Have you ever been told that you’re always negative? If so, that must have really sucked because let’s be honest, nobody actually wants to be a negative pessimist. But can you really change who you are? Can you stop being a pessimist and change your ways into that of an optimist?
You may be surprised to hear that this is actually possible. While a part of your character is obviously determined by your genes, it’s also a known fact that your brain has the ability to form new connections between neurons. This is called “neuroplasticity” and it’s exactly the reason why you can actually change your pessimistic nature by introducing more positive habits in your life.
In this article, I want to share some of the science that can support your transformation from pessimist to optimist, while also covering tactics that can help you along the way.
- What is neuroplasticity in a nutshell?
- What causes someone to be a pessimist?
- Can you really stop being a pessimist?
- 7 ways to stop being a pessimist
- Wrapping up
This article is part of a much bigger guide on learning how to become happy that I’m sure is the biggest freely available guide on the internet right now. This article contains some great tips, but you’ll find a lot more actionable tips in the section Happiness Tips!
What is neuroplasticity in a nutshell?
According to professor Joyce Shaffer, neuroplasticity can be summarized as:
“The natural tendency of the brain architecture to shift in negative or positive directions in response to intrinsic and extrinsic influences.”Joyce Shaffer
In other words, our brains aren’t passive information processing machines, but rather complex systems that are always changing based on our life experiences. Humans are highly adaptable to a wide range of situations and it’s all thanks to neuroplasticity.
Think of a time when you have learned something new. By learning to solve quadratic equations or play the guitar, you have forced your brain to create new connections between tens of thousands – if not millions – of neurons.
What causes someone to be a pessimist?
There’s a fascinating research paper called the neural basis of optimism and pessimism. This paper explains how pessimism likely found its roots in our evolution, back when humans were just a small part of the food chain. In other words, back when we were still hunted by saber-tooth tigers.
Being pessimistic made us more anxious about the many dangers that surrounded our caves, and therefore, made us more likely to survive.
The research paper states that our pessimistic nature is determined by the right hemisphere of our brains. Optimism, on the other hand, is regulated in the left hemisphere of our brain. Depending on who you are, the balance between the two determines whether you generally hold a positive or negative outlook on life.
Can you really stop being a pessimist?
While some of our character traits are part of who we are, this doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do about your pessimistic nature. In fact, if you’re pessimistic, there’s a big chance that’s the result of your past experiences.
When you’ve grown up with traumas, negative experiences, and crushed expectations, you’re brain naturally puts more trust into the right hemisphere of your brain (the negative side).
This would be a result of neuroplasticity. Your brain adapts to your life’s circumstances, to make itself more efficient at handling future challenges.
A famous study from 2000 showed that London taxi drivers, who had to memorize the complicated and labyrinthine map of the city, had a larger hippocampus than the control group. Hippocampus is a part of the brain that’s involved in spatial memory, so it makes sense that it was more developed in taxi drivers, who had to navigate from memory.
Here’s an even more drastic example:
A 2013 article describes a young man known as EB, who has learned to live with only the right half of his brain after a tumor surgery in childhood. Brain functions related to language are usually localized in the left hemisphere, but it seems that in EB’s case, the right hemisphere has taken over these functions, allowing EB to have almost full command over language.
The effects of neuroplasticity aren’t only limited to new skills, though. Our neural connections determine how we see the world. If we’re used to focusing on the negatives, we will notice them faster. If we’re used to finding problems, we’ll find more problems instead of solutions.
With that said, the principle of neuroplasticity also allows us to stop being pessimistic, by simply focusing more on being an optimist.
Later in this article, I’ll show you the best ways to actually go about this.
Downsides of being a pessimist
Thousands of years ago, being a pessimist would make you more likely to survive. However, that benefit has faded to the point where being pessimistic is mostly negative.
Studies have shown that negative thinking and pessimism leads to:
- More stress.
- Excessive rumination and worrying.
But it’s not just your own mental health that you should worry about.
