Flex your happy muscles: How to train your brain to look on the bright side

Even the most optimistic person will have struggled to stay positive in 2020. But here’s some good news: you can train your brain to look on the bright side, discovers Emma Winterschladen.

I’ve always been an optimist – it’s why I never leave enough time to catch my train, trusting that everything will run smoothly on my journey, despite that having never been the case. It also explains why, when I got engaged in June in the middle of a national lockdown, I went ahead and started planning (and paying) for a 2021 wedding.

According to its dictionary definition, optimism is the ‘tendency to be hopeful’, a feeling that we can effect change in both our lives and in the world. But this year, more than ever, it seems difficult to capture that sensation. It often feels like my list of things to look forward to is rapidly depleting; my list of things to worry about growing. It also seems increasingly unlikely that the wedding I hoped for, with the 120 people I want there, will happen. And this, coupled with the fact we are living amid a global pandemic, has shaken my sense of confidence that things will all work out just fine. This pessimism, which at first felt unfamiliar, has become a daily companion (and not a very fun one).

optimism emoji
@getmarktodoit

But hanging on to a sense of hope is crucial, because our ability to feel optimistic plays a big part in both our mental and physical wellbeing. Research over the years has proven that not only do optimists have reduced anxiety day to day, as well as increased resilience to stress, but they also benefit from better health outcomes. In fact, one study showed that optimists live, on average, 11 to 15 per cent longer – and this is independent of other factors such as socio-economic status, depression and health behaviours such as smoking.

The good news is, our optimism quota isn’t set at birth (in fact, studies suggest it is only about 25 per cent inherited). Now there’s a whole movement – called positive psychology – that is focused on ‘learned optimism’, with studies over the years suggesting that it is possible to learn the thought processes that contribute to our sense of optimism. And just like a muscle, the more you ‘train’ this optimism, the stronger it will become. According to Dr Emma Hepburn, a clinical psychologist and author of A Toolkit for Modern Life: 53 Ways to Look After Your Mind, which is a guide to cultivating positive habits, much of our optimism comes from what psychologists call our ‘explanatory’ style – how we explain to ourselves why we experience certain events.

‘When difficult events happen, people with an optimistic “explanatory style” tend to be less likely to blame themselves or view the events as permanent or unchangeable,’ she explains.

It’s adopting this ‘explanatory style’ that dr hepburn says holds the key to us being able to boost our optimism. But it takes time and effort: ‘changing long-term beliefs and developing new thinking patterns doesn’t happen overnight – it has to be practised regularly.’

Think positively

‘Neuroplasticity’ is the name given to our ability to rewire the brain’s patterns of thought, and it’s the reason we can learn to be more optimistic.

‘The more we think this way, the more the brain creates new links that make these thoughts more likely to happen in the future,’ explains Dr Hepburn. ‘what’s more, we can recognise the thought patterns that are unhelpful to us, and instead develop new ways of looking at situations that are helpful.

‘We have billions of neurons in our brain with trillions of connecting points (known as synapses) between them. The brain responds to learning by growing existing synapses and forming new ones, and these connections strengthen the more they are used. So when we focus our mind on positive things, we’re helping the brain create new connections, which then makes optimistic thinking more likely to be our default.’

A good place to start in building our optimism is to notice our tendency towards negative thoughts, says Dr Hepburn. ‘Catch your catastrophising and draw your attention back to the here and now, and what you can actually control.’ For me, this has been swapping my mental list of things I can’t do right now, or people I can’t see, to a list of what I can do and who I can see (if only for a socially distanced walk).

It’s also been about refocusing my attention to the things I can control with my wedding. I now realise it’s about taking it day by day, and addressing challenges as and when they come up. So far, this has involved a lot of logistical rethinking of our ‘big day’, which has now become a ‘small day’ in the spring, followed by what I hope will be a big fat celebration in 2022 – with social distancing a distant memory.

But it’s also about seeking out joy and pleasure in our days too, says Dr Hepburn. ‘Creating feelgood sensations in our bodies every day is an important part of helping to shift our brain away from its negative bias. How we feel in our body and current mood states affect how we think – so if we’re feeling physically good, we are more likely to have positive thoughts and make positive predictions. Conversely, if we’re feeling physically bad, we’re more likely to have negative thoughts.’

She recommends finding practical ways to relax – be it yoga, a long bath, walking, getting outside or speaking to a good friend. ‘We can notice and savour these pleasant sensations; attending to them means we are more likely to encode them in our memory, creating positive events for us to recall later. Noticing what really makes us feel good helps us plan activities that we know make us feel good.’

Write a new ending

Another way we can change our neural pathways towards a more optimistic style is by ‘re-storying’ our experiences. This means rewriting the narrative surrounding events in our lives, so that we can change our emotional response to, and shift our subsequent actions around, those events. This could be as simple as a shift from ‘I missed my train because I am useless and nothing ever goes right for me’ to ‘I missed my train because I got my timings wrong – next time I will leave a little earlier’.

