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By Jessica C. Kraft

The common understanding of optimism is that it is an innate attitude. You’re born an optimist, a pessimist, or a realist, and once you see the glass half empty, you’ll always see it that way. But this is actually quite a pessimistic assumption.

On the contrary, the current thinking in psychology and neuroscience is quite optimistic about your ability to banish pessimistic attitudes.  The positive psychology movement, in particular, advances the idea that optimism is a skill that can be learned and practiced until it becomes a habitual and beneficial way of approaching life’s ups and downs. And teachings from global wisdom traditions also show us powerful methods for transforming negative thought patterns.

The founder of positive psychology,  Martin Seligman, Ph.D., says that learning optimism begins with listening to how we describe and ultimately label the various events in our lives—what Seligman has termed our “explanatory style.”

If your explanatory style is pessimistic, you might assume that you are generally unlikable because you’ve received some harsh words from a friend. Or you might generalize that because you lost an athletic competition, you’re terrible at sports. If your kids aren’t achieving high marks in school, you might assume that you’re a total failure at parenting.

In this style, any particular setback is seen as part of a permanent condition that applies to other areas of life. When something good happens to the inveterate pessimist, he tends to see it as temporary and very narrowly focused. Each win is just a fluke; the high test score is simple luck.

 Optimists tend to have the opposite relationship to setbacks and successes. Setbacks are viewed as temporary and narrowly focused, and successes are seen as representative of a more permanent condition.

A high score on a test would lead an optimistic student to believe that she’s generally good at academics. An optimistic sales rep who fails to reach her goals one quarter might view it as a signal to re-apply herself next time, when she will surely do better by learning from her mistakes.

Yet remaining optimistic, particularly in the face of multiple setbacks—or during an episode of depression or anxiety—can take a lot of effort. Psychologist and author Rick Hanson, Ph.D., says that this is because humans evolved to have a negativity bias, which, before civilization, enabled a higher rate of species survival.

“Our ancestors had to make a critical decision many times a day—to approach a reward or avoid a hazard, which we can think of as pursuing a carrot or ducking a stick,” he says.

 “To pass on their genes, they had to find food, reproduce, and cooperate with others. These are big ‘carrots.’ They also had to hide from predators, steer clear of dominant tribe members, and not let other hunter-gatherer clans kill them, which are significant ‘sticks.’ ”

 Hanson explains that carrots, which we can understand as pleasurable experiences, are less immediate and urgent than sticks, which are painful or even deadly experiences. If we miss out on a few carrots today, there will be more opportunities tomorrow. But if we fail to avoid a stick today, that could be our end.

That led our evolving brains to pay more attention and give greater emotional weight to painful experiences, even though our survival no longer depends on that negativity bias. The good news is that we can overcome this evolutionary trait with some simple techniques.


The first step is learning how to identify negativity.

Working with a counselor, Jenn Holthaus, 41, from San Mateo, California, learned a clear way to name the negativity that permeated her mindset when she was in the grip of anxiety and depression.

“I became aware that having negative or scary thoughts was something your brain did, not something you necessarily did on purpose,” she says. “I did a journaling exercise where I noted down how many times a day I had negative thoughts—which I defined as anything that made me feel bad, sad, or scared.”

Soon, Holthaus was able to recognize negative thought patterns right away. Instead of letting them dictate her mood, she would acknowledge the thoughts, then engage in an activity that distracted or uplifted her. Soon, her negative thoughts had much less power over her moods and emotions, and she had a portfolio of activities that she knew would shift her frame of mind.

She makes sure to get enough sleep, a weekly massage and plenty of connection time with her husband and son.

“I remember my counselor asked me about 10 years ago, ‘What is your mental health self-care routine?’ And my answer at the time was, ‘Huh?’ Now I can easily tell you exactly the practices that I have found that help me, on a daily and weekly basis, to keep my anxiety and depression at bay. And I have built my life around them in a way that still leaves plenty of room for my job, my husband and son, and all the things I like to do,” she says.


The next step is learning how to rewire or sidestep the brain’s negativity bias. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, advocates deliberately cultivating your optimistic outlook every day.

 “To build an optimistic attitude—the kind that may wax and wane but is always fundamentally present—takes time and diligence,” she says.  “Every day I try to spend some time expressing thanks for the things I’m able to do and share, and I also try to take a moment to visualize a positive future in which I achieve my goals.”

This kind of deliberate thinking about what you are grateful for and positive experiences you’ve had recently is what Rick Hanson calls “taking in the good.” He advises focusing on positive moments as a way to wean your brain away from its negativity bias.

