Optimism involves expecting good things to happen whether by chance, other people or events, or by your own actions. Having positive thoughts about the future can motivate you to set goals for your future and to come up with plans to deal with future stressors.
Research shows that optimism predicts higher wellbeing, better health behaviours (such as better nutrition and dental care), helps adjustment to cancer and chronic pain and lowers stress. Optimism has even been shown to predict lower death rates from heart attacks and reduce the risk of cognitive impairment as we get older. However, we need to remember that excessively high optimism can lead to undesirable outcomes. For example, being too optimistic about your future health could lead you to continue smoking or drinking to excess.
So how can we build helpful levels of optimism? Imagining a positive future is a good way to start. I find it helpful to first consider: what sort of person do you admire? How could you change to develop some of those traits you admire? For example, ‘I’d like to become someone who speaks up about things that concern others.’ Then research suggests doing this Best Possible Future Self exercise:
– Imagine a brighter future in which things change just enough to help you become your best possible self.
– Be specific. Imagine what you’d like to do, when and with whom. Be creative and imaginative.
Another thing you can do is next time something is going wrong or getting you down, acknowledge it, think through ways you can cope with it, but also start thinking of what could go right. As Noam Chomsky said, “optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”
Dr Sue Ferguson is an Honorary Associate Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Macquarie University.