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Why Does Looking on the Bright Side Work?

"COVID-19 research shows we want a better normal"

By Dr Nicola Gates,  Clinical Neuropsychologist

COVID-19 is profoundly impacting the lives of people, communities, and nations. The universal message is that COVID-19 has wrought profound change in our daily lives. For some that change may include grief and/or overwhelming stress however, many report hope and are optimistic about the future.  

An international research project which examined individual responses to COVID-19 found that most respondents believe that COVID-19 can enable us to have a better life. The aptly titled survey, ‘The Better Normal’ project from Australia’s Optimism Centre has collected responses from over 2500 people from 24 countries, and this study is ongoing. The results indicate that most of us are hopeful and are actively engaging in activities to build and reinforce positive emotion.

Now that we are into the long phase of living with COVID-19 it is an ideal time to regroup and harness this groundswell of optimism so we can reap the benefit of the positive changes and make things better as individuals and as a society.

Optimism can simply be thought of as the belief that things will work out positively in the end. It is not Pollyanna thinking that everything is wonderful or naïve that there are no problems, but the expectation that things will ultimately get better. Research indicates that optimistic thinking people are better at coping with difficult situations and adversity than pessimistic people. 

Being optimistic drives curiosity to find a way out of a problem situation. Alternatively, optimistic people will move on if they cannot alter the situation and instead channel their effort and energy elsewhere.  Either way, they move forwards and their optimism means they are energized and find the good in order to make things better. In the time of COVID-19 optimists have looked to make the ‘new normal’ better, and along the way they have improved their resilience and their health.

Thinking positively or optimistically has been shown to improve your health, feel healthier, and enjoy greater well-being. Optimists also tend to engage in activities to protect their health as they recognize they have control and self-responsibility for their health and recovery. They are more likely to engage in physical exercise, eat a good diet, sleep well, and follow medical advice, which not only reduces their likelihood of getting sick but also improves their recovery and recuperation from illness. Optimists see a better health future and take action to make it happen. Positivity boosts the immune system and evidence from the Nun Study suggests that optimistic or positive thinking people live longer.

Although we are all born with a unique temperament or predisposition, being a combination of genes and early life experience, research from the last decade indicates that we can cultivate and develop an optimistic and positive outlook. It is estimated that optimism is only about 25 percent inheritable and perhaps the same amount can be attributed to other factors that are out of our control, but the rest is how we live and view our life experience. Being an optimist by nature I think that presents an exciting opportunity for positive growth.

The simplest thing to do to become positive and optimistic is to put time and energy into focusing on the positive, finding the joys, or as Rick Hansen says, “focus on the good."

If that sounds too hard, perhaps think of all the things you want to remain the same or keep as they must be right for you, and instead of perhaps taking them for granted begin to appreciate them. The next simple trick is to find purpose in work and life and sometimes that means only changing how you think about or value the things you currently do.

Research from the Optimism Centre during COVID-19 indicates that the most popular positive actions that have increased optimism were engaging in regular positive conversations, expressing gratitude, sharing positive stories of hope and optimism, along with yoga and exercise, and simply smiling at people. We know from neuroscience research that mood is contagious, so a good way to become positive and optimistic is to spend time with positive people and to put your positivity back out there to build the positive loop.

We also know from neuroscience that the brain is dynamic and by changing our thinking to be optimistic and positive we change our brain.

Change is one thing humans do remarkably well, even if we don’t like it. We can adapt as we have always done: Remember, we have survived ice ages and many plagues.

Being able to manage change is something we have evolved to do, and if we can be optimistic and see the positive we will create what we want, a better normal.  We have got this.

This article was originally published in Psychology Today in October 2020.  Republished with thanks.

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