‘You don’t have to change your life overnight but add good things daily.’
Have you been told that the way you feel is caused by your thoughts rather than a particular event or situation? Has someone told you to ‘just think more positively’ or to ‘just stop seeing things from the worst possible perspective’?
In therapy and psychology, we’re generally told that if we want to change our feelings and behaviour, we have to start by changing the way we think.
Maybe you agree with this idea and have tried everything to change your thoughts to be more positive. You’ve practised mindfulness to observe and let go of negative thoughts; actively challenged negative thoughts, and journaled to find evidence for and against an unhelpful belief a popular technique in cognitive-behavioural therapy) and you’ve tried to force your mind into thinking happier thoughts and have a brighter outlook on life.
But despite your efforts, you still feel trapped in a pessimistic mindset and struggle to rise above the negativity – why? A possible explanation might be that you’re trying to change thoughts verbally without using the power of your imagination.
In this article, I will share a simple exercise that has been shown to increase optimism in just five minutes a day.
But first, why is being more optimistic worthwhile? All emotions serve their purpose and should be acknowledged. When something is sad or infuriating, those feelings are (usually) valid.
But research has shown that optimism comes with many benefits to our health. People with higher levels of optimism are:
- Less likely to be depressed.
- Have better immune functioning and overall physical health.
- Have a higher pain threshold.
- More likely to experience psychological growth after trauma.
- And there’s even research to suggest they live longer.
So it sounds like optimism would be a good thing to have, but what about those of us who seem to have a natural tendency to be pessimistic? Is it possible to train yourself to be more optimistic, or are you bound to your thinking?
Can optimism be learned?
Yes, it can! You can change your thoughts and your outlook on life and the world. Some people are ‘born optimists’, but research shows that optimism can change over time depending on life experiences and whether or not you try to intervene.
Many interventions focus on the verbal aspect of changing your thoughts only. For example, a therapist might ask you to list the evidence for and against a certain negative belief: how do you know everybody hates you? What evidence do you have for nothing good ever happening to you?
The aim is to challenge negative thoughts and restructure your thinking into becoming more positive – but the focus is on changing the negative rather than boosting positive experiences.
Using positive affirmations, such as ‘I am capable’ or ‘I am strong and self-confident’ is another intervention commonly recommended for increasing positivity and changing thinking patterns.
In this case, the focus is on creating positivity, but you’re only engaging the verbal or rational mind – what’s missing is a strong emotional response.
So although these can be helpful interventions, the most effective way to become more optimistic is by using your imagination. Why? Because using mental imagery has a powerful effect on your emotions, it’s your emotions and feelings that you’re ultimately trying to change.
Can I become an optimist overnight?
Change is possible, but the reality is that optimism is a personality trait and therefore remains relatively stable over time. That means training your mind to be more optimistic requires consistent practice.
It would be nice to flick a switch and turn into a happy-go-lucky person, but the truth is that if you have pessimistic tendencies, you’ll need to practice consistently over time. We’re always looking for a quick fix like ‘become an optimist in just 24 hours’ – that might sound good, but it doesn’t tend to last.
The good news is that the intervention I’m going to share with you only takes five minutes out of your day and has other benefits, too – so it’s worth a try!
Your best possible self
Research into which factors make optimism interventions most effective found that using the Best Possible Self (BPS) intervention had the highest success rate. Most people who used this exercise once and over two weeks felt happier and were more optimistic about the future. Here is a step-by-step guide:
- You’ll need a quiet space and a bit of undisturbed time.
- Take a piece of paper and pen and write down all the aspects your future best possible self should encompass. Imagine a future where everything has turned out the way you want, including:
a. You as a person (how you feel about yourself, your characteristics, how
others see you, etc.)
b. What are your relationships like?
c. What your occupational situation will be like?
- Start each sentence with ‘In the future, I will…
- Write a personal story in which all the elements are put into a coherent and detailed story.
- Then sit or lie down and close your eyes.
- Visualise your ‘best future self’ story in as much detail as possible for five minutes. Use the five senses to make vivid images in your mind.
It will take a little longer than five minutes the first time you do this. But once you’ve written the story, you can do the visualisation exercise only. Try to do it at least five times weekly for the best results. That’s it!
How and why does it work?
Mental imagery has a more powerful effect on your emotions than verbal thought. Vividly imagining something produces the same emotions as though it’s happening, and you can use this in your favour – or to your detriment.
Imagining a future in which all your worst nightmares come true will fill you with dread and fear but imagining your dream future will boost your positivity and release feel-good hormones. This will make you feel more motivated to go out there and achieve it.
The other thing is that the language of your subconscious mind is image-based and symbolic (think dreams), and the subconscious mind has a hard time differentiating between what’s real and vividly imagined.
That means imagining how you want things to be, a happy future, a happier you, will make your subconscious mind believe this is how you’re already living – and naturally, this will fill you with positivity. It’s also the key to communicating to your subconscious mind what you want.
Being optimistic feels good and boosts your confidence and hope for the future, so you feel excited about it rather than dreading it (or at least content or neutral). The added benefit is that visualising your future life how you want it to be will help you strive for and achieve it.
Anna Drescher holds a master’s degree in psychology and mental health. She’s been working in the field for almost 10 years.