Twelve months ago, Jill Caren says she hit rock bottom, when financial, business and marital difficulties hit all at once. A self-described "negative person," the Marlboro, N.J. photographer was angry and depressed—a place that was all too familiar. But, this time, those feelings scared her. "I felt like I was never going to get out," she says.
Caren sought the help of a therapist and began the process of turning around her thoughts. She realized that the way she chose to view the events in her life – through an optimistic or pessimistic mental lens – was within her control. That insight changed her life and helped her get her marriage and business back on track, she says. It took months of practice, but now when something bad happens she thinks that's just life and refocuses on something for which she can be grateful – her daughter or her family's good health, for example.
Studies have linked optimism with a range of positive health benefits ranging from longevity to improved heart health. An April 2013 study by the Journal of Personality found optimism and its benefits are found all over the world. And there's more good news: You can learn to be optimistic without being cloying or annoying, says performance psychology expert James Schwabach of Apex Performance, Inc. in Charlotte, N.C. Here's how.
Check your self-talk. A key part of our outlook is the way we talk to ourselves, says psychologist Elizabeth R. Lombardo, Ph.D. author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness (Morgan James, 2009). Even negative self-talk has a positive motivation—it's trying to make us better, she says. But practice talking to yourself the way you would talk to your best friend. Instead of saying, "I'm so fat" or "I'm so lazy," focus on an accomplishment or something you like about yourself such as, "I walked five more minutes on the treadmill today." Or, focus on action to address the negative talk such as asking, "What can I do to make myself more feel better or be more physically fit?" instead of berating yourself. Positive thinking is like a muscle, she says. The more you train your thoughts to be more positive, the more natural it becomes.
Use a journal. In addition to recording your thoughts at the end of the day, use the power of the pen or the keyboard to write down negative thoughts as you experience them, Schwabach says. He notes what he calls the "three As of optimism – awareness, adjustment and action." When you write down your thoughts at a particular time every day, you can see how often you're thinking negatively. That awareness allows you to change your thoughts. Make your journal a repository for the good stuff – things for which you're grateful, kudos you've received, heartwarming moments. Then, it also becomes a resource you can review when you're feeling down to remind you that things may not be as bad as they seem.
Let go of anger. Anger at loved ones was keeping Caren mired in negative thinking. She kept replaying those situations in her head. With the help of her therapist, she was able to forgive the people in her life who had hurt her and move on to rebuilding happier, healthier relationships. That's not always easy and it can take time, Lombardo says. And forgiveness doesn't mean allowing abusive behavior to continue—sometimes you have to end relationships if they can't be healthy, Lombardo adds.
Spend time with positive people. You act like the people with whom you spend the most time, so seek out those who are optimistic, Schwabach says. If none come to mind, take a class, volunteer, learn a new sport, or get involved at a church or community center where you can be exposed to people who are passionate and positive.
Move your body. From the endorphins to the overall health benefits, we all know that we need to exercise. But Schwabach says it helps your sense of well-being. And you don't have to be in serious triathalon training to reap the benefits -- even dancing around the house to your favorite song or taking a brisk walk outdoors can help you feel better, he says.
Be realistic. Changing your outlook can be difficult. Don't get discouraged if you struggle or if there's some push-back from the people in your life who see you changing. It's okay to be sad or angry when the situation merits it. It's when you feel that way more often than not that it's a problem, Lombardo says.
"Optimism is not saying, I am so glad that my husband just left me after 20 years and I'm filing for bankruptcy, Life is good. That's delusional," adds Lombardo. "Optimism is simply seeing the positive that may be there. It is the proverbial glass half full."