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HYANNIS – Looking for the silver lining in life is good for your mental and physical health. The results of a recent study revealed that individuals with a greater degree of optimism were more likely to live longer and achieve “exceptional longevity” defined as living to age 85 or older.
Researchers in Boston followed 69,744 women for 10 years and 1,429 men for 30 years. Both men and women who were the most optimistic on average had an 11 to 15 percent longer lifespan, regardless of socioeconomic status or health behaviors such as diet, smoking and alcohol consumption. They also had a 50 to 70 percent greater chance of reaching the age of 85 compared to the least optimistic group.
Optimism is defined as a psychological attribute that is characterized by the general expectation that good things will happen or the belief that the future will be favorable because one can control important outcomes. Optimists don’t ignore life’s stressors. Instead they see obstacles as temporary setbacks that can be overcome.
“Optimistic people view their future as positive and they believe they have control over their future,” said psychologist Krista Lesinski, PsyD, who works at the partial hospitalization program at Cape Cod Healthcare Behavioral Health Services. “The idea is that you are training yourself to focus on what you do have control over and what is going right for you.”
Pessimists need not despair, she said. It’s entirely possible to train your brain to be more positive. All you need are some simple tools and the desire to actually change.
“The study said that optimism is partly hereditary, but there are also things you can do to change and become more optimistic,” she said. “That in and of itself is optimistic.”
Here are a few of Lesinski’s suggestions to help you become a glass half full kind of person:
Keep a Gratitude Journal
Writing down all the positive things that happened each day helps you reshape your outlook of your life. Knowing that you have gratitude as homework at the end of the day helps you notice all the good things that actually do happen every day. The things you are grateful for can be as simple as finally getting around to cleaning out the hall closet or a spouse cooking dinner.
The journal has a double benefit, Lesinski said, because when you reread what you have written at a later day, it can bring you back to the positive feelings you were experiencing when you originally wrote them.
“I think so often our minds automatically go to what we didn’t cross off our list or what we haven’t accomplished,” she said. “Instead we should look at what we did accomplish and what did go well. It’s a new way to retrain your brain.”
Cultivate Appreciation for Successes
At the end of the day, look at your positive accomplishments and give yourself credit for those successes. It will make you feel more in control, which is a key component to positive thinking.
“Optimistic people view their future as positive and they believe they have control over their future,” Lesinski said. “The idea is that you are training yourself to focus on what you do have control over and what is going right for you.”
Visualize Your Best Possible Self
Lesinski has her clients picture waving a magic wand and imagining that all of their problems are solved. She asks them to imagine their best possible self and talk about what that would look like. If you visualize yourself being successful, it can really help you set yourself up to make that success a reality. You have to be able to envision something to actually achieve it.
Practice Self Care
“Do things that bring you joy and make them part of your routine,” Lesinski said.
When we become too focused on tasks that need to be done, we forget that the simple pleasures add up. The trick is to figure out what types of activities you really enjoy and make those things part of your everyday routine. It could be as simple as spending 10 minutes meditating, taking a short walk outdoors or just really savoring a cup of coffee.
“Tell yourself that everyday I’m going to do this one thing that brings me joy or that I feel like I can accomplish,” she said. “That can really set the tone. It’s hard to make time for yourself, but I always use the analogy of the airplane air mask. They say if there is an emergency and your air mask comes down, put your own mask on first before you help anyone else around you. If you aren’t taking care of yourself, you’re kind of useless to everybody else.”
Practice Meditation and Mindfulness
Mindfulness forces the brain to stay in the present instead of worrying about the future or lamenting the past. Every time you catch yourself slipping up, take a deep breath and focus on the present moment you are in. Cultivating appreciation is also helpful, Lesinski said. Notice details like the way the sun feels on your face or the soothing sound of raindrops outside the window.
Use Kinder Language
Our self-talk can really influence our thoughts. If you say things like “I hate this,” or “This is the end of the world,” you are setting yourself up for pessimism. Instead, Lesinski recommends changing your filter and reminding yourself that the stressful moment you are experiencing is only temporary. It will eventually pass.
Surround Yourself with Optimistic or Happy People
“Optimistic people are kind of contagious,” she said. “If you are surrounding yourself with people that are helping you focus on the good things and helping you be more positive and happier, that can be really beneficial as well.”