Danny Worrel paid in advance to have a load of firewood delivered. It was a
handshake deal, but as the guy drove off, Worrel, a 57-year-old building
engineer in Coupeville, Wash., said, "I just lost $150." He was sure
the woodsman would take off with the cash and never deliver. (Of course, the
firewood promptly arrived.)
This pessimistic outlook is typical of the 50% of Americans who assume
things are always getting worse.
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Pessimists habitually explain the events in their lives in a way that makes
them seem dire. They tend to blame themselves, while assuming that whatever
went wrong will stay wrong -- and bring everything else down with it.
Optimists, on the other hand, seem to approach life in a way that pays off.
They're more resilient in the face of disaster or tragedy and are happier with
their lives in general. But it's not all in their heads. They are generally
healthier, have stronger hearts, and tend to live longer. They're even more
resistant to colds.
One reason is because optimists learn to cope well and make connections with
others who help and support, says Barbara Fredrickson, head of the Positive
Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina.
"You're better equipped to deal with the difficulties in life because, in
the good moments, you've accrued more skills and resources," she
How the brain functions seems to play a role, too. Enthusiastic people have
more activity in the left prefrontal lobes of their brains, while those with
more active right prefrontal lobes tend to get stuck in negative emotions. The
rostral anterior cingulate cortex may be significant: One brain imaging study
found that, when asked to think about future positive events, the more
optimistically inclined had higher activity in this region, which is located
along the midline of the brain and seems to play a role in moderating emotional
reactions. Malfunctions in this area can cause depression or anxiety.
Worrel now uses a technique called "cognitive restructuring."
Instead of sinking into pessimism, he asks himself whether any rational basis
exists for a negative thought. If not, he forgets about it. He says, "I've
realized we have control over whether that glass is half empty or half
How to Be More Positive
Our brains are not hardwired for optimism or pessimism, so you can learn to
accentuate the positive. Here's how:
Learn to meditate. An eight-week program of daily mindfulness meditation -- trying to stay in the moment without
distracting thoughts -- increased activation of the left prefrontal lobe in
Think in threes. Approximately three positive moments are needed to
counteract one negative one, according to Fredrickson. So volunteer, listen to
music you like, or pet a puppy.
Write it down. Martin Seligman, the psychologist who authored the
book Authentic Happiness, suggests you create a journal. Every night, write
down three good things that happened that day -- and include an explanation for
why each happened.