It’s Possible to Teach Yourself to Be More Optimistic

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Optimism can be a tricky thing to navigate. On the one hand, trying to force it can backfire in harmful ways, and too much positive thinking can lead to unrealistic expectations, setting you up for later disappointment. Plus, it’s exhausting to hang out with someone who’s perpetually, relentlessly sunny. On the other hand, people find it exhausting to hang out with an Eeyore type, too, even if that cartoon donkey was pretty charming in his own sad way. Besides, research suggests that the benefits of optimism are manifold: A positive outlook has been linked to better health, greater resilience, and lower stress.

If you tend to fall more toward the glass-half-empty side of things, though, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to spend a lifetime that way. In a new paper published in the Journal of Positive Psychology and highlighted in a recent Scientific American column, researchers found that optimism is a teachable skill — and that you can be the one to teach yourself.

The authors analyzed 29 different studies on optimism interventions, encompassing a total of more than 3,300 participants. Broadly speaking, the participants in those studies who went through some sort of intervention — including meditation, mindfulness training, stress-management training, and cognitive behavioral therapy — saw greater increases in their levels of optimism than members of the various control groups. One of the most effective techniques was something called the Best Possible Self exercise, which asks people to imagine a successful, happy future version of themselves.

As Scientific American noted, there are some caveats to the findings — for one thing, the article reported, “interventions done completely online were found to be less successful than those including some person-to-person component, but out of the twenty-nine studies only five were completely online.” There were also differences in how optimism was measured from study to study, and the success of a given technique may also vary from person to person. Still, it’s encouraging to know that this particular type of self-directed change is possible, if it’s something you’re interested in pursuing. Just don’t go overboard.