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Become an optimist for better health and happiness

Friends Jane and Anthony have very different ways of viewing the world. Jane is a pessimist (“the glass is half-empty”) while Anthony is an optimist (“the glass is half-full”)

Let’s compare how they think about similar life experiences:

Scenario 1: A bad thing happens: both lose their jobs
Jane is devastated, convincing herself that she is all washed up, she can never catch a break, her boss was an SOB, it is useless for her to try to be successful, and she is not very good at anything.

By contrast, Anthony has a healthier inner dialog, telling himself that he probably wasn’t very good at that particular job, his skills and company needs did not mesh, and the firing was only a temporary setup in his career.

Scenario 2: A good thing happens: both find a new job
Now Jane, ever the pessimist, believes she was able to find a new job only because her industry is now really desperate for people, and they must have been short-handed.

The more upbeat Anthony sees that he landed a new job because his talents were finally recognized and he can now be appreciated for what he can do.
As this example illustrates, research by Dr. Marvin Seligman finds that optimists tend to interpret their troubles as transient, controllable and specific to situations.

When good things happen, optimists believe the causes are permanent such as traits and abilities. Optimists further believe that good events will enhance everything he or she does.

Pessimists, on the other hand, believe their troubles will last forever, will undermine everything they do, and are basically uncontrollable.
Even when good things happen to pessimists, they see these things as temporary and caused by specific factors (which will change eventually leading to a negative outcome)

Why is Optimism Beneficial?

Optimism and hope cause better resistance to depression when bad events strike, better performance at work and better physical health.
In fact, one long term study at the famed Mayo clinic in Rochester, Minnesota found that optimists lived 19% longer in terms of expected life span than did pessimists.

Optimistic thinking skills are also a powerful antidote to anger. In fact, many participants in our anger management classes report their anger lessening as they learn to replace negative thinking and feelings with more positive ones.

How to think optimistically

There is now a well-documented method for building optimism that consists of recognizing and then disputing pessimistic thoughts.
Unfortunately, people often do not pay much attention to their thoughts and thus do not recognize that they may be destructive and leading to negative emotions.

The key to disputing your own pessimistic thoughts is to first recognize them and then to treat them as if they were uttered by an external person, a rival whose mission in life is to make you miserable.

In effect, you can become an optimist by learning to disagree with yourself- that is, by challenging your pessimistic thinking patterns.

For skeptics, it is important to point out that optimistic thinking IS NOT the process of positive thinking in the sense of telling yourself silly affirmations that you really don’t believe.

Rather, it is the process of correcting distorted or faulty thinking patterns that create problems for you.

By teaching yourself to think about things differently (but just as realistically) you can morph yourself from a pessimist to an optimist – and tame that anger bee in the process.

Five tips to raise the optimistic child for better mental health

I had just completed a session with 17 year old Julie with severe depression and a firm belief that she was a total failure, she would never be able to change anything in her life, and all her shortcomings were her fault.

Where, I asked myself, did such a young person acquire this negative and fatalistic thinking?

The answer soon became apparent when I invited her parents into the session. They began discussing numerous life events and explaining them in ways that their children were learning. The car got dented because you can’t trust anybody these days; Mom yelled at brother because she was in a bad mood; you can’t get ahead in this world unless you know somebody.
As a parent, your own explanatory style is on display and your children are listening intently.

Why would you want your child to be an optimist? Because, according to Dr. Martin Seligman, “pessimism (the opposite of optimism) is an entrenched habit of mind that has sweeping and disastrous consequences: depressed mood, resignation, underachievement, and even unexpectedly poor physical health.”

Children with optimistic thinking skills are better able to interpret failure, have a stronger sense of personal mastery, and are better able to bounce back when things go wrong in their lives.

Because parents are a major contributor to the thinking styles of their children’s developing minds, it is important to follow the following five steps to ensure healthy mental habits in your children.

Five steps for parents

Step 1 – Learn to think optimistically yourself. What children see and hear indirectly from you as you led your life and interact with others will influence them much more than what you “teach” them directly. Model optimism for your child by incorporating optimistic mental skills into you own way of thinking. This is not easy and does not occur over night, but with practice almost everyone can learn to think differently about life’s events – even parents!

Step 2 – Teach you child that there is a connection between how they think and how they feel. You can do this most easily by saying aloud how your own thought about adversity created a negative feeling in you.
For example, if you are driving your child to school and a driver cuts you off, verbalize the link between your thoughts and feelings by saying something like “I wonder why I’m feeling so angry; I guess I was saying to myself, “Now I’m going to be late because the guy in front of me is going so darn slow. If he is going to drive like that he shouldn’t drive during rush hour. How rude.”

Step 3 – Create a game called “thought catching.” This helps your child learn to identify the thoughts that flit across his or her mind at the times they feel worst. These thoughts, although barely perceptible, profoundly affect mood and behavior. For instance, if your child received a poor grade in school, ask “when you got your grade back, what did you say to yourself?”

Step 4 – Teach your child how to evaluate automatic thoughts. This means acknowledging that the things you say to yourself are not necessarily accurate. For instance, after receiving the poor grade your child may be telling himself he is a failure, he is not as smart as other kids, he will never be able to succeed in school, etc. Many of these self-statements may not be accurate, but they are “automatic” in that situation.

Step 5 – Instruct your child on how to generate more accurate explanations (to themselves) when bad things happen and use them to challenge your child’s automatic but inaccurate thoughts. Part of this process involves looking for evidence to the contrary (good grades in the past, success in other life areas, etc).

Another skill to teach your child to help him or her think optimistically is to “de-catastrophize” the situation – that is, to help your child see that the bad event may not be as bad or will not have the adverse consequences imagined. Few things in life are as devastating as we fear, yet we blow them up in our minds until small glitches become mental catastrophes.

Conclusion: Parents can drastically influence the thinking styles of their children by modeling the principals of optimistic thinking, teaching the connection between thoughts and feelings, how to evaluate automatic thoughts, and how to dispute negative beliefs that led to pessimism and depression.

Recommended Resource: “The Optimistic Child” by Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, 1995. (ISBN: 0-06-097709-4)