It’s been studied over and over again that the way we feel and express ourselves can influence the mood of those around us too. In a study published in the British Medical Journal, scientists have found that happiness can effectively spread through your social ties such as your friends, family, and neighbors.
If you’re spreading negativity in the way you engage with others – without being aware of it – you may risk losing some of your friends. Especially when more and more people become aware of how they are influenced by the mood of others.
When you consider the most extreme case of pessimism, you’ll quickly realize how damaging pessimism can be. People who are completely pessimistic are generally finding it hard to see any sign of improvement down the line. This can lead to suicidal tendencies in extreme cases.
This study has found that severe pessimism can actually predict future suicidal tendencies.
Benefits of being an optimist
When you consider the extreme case of optimism, you won’t find someone with suicidal tendencies. At most, you’ll find a delusional optimist that has disproportionally big expectations of the world.
In truth, being an optimist has many more benefits than being a pessimist.
One of the many benefits is that positive thinking enhances your problem-solving abilities. This point was confirmed in a fun study by Barbara Frederickson. The study found that a positive mindset can be triggered, and more importantly, that a positive mindset initiates more creativity and an urge to “play ball”.
Basically, when you have a positive mindset, you’re better able to deal with the challenges that life throws at you.
7 ways to stop being a pessimist
So how do you actually stop being a pessimist? What can you do to condition your brain to think more positively?
Here are some tips that may seem simple at first glance. But if you can turn these tips into habits, then they have the power to have a lasting effect on how your brain works.
1. Prioritze the physical fundamentals
If you don´t have time to sleep a healthy amount of hours, eat properly, and get sufficient exercise, then you need to reprioritize. If you don´t do this it will be much harder to become and stay positive.
- Sleep deprivation is linked to many negative side-effects, amongst which depression, diabetes, and heart disease.
- An unhealthy diet is linked to a higher likelihood of depression.
- A lack of exercising may lead to severe chronic ilnesses.
If you were looking for a simple tip to stop being a pessimist, you may be disappointed. If you don’t have your physical fundamentals in order, you’ll be far less likely to develop and hold on to a positive state of mind.
But if you do manage to take care of your physique, your general sense of well-being will increase, you will feel stronger and have more energy. As a result, you’ll find it easier to stop being pessimistic.
2. Check and change your self-talk
How do you talk to other people you respect? Respectfully, I would imagine. But how do you talk to yourself?
If the answer isn’t “respectfully”, then you might need to change your tone. Look out for overly critical self-talk, or any insults you might be throwing at yourself.
When you catch yourself in the act of being overly pessimistic about your own capabilities, try talking to yourself the way you talk to your friends, loved ones, or any respected figure in your life. Is your self-criticism constructive? Are you being kind and sincere? Is the negative self-talk helping in any way?
If the answer is no, then you need to catch your negative self-talk and change it into something positive. Tell yourself that you are good enough. And that you deserve to be happy. This is the sort of support, encouragement, and love that you should show yourself.
Nobody’s stopping you from talking positively about yourself, so why should you?
3. Try to surround yourself with optimists rather than pessimists
If you identify yourself as a pessimist, then that’s likely caused by your past experiences. Maybe your parents are total pessimists or even narcissistic. Or perhaps you feel stuck in a job that neither you nor your colleagues like.
In that case, you want to limit your “exposure” to the negativity of your surroundings. Compare it to drying off after you’ve showered. You’ll have a hard time getting yourself dry if you don’t remove yourself from the shower cabin.
While this may be the stupidest analogy you’ve ever heard, there is actual research backing this up. There’s a well-known phenomenon that explains why we have the tendency to copy the mood of the room we’re in, and it’s called “groupthink“.
In short, this cognitive bias explains how humans are more likely to agree with whatever the larger group agrees on. In other words, we often forget to think for ourselves, and instead just go with the flow. If the people you surround yourself with are negative pessimists, then you’re much more likely to be one yourself as well.
The easiest way to actually deal with this issue is to simply avoid other pessimists.
