Optimism is a quality that is often associated with tenacious cheer and a Pollyannaish outlook on life. But, what does it really mean to be optimistic? How is it that some people seem to effortlessly radiate positivity? Is it possible for those who are overwhelmed by significant challenges, like family caregivers, to work towards a more upbeat attitude?

Defining Optimism

Being optimistic isn’t about hiding your true feelings and walking around with a smile on your face. According to Rick Hanson, PhD, caregiver and author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, being optimistic means that you see the world accurately, taking in both the good and the bad.

Pessimism, on the other hand, is an unhealthy obsession with the negative, which can snowball until a person feels helpless and hopeless. Dr. Hanson says that it’s rather easy to lean towards pessimism. The human brain has a built-in survival mechanism called the negativity bias that causes us to instinctually focus on the bad or threatening aspects of our environment while minimizing or ignoring the good.

Combatting Pessimism

Because humans are hardwired to be more sensitive to negative emotions, thoughts and experiences (even when the good and the bad are roughly equal), it can be especially challenging to maintain an upbeat or even neutral attitude. When life gets messy, as it does for so many family caregivers, it can feel like you’re fighting a losing battle. However, keeping a healthy and grounded outlook is crucial for mental fortitude during trying times. Dr. Hanson offers three simple tips for caregivers who strive to become more optimistic:

  1. Reassert control over your life.
    The unfortunate reality is that many times caregivers are like nails—constantly hammered down by selfish siblings, unhappy seniors and difficult doctors. During challenging times, it’s especially important to remember there are things in your life that you still have control over. Dr. Hanson says that it can help to envision three realms over which we have influence: our environment (e.g. fixing a leaky faucet, cleaning and organizing a room, or painting a wall), our bodies (e.g. exercising, eating well and taking the right medications) and our minds (e.g. tweaking our attitude and choosing what to focus on).
    Caregivers often find themselves in a position where it becomes harder for them to effect change in their environment and even their own bodies. Dr. Hanson advises people who find themselves feeling frustrated and experiencing a reduced sense of control to remember that, at the very least, you can always influence your thoughts. This doesn’t mean that you must ignore the bad things; sometimes you can’t, no matter how hard you try. It means making the choice to change your perspective, despite those bad things. Find some aspects of your daily life that you have power over, no matter how small, and elect to make positive changes one tiny step at a time. You’ll probably have to make conscious, repeated efforts to alter your thoughts and behaviors at first, but consistency will yield results.
  2. Practice mindfulness.
    Thanks to the negativity bias, Dr. Hanson says that bad experiences tend to dominate our thoughts whereas positive ones just don’t have the same staying power. Becoming more optimistic requires practice noticing and holding onto the positive things that exist in our everyday lives. Dr. Hanson suggests that throughout each day, caregivers should try to find at least ten instances where they recognize something positive and focus on appreciating it for at least ten seconds. It doesn’t have to be anything major. A flower blooming in the garden or the sound of a child’s laugh in the distance—things you wouldn’t normally notice—are perfectly acceptable.
    Pausing to reflect on a positive experience, even if it seems minor, will help you internalize and attach emotion to it, something that Dr. Hanson says the brain normally wouldn’t do. This is why simply telling someone to think more positively is often unhelpful, because “happy thoughts” alone will still lack that powerful emotional component. But Dr. Hanson feels that spending ten seconds ten times a day is enough to help a person begin to train their brain to appreciate the simple happiness and beauty of the things around them. This will assist in creating a more lasting emphasis on positivity, thereby pushing out the negativity that so often clouds our minds.
  3. Build a support system.
    Dr. Hanson also emphasizes the value of a solid social network, saying that caregivers must seek out as many opportunities for beneficial social interaction as they can. Caregivers who are looking to adopt a more optimistic outlook need a diverse support system that provides camaraderie and encouragement throughout their journey, as well as an opportunity to vent. As a caregiver for both his mother and his father, Dr. Hanson knows all too well that finding time to socialize can be challenging. He encourages time-strapped caregivers to be realistic and just do what they can. It may also help to broaden your idea of what social interaction entails. Animals and children are two sources of socialization that most people do not think to utilize, but Dr. Hanson says that they can supply much-needed comfort, laughter and perspective. Online support groups can also be a valuable source of advice and reassurance for caregivers who don’t have the time or ability to attend in-person support groups.

It’s true that focusing on a beautiful sunset won’t magically change your attitude or your caregiving situation. However, it can be a tiny step toward improving your outlook and fortifying your mental resolve. Dr. Hanson points out that research has consistently shown that people can learn to see the world in a more balanced way, regardless of their circumstances. Take the time to use the above strategies. With practice, you may find that your attitude has improved, and you are able to take control of your caregiving situation rather than letting it get the best of you.

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