December 16, 2013
Positive Attitude and Optimism
Parents often ask us how they can foster positive attitudes in their children. They understand that attitude is often the difference between surviving and thriving in any situation.
Before I make any suggestions that might help cultivate a positive attitude, allow me to suggest that we use a different term: optimism (as defined by psychologists). To a psychologist, optimism is not “always seeing the positive”. Instead, an optimist holds two important beliefs:
By contrast, a pessimist sees problems as systemic and does not believe that her actions can affect her situation. Clearly, these are not equally useful ways to view the world. Optimists see opportunities, pessimists see problems. Optimists have a strong basis for contentment and happiness while pessimists are prone to depression.
I am framing “positive attitude” as optimism for two reasons. First, it provides a clear definition so that we all know what our goal is. Often we have goals that are hard to define, like success. Different people can have very different concept of success. Is success about impact or income? It is helpful to have a clear idea of a goal before going after it.
Second, there is a meaningful amount of research into ways to foster optimism. This research is consistent with much that we have seen over 20 years of working with children at summer camps and outdoor education centers. There are exercises and habits that make children more optimistic. These exercises are a great place to start to cultivate a positive attitude.
In his 2010 book called The Happiness Advantage, author Shawn Achor describes 5 specific exercises that are all proven to increase optimism, not just on a temporary basis, but in lasting ways.
Current brain research is revealing that the human mind is constantly rebuilding itself and is capable to meaningful change at the neural level. A person that has been a pessimist can “re-wire” his brain to become more optimistic. Many of the benefits of this re-wiring continue even after the transforming exercises cease. We can teach children optimism through these pracites and it will last!
This realization is wonderfully encouraging. We are not stuck with any particular mindset , but we have some ability to craft a more effective mental approach.
With that said, allow me to describe briefly 5 proven ways to increase optimism and re-wire the brain.
Regular exercise is as effective against depression as anti-depressants and has a relapse rate that is 4 times lower than medication. Exercise releases endorphins that make a person feel better immediately and it improves general health, which has longer term benefits. It also creates a sense of control and mastery: “I took action that made me feel better.” This control trains your brain to believe that your actions can mitigate challenges, which is one of the two beliefs of an optimist.
Meditating for just 5 minutes a day reduces stress and even improves immune function. An individual need not be a trained meditator. Just 5 minutes of regular breathing with a clear mind helps. Stress (and its related hormone cortisol) generally correlates with pessimism and poor attitudes. Also, as with exercise, choosing to meditate creates a sense of control.
People who are consciously kind to others experience reduced stress and “enhanced mental health”. It is important that the acts of kindness are chosen consciously in advance and not just recognized after completion. Apparently much of the benefit comes from the process of 1) resolving to act, 2) acting and 3) seeing the benefits. Once again, the brain gets immediate benefits (stress reduction) as well as belief in its ability to control its environment.
In this exercise, you resolve to write 3 things you are grateful for at the end of each day. Practicing gratitude helps make you more grateful, which is a very good attribute. Grateful people are more energetic, less depressed and generally forgiving of others. This exercise plays an interesting trick on the brain. If you know that you will be writing 3 “gratitudes” each day, you spend that day looking for things to be grateful for, thus tricking your brain into believing that the world is full of positive things. This reinforces positive outlook and teaches kids optimism.
Simply spending 5-10 minutes a day writing about something positive also focuses the brain on what is positive rather than what is negative. By putting attention on positive aspects of life, it paces greater weight on them in your mind and makes them more real.
I will not attempt to describe a step-by-step specific guide on how to make children optimistic. Each family is different and you know more about what works with your family than I do. For example, a family with a religious tradition of meditation (or meditative prayer) might have more luck encouraging meditation than one that does not. It is easier to encourage exercise to lovers of sports and the outdoors.
I, however, think that creating a daily tradition of gratitudes is an easy and effective starting place teach kids optimism. Everyone should share 2-3 things they are grateful for, which should be different each day. Make it part of a family meal or bedtime rituals. Rituals soon become habits. It might seem forced at first, but after a few weeks, the children will begin to expect and even request it. You can instill optimism in your child with this easy approach.
At our summer camp, each cabin has a “nightly ritual” that features gratitudes and “heroes of the day”. We introduced these rituals several years ago in reaction to the research I have shared. We too, are trying to teach kids optimism everyday. Since then, we have seen increased cooperation, positivity and joy from the campers. The campers are here between 2-6 weeks, so they have time to internalize these rituals and, we hope, bring them back home with them.
It also helps that camp is a technology-free environment (see below) with lots of exercise and positive people. But camp is not the only place we can create intentional rituals that are validating and tech free. You can begin to create your own rituals and traditions. Know that doing so might seem initially awkward, but know that the benefits are proven and worth the effort.
A Potential Threat to Positivity: Excess Technology
Before I conclude, I should share a thought about a potential threat to positivity: excessive technology usage. A recent study out of Kent State reports that “frequent cell phone use is linked to anxiety, lower grades and reduced happiness”. The average American teen spend over 52 hours a week looking at an electronic screen. We live in a society with ubiquitous technology that generally makes our lives more convenient and interested. I am a fan of technology, but I worry about our level of consumption.
I like to compare technology to food.
If we want to teach kids optimism and increase positive attitudes, we will need to create strategies to address technology usage. I share some ideas in a previous article on Psychology Today entitled “Giving Children Power Over Technology” if you would like to read more on this topic.