“The joyfulness of a man prolongeth his days.”
Optimism, like creativity, can be learned. By stretching and confusing muscle groups and adding variety to our workouts, we get stronger – not through the constant repetition of exercises already known to our muscles. That will only get us to plateau, not muscle growth. And similarly through intellectual experimentation and allowing ourselves to find the unexpected, we can hone our creativity as well.
Optimism works much the same way – it can be learned, but it takes effort and practice. One of the keys to learning optimism include reflecting on things we are grateful for, and then sharing that gratitude with those around us. By recollecting and expressing gratitude we activate endorphins which have the power to fight fatigue and pain, and increase happiness. Then by sharing that positive experience socially we transmit, through mirror neurons, that experience to others which invokes an endorphin response in them as well. And so we can experience making someone else happy, and that translates to a sense of purpose and meaning. This reinforces our sense of community by affirming that our actions matter.
Also visualizing previous and anticipated positive moments, places and people can elevate our sense of optimism. The reason for this is that our brain has a difficult time discerning between what is actual and what is mentally visualized. In cognition studies researchers have demonstrated that mental practice can be as effective as actual practice. This has been demonstrated to be true in music and athletics, as well as disposition. Mentally rehearsing an athletic activity, or playing a musical instrument, can have very nearly the same performance-enhancing value as actual physical rehearsal. The same is true for events and interactions – by visualizing a positive outcome we affirm and encourage that result in our mind and thus contribute to an actual positive result.
Another powerful optimism-enhancer is meditation and focus. By relaxing your body, calming your mind, and focusing on single mental or physical activities, we gain greater proficiency, talent and task-success. Which then again leads to greater happiness. It should be unsurprising then, that studies have shown that happiness precedes success, not the other way around. A common story propagated in our culture is that hard work will lead to proficiency, which will lead to success, which will make us happy. Much of the research recently suggests the inverse – that behaviors, communities and practices which develop our happiness will contribute then to talent and performance, which in turn will fuel success in all aspects of our lives.
You can test your own Optimism Level here using Martin Seligman’s test – Enjoy!