifestation: Your expectations have to match what you want, or it won’t happen.
The brain doesn’t spend time or energy on things that are not believable. So the work that we do is really about changing your expectations of what’s possible for you. Once your expectations match your wants, you can effectively work toward your goals.
The Optimism Doctor Says:
Find the Good in the
Here’s a tool for when things aren’t going your way: Challenge yourself to find any upsides, no matter how small.
It can be easier to look back and change your perspective later on, once you have already seen some positive things come out of hard times—but the key here is to look for potential growth. Eventually, with practice, you’ll be able to use this growth mind-set during the actual event or experience.
First remind yourself what it means to be human: We go through ups, downs, imperfections, achievements, losses, climaxes, neutral and mundane moments, confidence and fears. This is a dose of reality that can help level out our expectations.
Next think about something that has challenged you in the past and now think about all the ways you are better off for having been through that experience. Maybe you lost your job and found a better one. Or maybe a relationship ended, and if it hadn’t, you might not have taken the plunge to go on a solo travel adventure.
Now think about something that is currently challenging you and see if you can reframe it. Try to perceive it, even if just for a moment, as an adventure or as an opportunity for growth. Tap into your creative mind to think about what gifts could come out of this—a week, a month, even a year from now.
If someone has a core belief that they don’t deserve love or shouldn’t love themselves, just giving them the homework to look in front of the mirror and say “I love myself” ten times is not going to do it. It can actually be detrimental because your brain is so efficient. When you repeat that affirmation, it kicks up and says, “No, and here are a hundred reasons based on the experiences I’ve collected over the last thirty-five years why that’s not true—how stupid you are to even say that.” So in my practice, everything that we work on or every thought you tell your brain to think is something that you believe to be true.
The main thing about raising an optimistic child to remind them to look around and within themselves; there are so many happy things that are easy to skip over. And so reaching out to our kids and emphasizing the importance of things that make them happy—and giving them a space to talk about them—is huge.
My favorite thing to prescribe to kids and families is a “happiness hunt.” It’s the practice of taking some time every day to go on a very short hunt for all the things that make you happy in those few moments. Maybe it could be a tree or the wind or a certain flower or your smile. Maybe it’s something about yourself, maybe it’s a person, or maybe it’s a song. Your exercise is just to be mindfully aware, using all your senses, of things that make you happy. A lot of the things that make us really happy just fly right by us, and this is a way to give them some attention.
Second, there’s the idea of embracing struggle: We can teach our kids not to shy away from things that feel difficult and really help them make positive associations with resiliency and problem-solving.
We are living in an environment where there are a lot of really scary things happening around us. It’s not about limiting the news or trying to hide things from our kids but more about adjusting their lens. If you are going to talk about something scary or sad or unjust, turn the focus toward the groups or people that are trying to help—those who are making change or fighting for the rights of others or helping in times of crisis.
Third, I emphasize involving your family in your community and putting an emphasis on doing kind, empathic things for others. And then talking with your kids about how taking kind action makes them feel and how they think it makes the recipients of their kindness feel.
Deepika Chopra, PsyD, is a visual imagery expert and a happiness researcher specializing in evidence-based manifestation and the science behind cultivating joy. Using sensory visualization, mindfulness, and meditation, Chopra coaches her clients to become more optimistic and teaches parents how to raise optimistic children.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.