ONE THING OLYMPIANS know that the rest of us can learn from: Optimism is a performance-enhancing drug. In fact, when researchers interviewed former Olympic athletes, they discovered one of the traits that separated those who exceeded expectations from those who fell short: a high level of optimism.
“Optimists tend to take a posture of confidence and persistence, while pessimists are doubtful and hesitant,” says that study’s coauthor Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D., director of the Center for Applied Coaching and Sport Science at West Virginia University. “Optimists are able to succeed because they look for opportunities, not problems. And even when they see problems, they’re able to identify solutions.”
This superpower extends beyond the world of sports. Optimism—“the fundamental belief that things are going to work out even when they’re not going according to plan,” as performance psychologist Michael Gervais, Ph.D., puts it—is a core asset for elite military operatives, corporate leaders, and average guys who are in way-above-average health. And research shows that, when compared with pessimists, optimists live 11 to 15 percent longer, sleep better, and are more likely to have better cardiovascular health.
If you’re not a natural optimist (which is classic pessimistic thinking, by the way), or if the past year has done a number on your usual positive outlook, you’re not out of the game. Optimism can be trained, but it takes some effort to build. “Most people haven’t formally trained their mind,” says Gervais, a cofounder of Compete to Create, which has worked with Fortune 100 CEOs, military personnel, and the Seattle Seahawks. “The mind can be a junkyard of ideas, as opposed to a center of clarity where you can apply the science of thinking about the future with an optimistic lens.”
You can get your mind and your outlook in a healthier, more helpful place when you spend a week or more really paying attention to it. Here are your strategies to clean up the junk—and start building.
How the optimism-improvement plan works
FIRST, YOU HAVE TO expand your concept of “optimism.” It’s not just about thinking nice thoughts. “Optimists look at adversity as temporary, external, and not entirely their fault,” explains Jack Singer, Ph.D., a sports psychologist who has helped Olympians and businesspeople apply peak-performance principles to their work. “Pessimists view adversity as unchangeable, pervasive, and personal. When you’re negative,” says Singer, “your brain goes into fight-or-flight, thinking there could be an emergency, and that slows down everything from creativity to your immune system.” Reversing course takes regular action. Here’s how.
You’ll do a different optimism exercise each day for 5 days (see below). And every single day, you’ll bookend that exercise by starting the day with a Morning Mindset Warmup, and finishing it with and end-of-the-day Mental Cooldown.
How to do the Morning Mindset Warmup
“As your body’s waking up, you also want to wake up your mind,” says Gervais. Lie in bed for a few minutes and follow these steps:
- Breathe. Take a deep breath for five seconds and let it out for ten. “Giving yourself the luxury of a long exhale signals to your brain that you’re safe,” Gervais adds.
- Be grateful. Think of one thing you’re thankful for and feel that gratitude. Make it different each day. Some experts say it can take around 14 reps (or two weeks) of doing this before the benefits—including mental strength, resilience, and, of course, optimism—start to kick in, because by then you’ve gone beyond the easy answers and found what you’re deeply appreciative of.
- Decide. Define a single, clear intention for your day. This isn’t about what you’re going to check off your to-do list. It’s about how you want to be today. For example, you might choose to feel unflappable or generous. “You’re telling yourself that there are good things happening in the world and deciding how you want to show up in that world,” says Gervais.
- Meditate. “People who practice meditation tend to be more optimistic,” says Gervais, who recommends doing it a minimum of eight minutes a day and concentrating on one breath at a time.
How to do the end-of-the-day Mental Cooldown
Create a quiet window late in the day and spend five minutes asking yourself one or more of these questions:
- “Is there another way to think about the thing that went wrong today?” No day goes perfectly. But “optimists are tremendous reframers,” says Afton Hassett, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at the University of Michigan. To be like them, try to catch yourself in negative thinking and flip to positive. Maybe today’s slipup will protect you from making a bigger mistake later. “The more you practice reframing, the faster you get at it.”
- “What were my big wins for the day?” Focus on and reflect upon your strengths. What thinking did you flip or what negative spiral did you avoid?
