Pressing Pause Podcast episode 34 How to cultivate optimism and boost your positivity in seven steps
Welcome to Pressing Pause, the podcast for overthinkers.
I’m Gabrielle Treanor and I’m here to share with you ideas, inspiration and actions to empower you to spend less time overthinking and worrying and more time enjoying your life.
Welcome to episode 34 where today we’re looking at how we as overthinkers can cultivate optimism and by doing so improve the reality of our day to day lives.
We walk through each day with expectations, about anything and everything. And whether we feel optimistic or pessimistic about our expectations affects how positive or negative our reality is. Sara Bengtsson is a cognitive neuroscientist and she conducted a study where she primed students with positive or negative expectations and then measured their performance on a test while having their brains scanned. She discovered that the students’ brains responded differently to the mistakes they made on the test depending on whether they had been primed to have optimistic or pessimistic expectations.
An area of the brain involved in self-reflection and recollection was more active in the students with positive expectations, indicating they would learn from their mistakes and improve on them. The students primed with a negative expectation didn’t show an increase in activity in this area so their brains expected them to make mistakes and not learn from them. The study shows that expectations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy as they change how we behave.
Expectations can also alter how you see the world, without actually changing reality. How optimistic or pessimistic you feel affects your attitude and perception of people and situations, opportunities and challenges. It’s the idea of seeing life as a glass half full or half empty. Positive psychology researcher Shawn Achor thinks we’re missing the point, he says: “The contents of the glass don’t matter; what’s more important is to realise there’s a pitcher of water nearby. In other words, we have the capacity to refill the glass, or to change our outlook.”
So how do we cultivate an optimistic outlook on life? It isn’t a matter of ‘just think positively!’ that’s going to infuriate rather than inspire you! But there are things we can do each day to increase how positive we feel and train our brains to be more optimistic. So just as neuroscientist Dr Bengtsson primed the students’ brains in her study to have positive or negative expectations, here are seven ways we can prime our own brains to be more optimistic too.
1 Find your focus first thing
In the first moments of the day you can choose what to focus on and so what tone to give your day. Thinking about how tired you are, what an effort it will be to get out the door on time, or how you’re dreading the pile of work waiting on your desk is fueling your pessimism. Instead, challenge yourself to find three things you’re looking forward to about the day. It could be that you’re meeting a friend for lunch, you’re going to have a long soak in the bath later and it’s takeaway dinner night. By focusing on the good to come in your day you’re priming your brain to see the world more positively.
2 Collect positive proof
Think about when things have gone well in your life – maybe you had a brilliant night out, your boss singled you out for praise, your kids went a whole hour without fighting, a friend gave you a compliment – it could be anything and it doesn’t matter how big or small, if it’s a positive in your life it counts. Collect this proof in whatever way you like – take photos or videos as it’s happening, write down the good in each day in a gratitude journal, print emails or messages – and then keep them somewhere you can see on a daily basis and refer to easily. I have a photo album in my phone and each picture reminds me of a happy memory. And I have an email folder where I save all the lovely emails I get from people who listen to this podcast, take my courses, read my emails or who I’ve coached. Collect this positive proof so that when you’re feeling anxious or negative you can refer to this body of positive evidence to boost your mood and your optimism.
3 Celebrate the big and small stuff
As well as collecting and saving the positive stuff, celebrating it cultivates your optimism too. As I talk about in episode 21 we can be quick to dismiss our achievements and charge straight on to the next goal, deadline or challenge. Make the most of what goes right in your life and add it to your collection of positive evidence by celebrating it, however big or small it might be. Whether it’s completing a work project, your child’s first steps, making it to a yoga class every week for a month or getting together with friends for a meal, recognise it as a win in life and celebrate it.
4 Find the feel good factor
Give some thought to what you find uplifting and inspiring, what makes you feel lighter, freer and more positive without it feeling like hard work. It could be cuddling your pet, taking a walk, doing something creative, talking to a friend or listening to a favourite piece of music. Think about how you can incorporate these actions into your life more, with one near the start of your day to help set your day up positively. Write a list and keep it handy so when you feel yourself in need of a boost you can pick from your menu of mood lifters and put one into action. I talk more about this in episode 22 if you want to have a listen.
5 Be your own gatekeeper
Some days it can feel like from the moment you wake up to when you collapse into bed you’re reacting to what’s thrown at you, without getting the chance to choose what you want to give your attention to. Checking emails first thing can see you pulled into work issues before your day has really begun so think about staying offline until you’re at your desk. 24 hour news can skew your view of the world so limit your intake to keep you informed of what’s going on in the world without being overwhelmed by it. If you notice that scrolling through social media has you falling into the comparison trap take a break so that you can get some perspective. Think about what you’re letting in to your life, how it affects you and what filters you can apply to protect yourself.
6 Mind your self-talk
This is something I talk about a lot because it really matters! What you say to yourself makes a big difference because you pay attention and believe it. And so often you are the most negative voice in your own life. It’s often much harsher than anything you’d ever say to someone else. Using ‘should’ gives a feeling of obligation and shame so try swapping it for ‘could’ to create a feeling of choice about what you do in life. When you’re feeling unsure or nervous talk to yourself as you would talk to your best friend, with words of encouragement, support and compassion. Approaching life’s challenges, big and small, knowing that you’re in your own corner is much more effective at creating feelings of optimism and self-belief than beating yourself up with harsh criticism. In episode 14 I get really stuck into the ‘should’ word and how damaging it is for us overthinkers.
And lastly number 7 Strengthen your self-awareness
The key to cultivating your optimism, and to putting into action everything I’ve already mentioned, is self-awareness. By noticing what you’re thinking, the way you talk to yourself, what you focus on and how you’re feeling, you can see if you’re leaning towards the negative or positive at any given moment. Being more mindful means you can check the stories you’re telling yourself. You can learn to become more self-aware by making a point to check in with yourself a few times a day, set an alarm if it helps. If you notice you’re feeling good recognise why that is and think about how you can continue to feel that way and even increase it. If you realise you’re feeling more negative ask yourself what’s led you to feel that way and then take action to help yourself feel more positive. Check out episode 26 for more on mindfulness.
While some people may naturally be more optimistic, we are all capable of cultivating optimism, even the most overthinking of us. Our brains adapt and change throughout our lives so it’s absolutely possible for you to become less negative and more positive about how you see and feel about the world and yourself. Try out these ideas, simply making that decision is already a step in the right direction, and let me know how you get on.
You can email me email@example.com and you can find the show notes for this episode with links to all the episodes I mentioned, at gabrielletreanor.com/podcast.
And, as the end of the year is edging closer I want to remind you that my special introductory offer on my coaching packages ends at Christmas so if you’d like to work one-to-one with me and you’re ready to take action towards living the life you want, go to theoverthinkerscoach.com where you’ll find all the info and we can start the conversation.
Thanks for listening, until next time, lovely people.