How to become an optimistic person

Life coach Sarah Laurie takes us on a new journey to wellbeing, one step at a time.

Let’s start on the inside, because all the good habits in the world won’t change our life if our thoughts aren’t good.

‘Think positive’ may sound like lightweight advice during challenging times, but neuroscientists can show us otherwise. Positive and negative thinking each cause stimulation in different regions of the brain, and therefore affect how we live.

Are we slow learners?

For centuries, people have been theorising about the benefits of positive thinking.

These theories have sat within the realms of religion, spirituality and self-help. Entire philosophies have evolved and best-selling books have been written on the basis of these theories.

However, unless we specifically subscribe to these schools of thought, many of us cast them aside as being too ethereal or unsubstantial.

Sarah Laurie

The science behind positive and negative thinking

Neuroscientists at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital have researched our thoughts and, simply put, can track where they go in our brain.

Positive thoughts – ie your mindset when you’re in the flow – on time, getting the results you planned, feeling happy, or focused, stimulate the pre-frontal cortex in the frontal lobe.

This region of the brain is responsible for (yet not limited to) critical evaluation, decision-making, information processing and memory, as well as management of emotions.

For this reason, stimulation of this brain region assists you with those functions. When you are positive, you are well prepared to carefully evaluate a situation, make decisions more clearly, remain calm under pressure and create solutions.

Conversely, negative thoughts, ie your mindset when you’re stressed, worried, late, over-burdened or conflicted, stimulate activity in the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for (yet not limited to) your survival instinct, and stimulation will trigger your stress response.

For this reason, you will feel panicked, wired, tense, fidgety, and unable to focus.

When you are under relentless pressure, you may experience a continual low-level feeling of anxiety and not be able to think clearly, because of stimulation of this region.

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But what if life’s just too stressful?

Being a positive thinker isn’t about thinking ‘good things’ about everything. It’s about experiencing challenges and being able to work toward solutions, rather than becoming overwhelmed.

However, we all experience challenges in life that are extremely stressful and sometimes, there’s no way we can be positive about them.

So what then?

Simply put, you need to turn your attention to what is good, frequently. Your brain seeks patterns, and on that basis, automates what occurs most frequently.

When you think about something regularly, your brain recognises that pattern of neural activity and it begins to occur automatically.

A neural circuitry will develop based on positive thinking, which ultimately leads to a shift in how you manage life’s pressures. Turning your attention to good things, consistently and for short moments, as well as choosing constructive thoughts as you address challenges, cultivates a mindset that sees life through an optimistic filter.

How to cultivate optimism

Write a daily list of what is good at the moment.

When you’re under pressure it can be difficult to think about what’s working well. Bullet point a list each morning – this will help you feel more optimistic, and when you turn your attention to the list frequently during the day, it will assist you to be more solutions-oriented as you handle the challenges.

Engage in positive conversations and steer clear of gossip.

Complaining about situations, and gossiping about others is an emotional drain. Be aware of the conversations you have with others and do what you can to keep them positive and solutions-oriented.

Actively choose your thoughts, instead of letting them occur out of habit.

Remember – your brain looks for patterns. So if you have been stressed, worried or rushed, your brain will have automated some of your regular thought patterns. Pause whenever you encounter stressors, and choose a constructive response.

Decide attributes you want to be known for.

Who do you want to be? Organised, fun, expert, passionate, fit? Make a list – a long one to begin with – and frequently turn your attention to being that great person. The more you focus on being that person, the more you will know it’s the real you.

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