As humans, we have an innate capacity to imagine and create mental images of how things could be, and so we’re drawn towards the future. So it follows that how we think and feel about future possibilities and goals determines how happy we are today. Indeed, the capacity to maintain an optimistic outlook is surely a defining feature of us as a species.
‘How we think about the future – how we hope – determines how well we live our lives.’ Shane J Lopez, Making Hope Happen: Create the Future You Want for Yourself and Others
Have you ever met a happy person who wasn’t hopeful? Or an optimistic person who wasn’t happy? Yet psychologists used to believe that being optimistic, or hopeful, was naïve or misguided. After all, life can be difficult and probably is right now for the majority of people. But studies are now showing that people who have an optimistic outlook actually do seem to be happier and less likely to feel there is no hope for a better future.
The potential benefits of optimism are several:
- Relationships – Feeling optimistic can help us fare better in our relationships, which are central to our happiness. Optimists are less likely to be lonely and have a more constructive approach to dealing with problems. They perceive they have greater social support and have been shown to have wider, more diverse social networks, which in turn help maintain, even increase, their optimism.
- Resilience (and this one is particularly important in the current climate) – Hope and optimism help us build and maintain our ‘reservoir’ of psychological resources and so help us cope better in tough times. This means we’re less likely to be stressed or burn out, and we’ll experience less anxiety. It’s thought that optimists are more likely to take an active rather than a passive approach to dealing with their problems and are less likely to dwell on issues, which makes them more emotionally resilient.
- Managing time and effort – Optimists seem better at managing conflicting goals, prioritising the more important over less important ones and balancing effort across these. They are more likely to persist with tasks and therefore tend to perform better in all areas of their lives.
- Physical health – Hopeful people are more likely to look after their own health and wellbeing, therefore tend to be physically healthier with stronger immune responses, even when they are in highly challenging situations.
If you don’t naturally have a positive outlook on life though, how do you achieve that?
While we may differ in our natural outlook, we can learn ways to remain realistic and positive about the future. Here are some ideas:
- Goals are an important way in which happiness happens. They link where we are now to our future. It’s not surprising therefore that having and working towards goals is good for wellbeing. Having goals gives us direction and a sense of control over our daily lives, they help us structure time in both the short and long term, boost our confidence, and can be something to look forward to.
- The power of positive emotions – We can develop our ability to notice what’s good in our lives and find ways to nurture more, helping us to feel good and deal better with what’s not going so well. Identifying the different sources of feeling good – and hopeful – in your life can also reveal clues as to what’s meaningful and enjoyable for you, and help you identify your goals for the future. The effects of positive emotions are important for day to day life, but what about when times are really tough? While we may think that moments of enjoyment might be trivial when things are difficult, or even signs that we’re in denial, actually they have been helpful in coping with some of life’s most unhappy situations. Finding opportunities to experience positive emotions can help to alleviate some of the negative effects of the unpleasant emotions and help to broaden our mindset even in tough circumstances. This helps, even if only a little bit, to build our resources, enabling us to find coping strategies and see ways to move towards a better future. It helps build our resilience.
- Other people are important sources of support, encouragement and motivation – and we can be for them too – so ask for help when you need it to remain positive and hopeful as you progress towards your goals. This can provide a boost not just for us but can also stimulate the wellbeing of our helper.
The writing in this piece has been inspired by Action for Happiness’ book 10 Keys to Happier Living – A Practical Handbook for Happiness by Vanessa King, so if you’re interested in finding out more, why not check out their website: Action for Happiness