One way to do this is with the ‘ABCDE model’ – a five-step exercise often used in cognitive behavioural therapy as a way of recognising negative thoughts in the moment and replacing them with more optimistic ones. I tried it out for myself.

The first step is to recognise your adversity (A) – in my case it has been the uncertainty of my previously mentioned will-we-won’t-we wedding. You’re then asked to work out what belief (B) you have attached to that adversity, followed by the consequences (C) of that belief.

For me, my belief was: ‘I am going to invest so much time, money and emotion in a single day that may not even go ahead.’ The consequences were feeling anxious, overwhelmed and unable to enjoy the planning process of what should be the happiest day of my life.

You’re then asked to dispute (D) your belief and create a new one. For me this involved saying to myself out loud while on a walk: ‘I will get married and I will have a wedding – even if it doesn’t look like how I once imagined it. The most important people will be there and that’s all that matters.’

This resulted in a new effect (E), which was, to my surprise, a sense of calm and confidence in both my body and mind that, whatever happens, my wedding day will be special and exactly as it’s meant to be.

The Psychology Mum illustration
You can follow Dr Emma Hepburn’s illustrations and advice on Instagram @thepsychologymum. Image: Instagram/@thepsychologymum

Reimagine the future

Allowing ourselves to imagine a better future than the present we’re now in is also an important part of optimism muscle-building. ‘We often fill the gaps of uncertainty in the future with automatic negative predictions, particularly if we are feeling nervous or anxious about what’s to come, as our brain will make predictions that are in line with our mood,’ explains Dr Hepburn.

‘Shifting our thinking to focus on what could go right gives us a more balanced picture, can make us less anxious about what might happen and can also help us notice when things go right, too.’

The most effective and widely studied way of doing this is the Best Possible Self method, a positive psychology technique that involves spending 15 minutes a week writing down in a notebook how your life would look and feel if everything went as well as it possibly could.

Because I’m finding the idea of imagining my future life a bit much for me right now, I’ve instead taken to waking each morning and imagining my Best Possible Day. Sometimes I write it down, other times I just lie in bed and let myself visualise the smell of my freshly brewed coffee as I plunge it, the feeling when I finish work, the taste of the soup I’ll make at lunch, and the wind on my face when I go out for a walk. And beyond giving me an extra ten minutes in bed, so far it’s working. I may not be able to imagine what a more joyful future looks like just yet, but I am able to imagine a more hopeful day ahead, then live it.

None of this is a magic cure for all that is sad and bad in the world – and the good thing is it doesn’t have to be. Just by recognising our tendency to negativity and hopelessness, we can start feeling empowered to change it, step by step.

Get your optimism fix…

…with these social-media accounts.

The Good Quote

@thegoodquote This is one of the most popular platforms on social media advocating for mental health, wellbeing and self-development. It has raked in more than 21 million followers on Instagram thanks to its well-curated motivational feed.

Some Good News

@somegoodnews Launched by Emily Blunt’s husband, actor John Krasinski, at the start of the pandemic, this is a YouTube web series – with A-list guests such as Oprah Winfrey, Ryan Reynolds and Emma Stone – and Instagram account that focuses on positive and inspiring stories.

Upworthy

@upworthy With a website and Instagram account dedicated to positive storytelling, this delivers the best of humanity with viral posts and news stories from social-media platforms. Touching on everyday struggles, family matters and real-life heroes, all the posts have a constructive twist.

5 ways to brighten up

Psychologist Dr Emma Hepburn shares her optimism-boosting strategies.

1. Notice the good, then record it

Every day, take time to remember and write down what brought you joy and what you’re grateful for. Shifting your attention can consciously attend to the sensory inputs that make you feel good. You are then more likely to encode them in your mind and do them more often.

2. Give yourself permission to feel

Bottling up emotions leads to your body experiencing a greater level of physiological stress. Work out how you are feeling and try to process these emotions by talking them through, writing them down or with other creative ways, such as drawing or painting.

3. Monitor your news diet

Take control of the nature of the news you input into your brain. Constantly focusing on current affairs or scrolling social media can overload you with negative information, take up brain space and get in the way of focusing on what makes you feel good and doing things you actually enjoy.

4. Remember good times

By focusing on happy memories – perhaps a warm hug or a holiday – you release chemicals in your brain which create good sensations in your body and can boost your mood.

5. Make a ‘ta-da’ list

Our brains are goal- and future-focused; we rarely stop to reflect on our achievements. Stopping and recognising them each day can be a powerful tool in helping you focus on what you have done.

A Toolkit for Modern Life: 53 Ways to Look After Your Mind by Dr Emma Hepburn is published by Quercus, price £12.99. To order a copy for £11.04 until 29 November, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £15.

Additional research: Charlotte Vossen