The Surprising Way to Boost Your Optimism


We know that optimism exerts a measurable effect on their brain, but are there ways to maintain optimism (and possibly elevated dopamine) that do not require drugs? Something that yields a more permanent, more side-effect-free future? The answer, happily, is yes.

Oprah Winfrey had an unpleasant childhood, to put it mildly. She still remembered those difficult roots when she became famous, lending her rags-to-riches story authenticity. She once said: “Though I am grateful for the blessings of wealth, it hasn’t changed who I am. My feet are still on the ground. I’m just wearing better shoes.” Consistent with this attitude, Winfrey started jotting down all those blessings, a journaling habit she sustained for a decade. There are scientific reasons why it was good that she did. Winfrey probably knew this: her emphasis on gratitude ran smack into some solid cognitive neuroscience, enrobed in a body of thought called positive psychology. The research I’m describing comes from its father, Martin Seligman, who used to study trauma and depression.

Observing the megawatt power of gratitude as a practicing psychotherapist, Seligman developed—and then scientifically tested—exercises centering on the ideas of thankfulness and appreciation. Here are two famous three-steppers worth trying:

The gratitude visit

Find someone living who has meant a great deal to you.
Write that person a three-hundred-word letter. Describe concretely what he or she did to make you want to pen the letter, and explain how that still influences your life.
Go visit the person, letter in hand. Read it aloud (without interruption), then discuss.

The effects, Seligman found, are as quick as laughter. A “happiness psychometric inventory” (yes, those exist) found a noticeable boost in the writer’s happiness a week after the visit. The effects lingered even one month later.

“What went well” (or “Three good things”)

  1. Recall three positive things that happened to you today.
  2. Write them down. They can be smaller (“my husband brought me coffee”) or larger (“my nephew got into the college he wanted”).
  3. Beside each positive event, describe why the good thing happened. “My husband loves me” might be written beside the coffee comment. “My nephew worked his butt off at school” might go next to the college comment.

Do this every night for a week.

This exercise can be quite powerful. It not only boosts happiness scores but also successfully treats depression. The elevation takes longer to observe (about a month), but it also lasts longer. Though the experimental exercise lasted only a week, improvements were still measurable six months later. If these gratitude behaviors become habit, so do their long-term benefits. Here’s how Dirk Kummerle of the Massachusetts School for Professional Psychology couches the findings:

“[The] gratitude visit and three good things were not only able to reduce depressive symptoms (compared to subjects with no intervention) but also provide lifelong tools to combat negative thoughts and cultivate well-being.”

These exercises provide connective tissue to a powerful research goal: understanding what makes people authentically happy. Seligman has codified the science into what he calls “well-being theory.” It is composed of five contributing behaviors, summarized in the acronym PERMA. These represent an actual recipe, a to-do list for people of any age interested in authentic happiness—but perhaps especially useful for those whose dopamine systems are currently being gutted. I provide only a summary here; I encourage you to read about the research directly in Seligman’s book Flourish.

P: Positive Emotion
To be happy, you must regularly experience positive emotions. Generate a list of the things that bring you true pleasure, then marinate yourself in them, allowing the items on the list to become a regular part of your life.

E: Engagement
Consistently engage in activities so meaningful you actually stop checking your cell phone when you do them. Losing yourself in a hobby can be like that. So can good movies, books, sports—even a dance class.

R: Relationships
Healthy relationships can reduce stress, boost your cognitive abilities as you age, and even be helpful to longevity.

M: Meaning
Identify and pursue a purpose that gives your life meaning. For most people, that requires solidly connecting their actions to a purpose larger than themselves. Religious practice and charitable work are examples.

A: Accomplishment
Set specific goals for yourself, especially if that requires you to achieve mastery in something over which you currently have no mastery at all. This could be physical, like training for a marathon, or intellectual, like learning to speak French.

You can see a lot of Winfrey’s life in the midst of these research findings, which is why I bring her up. Now in her seventh decade, she is doing a lot more than just wearing better shoes.

Research shows you should, too.

Dr. John Medina, author of @brainrulesbooks, explains the simple way to increase your #optimism. Share on X

1 Comment
  1. Christina says

    Mr. Medina, do you update your blog posts/books with the new data that becomes available?

    Your references regarding sign language for children in “Brain Rules for Baby” are from 2007. Doesn’t current research show that sign language is not helpful for children unless it is an iconic representation of the item/thing? (Puccini D and Liszkowski U. 2012. 15-Month-Old Infants Fast Map Words but Not Representational Gestures of Multimodal Labels. Front Psychol. 2012;3:101. Epub 2012 Apr 3.)

    I wonder if the research here on optimism could also be dated.

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