- “What was today’s kryptonite?” What were the actions, thoughts, or interactions that sapped your energy? “Living in regret, the past, fear, frustration—all of it cripples us,” says Kimberley S. Reed, a diversity, equity, and inclusion expert and the author of the book Optimists Always Win! “Look at the people, behaviors, or objects that might be draining and recognize how they may be blocking your optimism. Then figure out how to avoid or change them.”
5 Days of Optimism Exercises
Each day for 5 days, here’s what to do:
Day 1 Optimism Exercise: Practice Positive Perfectionism
‣ Why it works: Positive perfectionism is a focus on how you can do your best, knowing that mistakes will happen and you can figure out how to correct them when they do. “With negative perfectionism, you’re never good enough,” says West Virginia University’s Dieffenbach. “You focus on what you didn’t get done or times when you weren’t enough. There’s nothing wrong with striving to do your best. It only becomes a problem when the only outcome is the best one.”
‣ How to do it: Take time at different points in the day to identify moments when you might have been beating yourself up for things that didn’t work out the way you wanted them to. Make a conscious effort to go from brutal criticism (“Oh, you screwed up there!”) to constructive feedback (“Really nice effort. Next time, try x.”).
Day 2 Optimism Exercise: Become a Researcher of the Amazing
‣ Why it works: Your mind naturally has a negative bias, because it has learned to search for danger. “To train your brain for optimism, you have to scan your world and find things that are amazing,” says Gervais of Compete to Create. Like the size of the web a spider built on your deck last night, or how every traffic light was green on your way to get milk. “Finding the amazing sends a signal to your brain that you can relax in this environment because there are good things out here.”
‣ How to do it: Overcome that negative bias by becoming the Indiana Jones of searching for things to celebrate. Note those any way you want; Gervais recommends using the Three Good Things app, which reminds you to notice remarkable stuff every day and keeps a record of it.
Day 3 Optimism Exercise: Visualize the Outcome You Want
‣ Why it works: Sports figures use visualization all the time to see themselves recovering from a bad play or making that three-point shot. Instead of dwelling on what went wrong, they keep their mind’s eye on what they truly want to happen. You can do the same, whether you’re stressed about the call you need to make or about going on a socially distanced date.
‣ How to do it: Before you start your day, think about tasks or encounters that cause you some anxiety and visualize what the best possible outcome looks like. Even better is visualizing how you’ll recover from a fumble, since optimists see adversity as nonpermanent and surmountable.
Day 4 Optimism Exercise: Cultivate Spontaneity
‣ Why it works: It’s about getting out of that pessimistic, “things are unchangeable” mindset. For instance, in a meeting, when you throw out ideas that you haven’t thought through, explains sports psychologist and consultant Singer, “some of those will be tremendous ideas we didn’t allow ourselves to think of before.” Spontaneity is about newness and change and pleasurable experiences, which again erase negative bias.
‣ How to do it: It might sound odd to plan to be spontaneous, but the more you practice incorporating spontaneity into your life, the more effortless it will become. Let the person at the wineshop pick the bottle you buy. Sign up for the next virtual 5K race whose ad comes into your inbox and see where it takes you.
Day 5 Optimism Exercise: Rewire Your Brain for Happiness
‣ Why it works: “When we’re exposed to something traumatic, there’s a rush of neurochemicals that sear that memory into our brain so that we’re always aware not to repeat that bad thing,” explains the University of Michigan’s Hassett. “This doesn’t really happen with positive emotions, so we need to put an emphasis on them to lock them in.”
‣ How to do it: Hassett recommends freeze-framing your peak happy moments—sprinting the last few yards of a race, reaping thanks at work for going the extra mile—and taking stock of what you love about them. What are you feeling, smelling, seeing? This imprints them in your mind and makes them easier to recall.
You can repeat any day or the whole plan any time you want. But ideally, some of these tools will find their way into your daily kit and keep your optimism intact, even when the world seems to want to wear it down.
This story originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Men's Health magazine.