An upbeat outlook can enhance your physical and mental well-being and even help you stay younger longer, research shows. Here, the proven ways to hone your positive mindset.
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Looking at life with a brighter viewpoint is a science-backed tool that can improve your mood, help you meet goals, and upgrade your health. And you don't have to overhaul your personality to benefit: Even small differences in your attitude can deliver big payoffs, says Hilary Tindle, M.D., the author of Up: How a Positive Outlook Can Transform Our Health and Aging (Buy It, $18, amazon.com).

What makes optimism and so powerful is that it's based in realism — a positive mindset is not about simply thinking things will be okay. "True optimists are pragmatic, perhaps because they scan the horizon to see what might go wrong, then work and plan around those potential pitfalls so things can go right," says Dr. Tindle. In other words, optimists proactively work to make the positive happen. In return, they score some major health benefits. Read on to learn the perks of having a positive mindset, and how to have a positive mindset that endures all challenges.

The Health Benefits of a Positive Mindset

A Longer Life

People with positive mindsets are more likely than pessimists to have a lower risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. That's because, in part, optimists tend to follow a healthy lifestyle. The reason: If you expect good things for yourself, then you're more apt to do things to keep moving in that direction, experts say.

Less Stress

Optimists are better at coping with tension, which also means they can short-circuit rising levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Everyone experiences spikes in cortisol, but people with a positive mindset are likely to tackle a problem head-on, which increases their chances of solving it. (Related: How to Develop a Growth Mindset to Pretty Much Conquer Life)

Lower Risk of Depression

Positive mindsets can serve as a sort of "psychological immunization" to combat depression in the same way that vaccines inoculate us against viruses. This may be because optimists tend to have larger social networks and more supportive relationships, which serve as a safety net in hard times, says Carsten Wrosch, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Concordia University in Montreal.

An Edge Against Aging

Pessimists tend to have shorter telomeres — repeat sequences of DNA that form protective caps on the ends of our chromosomes — than nonpessimists, according to research from the University of California, San Francisco. This means the telomeres are aging faster. "Cells with shorter telomeres circulate and release large amounts of inflammatory proteins that contribute to inflammation, which is a mechanism of aging," says Aoife O'Donovan, Ph.D., a professor at UCSF and a research psychologist. (Related: How to Stay Young and Increase Your Longevity)

Up: How Positive Outlook Can Transform Our Health and Aging

How to Have a Positive Mindset

The good news: Even if it doesn't come naturally to you, there are proven ways to build a positive mindset, says Dr. Tindle, who labels herself as a "struggling optimist." About 25 to 30 percent of optimism is genetic, but much of the remainder has to do with thinking patterns you can control. Use any or all of these strategies to start an upward spiral of good thoughts and learn how to have a positive mindset yourself.

Pick Up a Pen

Research shows that when people write down their vision of their best self, with as many sensory details as possible, and then visualize this self for five minutes daily for a week or two, they become more optimistic, says Wrosch. (Also read: The Guide to Self-Growth That's Not About Chasing Perfection)

Stop Distorting Things

Often a pessimistic view-point forms when you engage in all-or-nothing thinking or believe that your in-the-moment feelings — despair, anger, hurt — are permanent, says Dr. Tindle. In these instances, step back and think of yourself as a third party, then reappraise. That will help you see the situation more accurately.

Spend Time With Positive People

Good relationships are the one factor most correlated to health and happiness, according to the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Socializing lowers cortisol and activates dopamine, the happy hormone. When you surround yourself with people who have positive mindsets, you increase the chances you'll develop one too, since behaviors and outlooks are contagious.

Give Yourself a Reality Check

Humans are wired to imagine things going wrong "so we can respond to what's happening in real time and prepare for what might happen in the future," says O'Donovan. But some of us worry a lot about things that will never happen. To stop the doomsday thinking, she suggests writing down what you're worried about, then going back a week or a month later to see what negative things came to pass. "It's a reality check for your expectations of the future," she says. That can help you dial down the worry over time and slowly craft a more positive mindset.

Don't Suppress Negative Emotions

It's important not to confuse optimism or a positive mindset with burying anger or sadness or fear, since that can easily backfire. "Suppression of emotions is associated with disease-causing inflammation," says O'Donovan. Instead, accept the feelings without judgment, identify the reason for them, and work through them. (See: Why It's So Important to Experience Both Positive and Negative Emotions)

Prioritize Sleep and Exercise

When you're sleep deprived, you don't regulate your emotions as well, and negative thinking can take over, says Dr. Tindle. Exercise releases feel-good chemicals, which may help explain how it can brighten your viewpoint. Plus, "research shows it can clear the cobwebs of stress and sadness and blunt the effects of clinical depression and anxiety," she says. It's linked to longer telomeres, so it can help protect you from aging, too.

Shape Magazine, December 2021 issue