Is the brain actually wired to be optimistic and embrace positive behaviors? Perhaps yes, according to recent research from Oxford University.
The Science of Optimism
Researchers from Oxford’s Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain created a connectivity map of the brain based on data from 461 people. The goal was to see how regions of the brain communicate, and if the patterns could be translated into 280 identifiable behaviors and demographics.
Indeed, the scientists found a correlation between brain connections and patterns of behavior. You can think of neural communication as lying along an axis; the research showed that connectivity on opposite ends of the spectrum are correlated with very specific behaviors and demographics.
Those with connectivity on one side of the axis generally scored higher in classically positive behaviors like vocabulary, memory satisfaction, income, and education. Those on the other end of the scale scored higher in typically negative behaviors like rule-breaking, substance abuse, poor sleep and anger. Interesting, eh?
The scientists found the results in this study were rather similar to the idea of “general intelligence factor,” a theory which posits that facets of intelligence are interlinked; if you score high in one type of intelligence, you’ll likely score high in others. If you look at it from a view of positivity and optimism, it would look a little something like this: if you’re engaging in one positive behavior, there’s a solid chance you’ll be engaging in others, too.
How to Be More Optimistic
There is still a lot that scientists don’t know about the brain’s role in behaviors, but these results hint that positivity might be contagious and interwoven—so the more optimistic and productive things you can do, the better your life will be overall. It’s somewhat of a snowball effect.
To get you started with an optimism makeover, try these five quick-hit positivity tips from psychologist and counselor Karla Ivankovich, PhD, an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Illinois Springfield. The best part? Anyone can pull off all five.
1. Sleep More
Get your seven to eight hours in. A groggy mind can launch you into a bad day, as you’ll likely feel sluggish, tired and moody—and even obsessive, says Ivankovich. “A clear head allows for less confusion,” she explains. “Lack of sleep leads to a process called rumination, which results when someone obsesses over issues or concerns.” This rumination process results in what Ivanovich calls a “catastrophization where everything in your life becomes bad.” Don’t magnify the negative. Just get enough sleep.
2. Restructure Your Thoughts
You don’t have to see a specialist to pull this trick out, generally used in cognitive behavioral therapy. “You can do something called thought restructuring,” Ivankovich says. “In this process, you recognize a cognitive distortion—a negative or irrational thought—and replace it with an appropriate thought.” For instance, you might start feeling resentment that your colleague isn’t turning her work in on time. With thought restructuring, you can look at it differently—perhaps she’ll turn in a more complete and thorough report, and this mini-break will give you time to jumpstart your next project or run out for coffee. “With time and practice, one can do this automatically without having to redirect the thought process,” says Ivankovich.
3. Laugh a Little
Call up your funniest friend. Order up a comedy on Netflix. Just get a good laugh in, says Ivankovich. “Laughter releases hormones that decrease stress and increase the body’s ability to resist illness,” she explains. “When we feel better, we are happier and more optimistic. Each day should start with humor.” Look for moments early in the day in which you can laugh more, or laugh it off.
4. Exercise Often
Go for a long walk, hit a kickboxing class, or head to yoga. Movement matters. “Research shows that those who exercise regularly tend to be more optimistic than their peers who are not as active,” Ivankovich explains. By releasing stress hormones, like cortisol, while simultaneously increasing positive hormones, like endorphins, you will “enjoy less tension, which is linked to higher perceptions of happiness and improved mood,” says Ivankovich. In everyday terms, exercising is basically a gateway for becoming The Quintessential Optimist.
5. Identify and Remove Toxicity
It’s common to have one friend in a group who brings down the mood with a somber attitude, or tends to stir the pot and create drama. Consider doing an evaluation of the people in your life, and cut out toxic influences. “Negative people have attitudes that can be contagious and literally suck the life out of you,” says Ivankovich. “You have to choose your own happiness. With this, I encourage clients to address their issues and not let others weigh them down,” she says.
Hopefully, you can recognize a friend’s negative influences are not reality. If not, spending less time with that person is best—and being a consistently positive presence when you encounter them may help their mood, and thus the mood of the group as a whole. “Negativity can cloud your judgement, cause you to believe things are worse than they are, and limit your ability to see the good in anything.”
Your job is to recognize reality, be proactive about destructive thoughts and influences, embrace positive behaviors, and shine the light for others. With that in mind, being an optimist is easier than you think.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.