Half-full or half-empty? Cultivating a positive mind

While largely thinking optimistically and being focused on the most positive explanation of events, sometimes it is helpful to think pessimistically

Is the glass half-full or half-empty? That is the question. There is evidence that people who tend to think optimistically and who focus on the positives in situations are more likely to be happier and successful. When unsuccessful in a job interview, an optimistic person might conclude that they were unlucky or focus on what they learned for the next time, whereas a pessimistic person might conclude that they are bad at interviews and be reluctant to try again.

Whatever about the reality of the situation, the optimistic person is more likely to pick themselves up and persist to get the job. This is despite the fact that pessimists tend to be more accurate in their assessments of situations.

Optimists tend to under-estimate the effort it takes to achieve a goal and over-estimate how many times they will be successful, whereas the pessimist tends to be more accurate and realistic. However, we are more drawn to optimists and listen to what they say. Think of all the politicians we elect.  We only elect those who are wildly optimistic and make many promises, most of which are never fulfilled. Yet we will never elect a pessimist politician (or even a realist) who more accurately describes what is possible and what is achievable.

The best type of optimism

The best type of optimism is one that is balanced with a little bit of pessimism. While largely thinking optimistically and being focused on the most positive explanation of events, sometimes it is helpful to think pessimistically. In particular, it is important to think pessimistically when you are making a big decision. Before committing to a new job, project or even a marriage, it is worth considering what are the negatives in this choice or person and/or how likely is it for things to go wrong? Considering the worst-case scenario and how you might cope with this is very important in weighing up whether to make a commitment and also in making a good decision. However, once a choice is made it usually best to then put all your energy into being optimistic and positively making things work out. Being pessimistic after a decision and ruminating over worst case scenarios once a choice is made can negatively affect the chance of things going well. (Think of how unhappy a newly married couple might be if they did this!)


Learning balanced optimism

How we think is largely a habit, so we can train ourselves to think optimistically most of time and to think pessimistically only occasionally when it is needed. Our positive well-being depends on being able to interrupt constant negative thinking and rumination which can have a serious negative impact on our mental health.  There are three important strategies in developing a balanced optimistic way of thinking

Being mindful of your thoughts

The first thing you can do is become aware of your thoughts and to realise that you are separate from them. You are not your thoughts and you can choose how much attention you give them as they pass through your mind. The practice of mindfulness is very useful in this regard. Some of the exercises in mindfulness recommend noticing your thoughts passing through your mind, much in the same way you might notice clouds passing in the sky overhead. They come and go, and you don’t have to attach to them.  Being mindful of your thoughts creates a distance between you and them and gives you to space to choose which ones are helpful to you

Evaluating your thinking

Once you notice your thoughts then you can begin to evaluate them and decide how useful they are. With balanced optimism the goal is to think in the most helpful way that might lead towards the best outcome. You want to avoid “wishful thinking” or thinking in a way that shirks responsibility, but instead in a way that helps you take positive action. For example, imagine if a friend is rude to you for no apparent reason, you could either think – “what a rude person” (which might make you angry and defensive ) or you could think: “they must be having a tough day” (which makes you more supportive in resolving things). Or if your work project is rejected by management you can either think “that is my chances of promotion ruined”  (which makes you give up and become resentful) or you can think “I must learn how I can improve the next proposal” (which lets you move on constructively and to prepare for the next time). Learning to challenge over-pessimistic thoughts and replacing them with more helpful and constructive ones is key to developing a habit of balanced optimism

Practising Gratitude

In positive psychology, there is strong evidence of the benefits of being grateful and regularly focusing on the aspects of your life that are going well in spite of whatever difficulties and challenges you face. In several repeated studies people are asked to keep a gratitude journal, whereby each evening they write two or three things down that they grateful for that happened in the day. After a period of one or two weeks, people completing the gratitude journals report increased well-being and happiness in a number of domains in their lives. Practising gratitude mirrors many of the spiritual practices of the great religions which recognise that noticing and being thankful for the good things in your life is a huge boost to your well-being.

Tips for Cultivating a Positive Mind

Create a daily ritual of reflecting on your thinking during the day. Using a journal to note down your thoughts and reflections is an excellent way to do this.

1) Write down the significant events of the day and how you responded to them.
2) Notice the thinking that underpinned your response. Particularly notice your habitual thinking.
3) Evaluate your thinking and ask "was this the most helpful way to think about things?"
4) Consider what way would you like to think about the situation next time? Or what would be a more helpful way to think? Write a more balanced optimistic thought about the situation in your journal
5) Note down three things you are grateful about in the day.

– Dr John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. See solutiontalk.ie for information on his books and courses.

The central role of purpose in a healthy outlook on life
2) The importance of self-compassion and self-acceptance
3) The importance of relationships and belonging
4) Work to your strengths and find your flow
5) Health, rest and fitness
6) Half-full or half-empty?