How To Break Free When Pessimism Takes Over Your Brain

"The point of cultivating optimism isn’t to make you ignore what’s wrong in the world. It’s to open your eyes to what’s good ... "

Pessimism can take hold of any of us once in awhile. One personal experience of this sticks out in my mind. I was in the American Airlines lounge at J.F.K. airport, on my way home before the Christmas holiday. I had just flown across the country four times on an especially grueling work trip, and I was jet-lagged and feeling generally pretty ragged. When I'm cranky, my mind tends to pick out everything that's wrong, and that's what I was doing. I was unhappy with the wait in the terminal, unhappy with the music in the lounge. My bad attitude also started stretching out into the past and future. I mentally ran through everything that went wrong on the trip and that would likely go wrong when I finally got home. I was focusing on the negative and expecting the worst: textbook pessimism. 

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The reason I remember this particular mood is because of what happened next. I was talking to a woman named Alicia who works in the lounge, and who is from Argentina. When I asked her if she was going home for the holiday, she said "Not this year, but that's OK because you know what . . . to me, every day is Christmas! We are so lucky to be alive every day, mi amor!" 

Her words stopped me in my tracks. She was working through the holidays far away from home, and she was just radiating positivity. As for me, I was passing the time in a luxury lounge with plush couches, free food, and gorgeous views. And yet I was feeling sorry for myself. True, I was tired out from a hard work trip. But I love my job. I get to help people lead happier and healthier lives! What's more, the pass to the lounge was an awesome and totally unexpected gift from my dear friend Jeremy.  I even noticed that the lounge was serving veggies and hummus — one of my favorite snacks. This cascade of happy thoughts totally changed my outlook. I thanked Alicia for her words and wished her a happy holiday. To this day, I don't think she knows why I was grinning like a fool. 

Feet up in an airport lounge. 
Nick Starichenko I Shutterstock 

Our brains are odd creatures. It's easy to think that our brain is just feeding us objective information about the world around us. But it isn't. Human attention is selective, and what our brains land on is affected by our mood and by what we are already thinking about. When I arrived at the airport lounge, my bad mood made me focus on the negative things around me. This reinforced the mood, and I went looking for more things to be unhappy about. This is how pessimism works. It's a self-reinforcing spiral, and it can make us completely forget about all the good things around us. 

A pessimistic attitude isn't just unpleasant. It's also harmful. It can cause stress, anxiety, and physical health issues. Optimism, on the other hand, is good for us. Compared to pessimists, optimistic people are healthier, less likely to suffer from depression, and anxiety. So how can we become optimists? 

Gratitude is the most powerful tool we have for fighting pessimism and cultivating an optimistic outlook. As a therapist and author, I've read tons of scientific studies showing the benefits of gratitude. But, sometimes, we don't always remember everything we read. My conversation with Alicia in that airport really brought the power of gratitude home to me. Her example made me notice some of my blessings. I started with the fact that I'd soon be seeing my friends and family. And this kicked off a gratitude spiral, making me notice all the blessings large and small that I had to be thankful for. Soon I'd forgotten why I had been so cranky just minutes before and was looking forward to everything ahead of me. Optimism in action! 

Using gratitude to cultivate optimism isn't hard, and there are scientifically-proven ways to do it effectively. 

1. Get intentional about gratitude once every week.

You want to actually sit down and list some of the things you are grateful for and why you are grateful for them. But don't do this every day. Studies show that when we try to do gratitude exercises every day, they become a chore — something we have to do. If we stick to once or twice per week, they remain something we get to do. And don't worry. Even occasional gratitude exercises can transform your day-to-day mindset. 

2. Make it specific.

 Saying "I'm grateful for my friends" is great, but don't stop there. Which friends? Who are people in your life that you haven't stopped to notice lately? Why are you grateful for them? What would be missing from your life if they weren't in it? 

Best friends hugging
Rido / Shutterstock 

3. When you’re counting your blessings, make sure to add the word “because”.

Say why you are grateful for them.  I don't just tell myself "I appreciate my boyfriend." I say "I'm so grateful for my boyfriend BECAUSE he has shown me what true, adult love looks like and feels like. Without him, I wouldn't laugh as much, feel so connected, or peaceful on a daily basis." By honing in on the specific blessings in our lives, we understand them better, we picture them more vividly, and this all strengthens our feelings of gratitude which keep pessimism at bay. 

Pessimism is sneaky. It can trick us by disguising us as realism, a willingness to face the hard truth, no matter what it might be. And from that point-of-view, counting our blessings, and leaning into our gratitude might seem childish. Optimism might seem like rose-tinted glasses blocking out reality. But it's not. Every day, scientists are finding evidence that our brains tend to overemphasize the negative in a primitive and well-meaning effort to keep us alive. Intentional gratitude can help us correct that bias.

The point of cultivating optimism isn't to make you ignore what's wrong in the world. It's to open your eyes to what's good, and to refuse to let spirals of pessimism hide it from you. Exercising gratitude isn't about putting your head in the clouds, it's staying grounded in the real positive aspects of your life. 

Dr. Mike Dow, Psy.D., Ph.D., is New York Times bestselling author and America's go-to therapist. His books have been published in several different languages and are bestsellers around the world. As a brain health, addiction, and relationship expert, Dr. Mike has hosted shows on TLC, VH1, E!, Investigation Discovery, and Logo. He is part of Dr. Oz's core team of experts, a recurring guest cohost on The Doctors, and has made regular appearances on Today, Rachael Ray, Wendy Williams, Meredith Vieira, Ricki Lake, Nancy Grace, and Dr. Drew on Call. You've also seen him as LaToya Jackson's therapist on OWN's My Life with LaToya and as The Bachelor's therapist on Freeform's Ben and Lauren.

Inspired by his brother who suffered a massive stroke when he was just 10 years old, Dr. Mike made it his personal mission to help people heal their brains. In his most recent book with Chicken Soup for the Soul editor-in-chief Amy Newmark, he helps people train their brains with the power of cognitive behavioral therapy. It's called Chicken Soup for the Soul's Think, Act & Be Happy: How to Use Chicken Soup for the Soul Stories to Train Your Brain to Be Your Own Therapist. 

Dr. Mike's other books include Your Subconscious Brain Can Change Your Life, Heal Your Drained Brain, The Brain Fog Fix, Healing the Broken Brain, and Diet Rehab. Dr. Mike began his career working with adolescent survivors of abuse for the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health. He has a M.S. in Marriage and Family Therapy, a Doctorate (Psy.D.) in Psychology, and a second Doctorate (Ph.D.) in Clinical Sexology. He also has post-doctoral education in neurofeedback, psychopharmacology, and clinical hypnosis. Dr. Mike is a graduate of USC where he was a Presidential Scholar.

You'll usually see him walking two very cute rescue dogs around Los Angeles. When his partner Dr. Chris isn't on the night shift in the emergency room, he's there, too. Dr. Mike hangs out a lot on Facebook and Instagram @drmikedow.

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