The Science of Optimism

Optimism simply gives you power.

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No, we’re not talking about being annoyingly chipper and ignorantly blissful. Optimism is a research-proven mind-set that will get you what you want—­here’s how to use it.

You flunked a bio test. Your best friend is mad at you. Your mom won’t get off your case about your report card, and your face has been hijacked by a zit that deserves its own zip code. Yup, it’s official: You’re sinking into a pit of woe-is-me angst—and no one can stop you.

But hold up! A positive mind-set matters. And while it may sound cheesy, it isn’t about having a constant cheerleader-y attitude. It’s a choice you can make at any time, which research has proven can increase your chances of staying healthy, overcoming challenges, and achieving your goals. Sounds like magic, right?

Nah. Optimism simply gives you power. It motivates you to take care of yourself and to work hard—the same stuff pessimism takes away. “When we think that something is possible, we are more likely to work toward it,” says Tali Sharot, a neuroscientist and author of The Optimism Bias. “An optimistic mind-set changes what you do every day—and that, in turn, changes the future.”

The good news? You can learn to become an optimist, even if you aren’t already one naturally. In fact, our research-proven tips will train you to see the good, without ignoring the bad. Because the secret to success is being certain the sun will shine—but also grabbing an umbrella, just in case.

What Would an Optimist Do?

The science-proven strategies that can retrain your brain and lead you to success

In School. Math is your worst subject. You flunked the last test, and you’ve got another big one coming up. You’re feeling dumb—and doomed.

THE SCIENCE SAYS: C’mon now! Telling yourself that you failed because you’re dumb (it sounds silly when you see it in writing, huh?) will discourage you from ever trying. We know that the brain is a muscle that can be strengthened through practice—and research out of Columbia University (which followed middle schoolers through two years of math classes) proves it. Simply thinking of intelligence in this way allowed those students to be more motivated and get better grades.

USE IT: When you’ve got a goal in mind but your negative chatter is standing in the way, think of optimism as mental time travel: Ask yourself what you could have done differently in the past (asked for assistance studying for that previous exam, for example). By clearly pointing out concrete steps you can take, you will feel less helpless—and encouraged to study up.

In Sports. You’re having a horrible basketball game. It’s impossible to dig yourself out of this hole—you’ve missed five shots in a row!

THE SCIENCE SAYS: How we feel and perform in the near and distant future can be greatly affected by our explanatory style—that’s the fancy-schmancy scientific name for the way we frame what’s happening to us. That’s why, according to one study, training male basketball players to attribute positive results (for example, good defense) to their ability and negative results (think: missed free throws) to their lack of effort was found to significantly improve their subsequent performance!

USE IT: The game can only get better from here, right? Well, maybe that’s not entirely true, but you will improve greatly if you snap yourself out of your funk and change your inner dialogue. It’s actually easy: Just focus on your strengths (you did just make a steal, after all!), blame the bad shots on factors you can control (like your lack of practice that week), and take a few moments to visualize your next shot going in. Swishhhh.

In Life. Your dog died, you broke your wrist, and your best friend moved away. Are people kidding when they tell you to look on the bright side?

THE SCIENCE SAYS: Many of us use negativity as a defense mechanism: If our expectations are low, then we won’t feel devastated when facing more rejection or defeat. But controlled experiments have revealed that optimism is not only related to success, it can also lead to success—and happiness too. Proof: In one experiment, people were asked to write down three things that went well each day. Even though the study lasted just one week, they were happier for about six months afterward. 

USE IT: Keep a “positivity log” in a journal or in the notes app on your phone. Write down: (1) three positive things that happened that day and (2) one big dream for the future. It will train you to pay attention to the good stuff in your life and force you to envision the possibility of a bright future. Suddenly, you’ll feel like you’re in control of your life again!

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