It may sound harsh, but in some cases, this is the best thing that you can do. Even though you may care about the people that are negative and you want to be a good friend, it sometimes is best to just step away for a while. You want to limit your exposure to negativity as much as possible. You need to focus on yourself more before you can worry about others.
4. Try to talk about solutions not problems
Another simple way to turn your pessimistic nature into something positive is to talk about solutions instead of problems.
When you deal with challenges as a pessimist, you’re likely to only acknowledge the challenges.
A pessimist sees the negatives or the difficulty in every opportunity whereas an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.Winston Churchill
Changing your natural thought process is obviously easier said than done. But if you do catch yourself thinking like a pessimist, try to consciously make an effort to think positively about your challenges.
Instead of indulging in your pessimistic negativity, try to counter every problem with a potential solution. By doing so, you’re able to naturally guide your internal conversation from a negative topic of challenges and risks to a positive one filled with opportunities.
5. Write about your wins
As soon as you made an effort to think positively about something, you should try to write about it.
For example, imagine you’re in a meeting with your team and you find the input of all your colleagues to be worthless. If you catch yourself before expressing your pessimistic comments, you can try to focus on the positives. Instead, maybe share with your colleagues how thinking outside the box is great, and give constructive feedback to keep the discussion moving towards a solution.
This would be a big win if you’re trying to stop being a pessimist.
The next best thing you can do is to write about it in a journal of some sort. This may sound silly, but hear me out. Just open a text file on your laptop or smartphone and explain to yourself how you handled the situation.
This comes with a couple of benefits:
- It allows you to become more self-aware about your transformation from pessimist to optimist.
- By writing down what happened, you’ll be more likely to recognize future occasions where you can repeat the same cycle. As a result, you can prevent yourself from sharing pessimistic thoughts.
- You’ll have something to look back on. Comparing yourself to others is often considered a bad idea. But comparing yourself to your former self is one of the best ways to feel more proud of yourself and accept yourself for who you are.
Over time, you may be able to see how neuroplasticity allows you to transform from a pessimist into an optimist.
6. Don’t let past experiences distort your view of the future
Living in the past is generally not a good idea. Yet, a lot of people have difficulties putting the past behind them and start living in the now. This is especially true for people who’ve been hurt in the past
An old Chinese legendary figure named Lao Tzu is often referenced for the following quote:
If you are depressed, you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.Lao Tzu
Pessimistic people are often letting themselves suffer from things that happened in the past. As a result, they find it more difficult to enjoy the present and to be positive about the future.
Our tips to stop living in the past?
- Grab a piece of paper, put a date on it, and start writing down the reasons why you’re stuck in the past. Ask yourself why you’re finding it hard to stop regretting the past or worrying about the things that happened years ago. Then try to answer them as thoroughly as you can.
- A part of living in the present is being able to say “it is what it is”. One of the best lessons you can learn in life is recognizing what you can change and what you can’t. If something is not within your circle of influence, why would you allow that thing to influence your current state of mind?
- People on their deathbed don’t generally regret making wrong decisions. No! They regret not making any decision at all! Don’t allow regret to enter your life by not making decisions.
We wrote more in-depth about how to stop living in the past in this article.
7. Don’t give up after a bad day
We are only human, so we’re bound to experience a bad day every once in a while. It’s important to realize that everybody occasionally experiences a string of bad days in their life. What you need to do when this inevitably happens:
- Don’t let such a thing set you back.
- Don’t interpret it as a failure.
- Most importantly, don’t let it stop you from trying again tomorrow.
As Michael Jordan said:
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”Michael Jordan
Even the biggest optimist in the world can sometimes be a negative pessimist. So who cares if you have a bad day? As long as you’re aware of your own actions, you can learn from your experiences and move on.
Our brains are able to adapt to our circumstances, which is a process called neuroplasticity. This phenomenon allows us to actually stop being a pessimist and slowly become an optimist by practicing good habits.
Have you recently been called a pessimist? Do you ever wish you were more optimistic about the future? Or did I miss an interesting tip you would like to share? Please let me know in the comments below!