In our new column on how to live your life to the full, psychologist Maureen Gaffney tells Sonia Juttla just how beneficial it is to have positive thinking in your life, and she also suggests a variety of strategies to help cultivate your optimistic side
There is a strong scientific case for being optimistic. Optimism is not a discretionary accessory in your life -- it helps you to live a higher quality of life that is productive and creative. But it's easy to be optimistic when things are going well. What defines optimism is how you feel when things are going badly. Whatever happens, you need to have a positive outlook and believe that things will come right, especially in the absence of evidence to the contrary.
A NEW WAY OF THINKING
It is crucial to look at how you approach setbacks and failures. If you ask optimists about stumbling blocks, they explain them in a temporary way, due to specific conditions. It's almost as if they immediately look for the contextual reasons for why something hasn't worked; for example, not passing an exam because you didn't revise enough. When you specify these conditions, it implies you have some control over it, and spurs you on to try harder.
If you've done it before
Optimists spontaneously recall past success or moments of achievement in times of setback. Engage in an internal monologue of positive memories, which will encourage you to come up with solutions. Thinking good thoughts about past achievements will tell the brain that you can get over a setback far more easily.
Put it into context
When things look bad, you have to be realistic about it. 'Catastrophic thinking' limits how you can respond to setbacks. We arm ourselves for war, when it may only be a skirmish that lies ahead. Give each situation the benefit of the doubt. A setback is temporary; don't think the situation is only ever going to get worse. See the opportunities in any failures.
Practise looking forward to good things. When in a low period, you might think it's never going to end. Try this exercise: imagine yourself in five years, talking to close friends or family. Imagine in detail what you want to say, how you got out of the low period and what you'd say about the things you learnt and the opportunities you found. This will position you firmly in the future, and open up your innate wisdom about what you need to do.
Time to move on
When things are really bad -- your marriage breaking down, or business in hard times -- embrace it. Stop hoping it didn't happen; it's a fact. We spend a large part of our time thinking, 'What if . . . ?' Once you've accepted a failure, it triggers the big guns of your psychological immune system, so your brain will be able to handle setbacks far better. People flourish under fire, reaching a level of functioning they never achieved before, and growing. You learn about yourself and other people by being optimistic. And you're a wiser person for it.