Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Optimism is a Mental Superpower

Cultivating optimism can improve health and counteract the negative impacts of stress.

The frustrations and the losses associated with the pandemic, racial violence, or wildfire smoke may have challenged your capacity for staying positive.  They may cause disenfranchised grief, which is a feeling of loss that is hard to understand and/or not openly acknowledged.  This type of grief can impair our ability to concentrate and cause us to feel numb, anxious, or overwhelmed.  Disenfranchised grief may have made us more routinely pessimistic, which poses a risk to our health and lifespan.

Optimism is a mental superpower that is linked to better sleep quality, healthy aging, and exceptional longevity.  Optimism lowers the risk of chronic diseases (especially cardiovascular disease), reduces the stress hormone cortisol, improves immune response, and reduces insomnia.  Mindful awareness of what is going well has the capacity to rewire the brain toward positivity, and a mental reflection is as powerful a practice as a journal or verbal practice.

One way to increase optimism is through a gratitude practice.  Gratitude may improve your relationships by helping you dwell on the positive.  Gratitude may help you sleep by concentrating focus on the positive aspects of life, especially in the hours before bedtime.  In a meta-analysis of over 100 studies, people who practice daily gratitude feel more alert, energetic, enthusiastic, and optimistic; sleep better; have lower blood pressure; and live an average of 7 to 9 years longer than people who don’t practice gratitude. 

Takeaway: Improve your health, stress resilience, and sleep quality with a gratitude practice:

Morning Reflections

  • Ask how can I enjoy today?
  • List what is going well, what you are grateful for, or what opportunities you enjoy.
  • Review the list of the people you count on for help, mentoring, and support if you are facing an obstacle or challenge.

Afternoon or Evening Reflections

  • Acknowledge the sources of small sparks of joy in your day
  • Think about the day’s highlights
  • Reflect on what you like about your partner, children, or friends

Practice Gratitude with Loved Ones

  • Talk about the best parts of your day or share your favorite moment
  • Play a game of Remember When to recall an endearing time together

Gratitude Activities

  • Carry a gratitude token, such as a smooth rock or special coin, and put it in a visible place in your office or home to remind you to practice gratitude throughout the day.
  • Take a gratitude walk and reflect on everything you see, hear, smell, and touch that you are grateful for.
  • Send a gratitude email or card to someone who helped you or made a difference in your life.
  • Place a Post-It Gratitude Reminder on your bathroom mirror, nightstand, refrigerator, or steering wheel to remind you to practice gratitude.

Sources

Kavitha Cardoza and Clare Marie Schneider, The Importance of Mourning Losses (Even When They Seem Small), KQED Mind/Shift, Jun 15, 2021, https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/57992/the-importance-of-mourning-losses-even-when-they-seem-small?utm_medium=Email&utm_source=ExactTarget&utm_campaign=MindShift%20Newsletter&mc_key=00Qi000001XVodzEAD.

Jacob Weitzer, et al., The Contribution of Dispositional Optimism to Understanding Insomnia Symptomology: Findings from a Cross-Sectional Population Study in Austria, Journal of Sleep Research, Jul 8, 2020, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jsr.13132.  

Linda Graham, Bouncing Back: Rewiring your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-being 274 (2013).

Dana McMakin, How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?, The Conversation, Aug 15, 2021, https://neurosciencenews.com/sleep-need-19124/.

Helen E. Fisher, Cupid in Quarantine: What Brain Science can Teach us about Love, New York Times, Apr 13, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/13/well/mind/coronavirus-relationships-love-couples-quarantine-shelter.html?action=click&module=At%20Home&pgtype=Homepage.

Mike Oppland, 13 Most Popular Gratitude Exercises and Activities, Positive Psychology.com, Jul 2, 2021, https://positivepsychology.com/gratitude-exercises/.

Debra S Austin, Windmills of Your Mind: Understanding the Neurobiology of Emotion, 54 Wake Forest L. Rev. 931, 968-69 (2019), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3374006.

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