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December 18, 2020

Optimism can be hard to conjure, but it's a powerful tool for the days ahead

Train your mind to stay positive when hardships arrive

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Optimism Benefits Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

The benefits of a positive attitude are myriad: increased life span, less depression, less distress, better cardiovascular health and better coping skills.

Distribution of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, with Moderna's right behind it, is providing Americans with hope that the nightmare of the coronavirus pandemic finally may be concluding. The caveat, of course, is that the prospect of a full return to normal is still months away.

For now, there is the real threat that traditional holiday spirit built around family, celebrations and the anticipation of a new year could easily be replaced by pessimism, loneliness or even depression. 

Optimism may be scarce in the context of virtual learning, restaurant closures and a general disruption of life, but the power of positivity may be just what we need to weather the lingering COVID storm, and maintain our health and well-being. Not to mention, setting us on a course for permanent improvements in our heath behaviors.

Whenever optimism is mentioned as an influencer of behavior, it is important to define the term. I’m certainly not referring to some unrealistic perception of circumstances as good when they are not, or a mindset that buries any negative feelings to maintain an exclusively positive attitude – what is known as toxic positivity.

According to the Mayo Clinic, positive thinking doesn't mean that you keep your head in the sand and ignore life's less pleasant situations. It just means that you approach unpleasantness in a more positive and productive way. You think the best is going to happen, not the worst.

Benefits of optimism

The benefits of maintaining an optimistic outlook are substantial and well documented. 

Harvard Medical School reports that optimism helps people cope with disease and recover from surgery. Further, they cite a large, short-term study that evaluated the link between optimism and overall health in 2,300 older adults. Over two years, people who had a positive outlook were much more likely to stay healthy and enjoy independent living than their less cheerful peers.

The Mayo Clinic offers a laundry list of benefits from positive thinking: increased life span, lower rates of depression, lower levels of distress, better cardiovascular health and better coping skills during hardships and times of stress.

Can you become optimistic?

Does optimism seem like the antidote to get you through the next few months? If you don’t consider yourself a glass half-full person, is it possible to become optimistic?

The short answer is yes. 

According to the Kings College of London, only about 25% of optimism is inherited. What is known as learned optimism was introduced by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, who is considered the father of the positive psychology movement. Seligman believes that anyone can learn how to become more optimistic.

Practicing positive thinking

If you are ready to chart your own pathway to a more positive perspective on life, Johns Hopkins Medicine offers these basic tips on improving your disposition.

• Smile more. Hopkins sites a study that found smiling – even fake smiling – reduces heart rate and blood pressure during stressful situations.

• Practice reframing. Instead of stressing about a traffic jam, for instance, appreciate the fact that you can afford a car and get to spend a few extra minutes listening to music or the news, accepting that there is absolutely nothing you can do about the traffic.

• Build resiliency. Resiliency is the ability to adapt to stressful and/or negative situations and losses. To build yours, maintain good relationships with family and friends, accept that change is a part of life, and take action on problems rather than just hoping they disappear or waiting for them to resolve themselves.

Getting through the holidays

But what about the most immediate challenge, the particulars of getting through this holiday season under the onslaught of COVID? Here are some micro strategies built around a base of optimism that the experts recommend.

PlanningWhile so much is out of our control, developing action strategies can remind us that we can gain some jurisdiction over our activities, according to Ashley Uyeshrio, an associate professor of clinical and occupational therapy at the University of Southern California. Simon believes a good plan can include actions that add joy and purpose to your life, such as worship, family, food, nature, music, shopping and mediation.

Upfront ConversationsWith a wide range of reactions to the pandemic, from serious to dismissive, you could find yourself in an uncomfortable position with family members, says psychologist Dr. Adriane Bennett of the Cleveland Clinic

Her advice is to conduct your own risk assessment early on and keep your feelings, comfort and responsibilities at the forefront. Be prepared to confront family emotions and look for ideas to celebrate differently. In the end, Bennett says, it's fine to skip a family gathering if arrangements cannot be worked out to everyone’s satisfaction.

Stay Balanced: Medical experts at Indiana University Health offer some of the following tips to stay balanced over the holidays when you begin to feel overwhelmed.

• Reset. If you feel burned out, it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating nutritious meals, drinking lots of water and staying active.

• Moderate. When stressed, you may find yourself turning to alcohol or unhealthy foods. This coping mechanism only gives you short-term relief and can worsen your physical and mental health.

• Organize. Turn on your favorite playlist, podcast or movie and clean out that area of your house that you have been putting off. You will not only feel accomplished, but being in a tidy space also brings clarity.

If you are like most Americans, the seasonal stress of the holidays, added to the challenges imposed by COVID, represent a one-two punch to our health, well-being and happiness. Thoughts of family feuds, alternative plans and breaks from tradition can bring out the pessimist in all of us.

While not easy to conjure up, the rewards of finding some positivity in this pool of change can ultimately serve as a springboard to permanent improvements to our health and happiness. This holiday season, give yourself the gift of optimism.

Louis Bezich, senior vice president of strategic alliances at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website 

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