Opinion and Editorial

Feeling sad? A little optimism can go a long way

Tracy P Alloway
Filed on April 7, 2021

Are you generally positive about it went, or do you typically have a more negative interpretation of events?

I’m always optimistic about my future.

I hardly ever expect things to go my way.

Which statement best reflects the way you view life?

Statement 1 reflects a more optimistic view; while Statement 2 reflects a more pessimistic approach. Researchers suggest that our behaviour is goal-driven and optimism or pessimism is the outlook that we adopt when we encounter a challenge to our goals. For example, how do you feel after a job interview? Are you generally positive about it went, or do you typically have a more negative interpretation of events?

Researchers suggest that an optimist will likely see the world as full of potential opportunities, and as a result are more willing to take action. In contrast, a pessimist tends to feel hopeless about their future, which results in a more passive approach to events because they believe their efforts will be futile.

Why does your outlook on life events matter? That is what I wanted to explore. I conducted a study where I asked over 2,000 non-clinical volunteers, aged between 16 and 79 years, from a wide demographic range to rate how they felt above statements like the ones above. In the same study, I also asked the volunteers to rate how often they felt sad or depressed.

This is why your life outlook matters. Because having an optimistic outlook can buffer against depression. The findings showed that almost a third of the variance associated with depression was predicted by optimism.

The results also showed another interesting pattern. The way you answered those two statements can correctly identify whether or not you report feeling depressive symptoms. (In the study, it identified 87.1 per cent of the volunteers correctly.)

Can you change your outlook on life? Researchers suggest that optimism can be learned. And it comes from where you focus your attention. Here’s an example. If you are thinking about getting a new car, you will probably find yourself paying more attention to cars. You notice the model, the paint, and lots of other factors. You may even imagine yourself driving the car.

That’s how attention works when it comes to learned optimism. You can direct your attention to focus on the positives in a situation.

Here is one tip:

Change a word: Instead of saying “yes, but…” say “yes, and…” “Yes, but…” is often associated with a negative outlook. Practise positive reframing by thinking of positive things related to the situation. Using phrases like “Yes, and…” helps us consciously reframe situations. Scientists found that the more often we positively reframe situations, we can rewire our brain circuitry to shift towards more positive moods, associated with left-side activity.

Tracy Packiam Alloway is a TEDx speaker and psychology professor at the University of North Florida

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