“When you find yourself enjoying a laugh, smiling in appreciation, or experiencing deep happiness, you can train yourself to recognize the moment and take in the good,” he says.

“Try to soak in those positive feelings like a sunbath for at least 30 seconds, and that will reinforce that neural pathway of pleasure in your brain, allowing you to have more and deeper experiences of pleasure as the practice becomes more regular for you.”

Travis Browne, 35, from Calgary, Alberta, found solace in this kind of mindful embrace of the positive when he had a depressive period in his life.

Again, learning to catch his negative thoughts was the first step.

“Being aware, stepping back from my thoughts, and asking, ‘Was that a good thought? Will it help me to think that way, or is it going to hurt me thinking that way?’ allowed me to transform my negativity,” he reflects.

Browne says that with several weeks of practice, he was able to use a method of breathing and meditation to change his mood into a neutral, peaceful state, and then into happiness.

“I would be going to work and I would tell myself that I don’t want to be here, that I don’t want to do this. But then I would put my hand over my heart and breathe in, sending myself love and positive energy, beautiful flowers or sunshine, and imagine those entering my heart and neutralizing the negative thoughts,” he explains.

Thanks to that exercise, Browne says, he would be able to quickly transition into a productive day.


Another approach to transforming the brain’s negativity bias derives from an Asian religious framework that encourages us to refrain from judging external circumstances as either positive or negative.

Dr. Srikumar Rao, a former business school professor who has written books on creativity and personal mastery, sees this as even more powerful than a practice of deliberately cultivating optimism or positive thinking.

“Embedded in the notion of positive thinking is the thought that something bad has happened,” he explains.  “There is a judgment inherent in the term. We all make snap judgments all the time —you miss a train, it’s a bad thing. You get fired from your job, it’s a tragedy. Then, if you’re trying to use positive thinking, you somehow have to spin these experiences completely around.”

He instead advises not rushing to judgment at all.

“What happens if you don’t label your experiences when they happen? Since you only suffer when you label events as bad, your suffering never begins, and you don’t have to use any kind of technique or positive thinking to transform your judgment of that experience,” he says.

Maybe missing that train allows you to strike up a conversation with someone on the platform who can be helpful in your life. Or getting fired from your job ultimately leads you to an even better position.

“Everyone can think of several examples in their life where some event that they at first labeled as bad actually turned out to be great for them,” Rao points out.

Rao advocates remaining neutral about what we habitually label as setbacks, because more often than not these events ultimately present us with opportunities to improve ourselves or develop more resiliency.

He also encourages individuals not to define themselves solely in terms of results and outcomes because this primes us for negativity. After all, we will certainly fail to reach a goal some of the time.

 “There is an alternative,” he says.  “Don’t invest in the outcome, invest in the process.”


In his recent book Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, British journalist Oliver Burkeman presents another alternative to positive thinking. His take, which derives from the ancient Stoic philosophers, involves deliberately confronting painful emotions in order to fully accept and resolve them.

“In order to be truly happy, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions—or, at the very least, to learn to stop running quite so hard from them,” he says. “If you stop to think about how badly things might go, you generally find that things are not as tragic as they first appear. Confronting the worst-case scenario saps it of much of its anxiety-inducing power.”

Tibetan Buddhists have codified this approach into a practice called tonglen, in which individuals visualize taking on their own suffering or the suffering of others while breathing in, then releasing it on the out-breath.

Pema Chödrön, an American Tibetan Buddhist nun, regularly teaches the meditative practice as a means of dealing with depression and anxiety. While it may seem counterintuitive to deliberately invite in what we consider to be negative emotions, the theory here is that acknowledging our pain and suffering actually permits us to gain some distance from the emotions.

“In tonglen practice, when we see or feel suffering, we breathe in with the notion of completely feeling it, accepting it, and owning it,” Chödrön says. “Then when you exhale, you are radiating compassion, loving-kindness, freshness and anything that encourages relaxation and openness.”


The key to all of these approaches for overcoming the brain’s negativity bias is to start recognizing and replacing your thought patterns. Gain awareness of how your thoughts translate into your emotions, and begin to insert some contemplative space into that process. Then, you can choose how you react, whether your inclination is to deliberately cultivate an optimistic response, refrain from judging your experience, or meditate deliberately on suffering in order to release it.

Tugboat captain Erick Elberth, 43, of Albany, New York, says he would often lose his temper with colleagues because of the stresses of his unpredictable job and end up feeling terrible about himself.

“But now, I generally try to focus just on what’s under my control, and what isn’t,” Elberth says. “I can’t do anything about certain situations, but in my own mind, if I’m staying aware of my thoughts, I can always choose how to react.”