Healthy Buffs: Opting for optimism

When we’re going through a hard time, our outlook can be the thing that helps us get to a better place. In positive psychology, learned optimism relies on the idea that we can teach ourselves to overcome negative thoughts to quickly recover from setbacks. Research even shows that college students who participated in learned optimism program experiences less depression, anxiety, and improved health and wellness. Ready to give it a try?

Basics of optimism

The first steps toward developing a sense of learned optimism are to start viewing bad events within the following guidelines:

  • A setback or failure is only temporary
  • It is specific to only one situation and not our whole lives
  • It isn’t personal: setbacks are largely caused by circumstances and can be overcome.

For example, a bad grade is only a temporary condition limited to that one assignment and we can bounce back by asking for help with the material, improving our study skills and dedicating more time to classwork going forward.

The bad grade doesn’t define us as a person, it doesn’t mean we’re going to fail every class and it doesn’t have to set the tone for the entire semester. The same rules apply to other difficult situations.

Overcoming pessimism

We don’t become eternal optimists overnight. Learned optimism is about practicing a new way of thinking. In the meantime, if something negative happens, there are other techniques we can use to help us along.

Positive psychologists recommend healthy distraction as an immediate help. Instead of lying in bed consumed by worries about classes, work or relationships, we might pick up our favorite Harry Potter book to distract ourselves until we can deal with the concerns properly.

Distancing and identifying alternatives can also be helpful when it comes to dealing with negative thoughts. There can be multiple circumstances that contributed to the setback or failure, and once we see them objectively we can make a plan to move forward. If we catch ourselves in a tailspin of negative thoughts or being too hard on ourselves, it’s important to take a step back and be sure we’re treating ourselves like we’d treat our best friends while thinking about ways to improve next time.

We can also interrupt our negative thoughts with evidence about the reality of the situation. For example, while we may worry about a “worst case scenario,” things rarely play out that way. And, even if we feel the “worst case” is possible, we can rationally think through a variety of options for getting help, whether that’s by talking to a professor, seeing a counselor, or finding new coping mechanisms.

Leading an optimistic life

Our thinking patterns aren’t the only changes we can implement; positive psychology research has shown that being mindful can improve mood and health. This means taking time each day to connect with the present moment.

For example, on the bus in the morning we can take five minutes to clear our head and focus only on our immediate surroundings. Worries get put on hold and we focus on the moment, paying attention to the sounds, sights, and experiences around us.

Savoring simple moments also makes a difference. Next time we’re having a good time with a friend, we can take a minute, snap a “mental picture” to remember how we feel, and even express it out loud by telling our friend how much we value them.

Expressing gratitude like this is also linked to improvements in mood and health. Some researchers recommend jotting down three things we’re grateful for at the start or end of every day, like being surrounded by the mountains, having a warm cup of coffee or hearing a good joke.

If this structured approach feels like too much, just finding more ways in daily life to let others know when we appreciate them has health benefits for us and them. Thank the barista, a study partner, a coworker—whoever had a positive impact, however small—and watch the difference it can make.

The Healthy Buffs series is brought to you by Wardenburg Health Services. Visit us online at www.colorado.edu/health.