Nature & Health, October - November 2007

Before start reading, let me ask you a question: Can you think of something that's happened in the last 24 hours that has made you happy? Got it? Now, enjoy that experience all over again in your imagination. Close your eyes, drift into the memory, relax, and smile. 

If you found that little exercise easy, chances are you're an optimist, someone who looks up and not down, forward and not back. Optimists generally feel happy about themselves and others most of the time. They're also healthier, says Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, with stronger immune systems and significantly less heart disease. If, on the other hand, you found it difficult to think of something that brought you joy, you may have a perspective on life and the world that leaves you feeling less than satisfied. But don't worry. You're not alone, and you can change, if you wish.  

When I am facilitating a workshop with a new group the first thing I do is go around the room and ask each person this same question. This helps to bring everyone’s focus into the optimal state of mind for learning. That is an optimistic state of mind. One that is open to the opportunity of engaging and experiencing new information and awareness. It often astounds me how many struggle to find something positive to talk about. Instead they launch into a story about what’s not working in their lives. It often takes some gentle coaching to help them to think of a positive experience (even if it is just getting out of bed without tripping over) while making it obvious that for most people it has become natural to take the ‘glass half-empty’ approach to life rather than seeing it as half-full.

The beautiful thing about life is that it is a matter of perspective. And perspective is a choice that we all have the luxury of making. Two people can experience the same event and yet both will have a totally different perspective on it. Let’s take Richard Branson as an example. He was diagnosed with dyslexia and left school at an early age. If you look at the majority of photographs printed of him in the media he is almost always wearing a giant smile on his face as if to say “I am the luckiest guy in the world!” This is because he actually believes that he is the luckiest guy in the world. Of course it would be just as easy for someone with the same condition to believe that they were hard done by and that life had dealt them an unlucky hand. It’s all a matter of perspective. And perspective is a matter of choice.

The good news is that optimism is not a quality that is reserved only for the genetically lucky. Optimism is a skill that can be learned. Life then becomes a much more enjoyable and entertaining ride. Martin Seligman discusses some of techniques to do this in his best-selling book ‘Learned Optimism’. Seligman also points out that optimistic people are generally in better health than pessimistic people. They tend to have healthy levels of self-esteem, a stronger immune systems and are less likely to suffer from stress-related illnesses.

So, let me ask you the question again: Can you name an experience you've had in the past 24 hours that has made you happy?