IF you’re a pessimist who thinks a leopard can’t change its spots, just read on.
New research claims you can teach yourself to be an optimist in as little as seven weeks. And there are even more reasons to be positive: the training consists of two simple exercises. One involves looking at smiley and angry faces and the other is a 20-minute meditation exercise, researchers found.
By practising them regularly, scientists have shown the brain can change the way it works, transforming a pessimist’s outlook on life.
A BBC documentary which aired this week in Britain, investigated the science behind people’s personalities and whether it was possible to change them.
Just as experts predicted, it is, in fact, very possible.
Psychologist Dr Darryl Cross, of Crossways Consulting, says it was all about “wanting” to change that made all the difference.
“If you want to change it’s possible,” he says. “You can train people, give them the skill in how to find the cup half full rather than half empty.” But don’t race out just yet – there are some “buts” to this process.
“If the person is clinically depressed or anxious – that (changing) will be much more difficult,” Dr Cross says.
He offers some simple tips on how to turn from feeling negative to positive.
“Each night when you go home I want you to spend about five minutes or so writing down three things in the day that went well and why,” he says.
“In the morning create a `thankful list’ of 10 things you’re thankful for … it could be you’re thankful you have a roof over your head, or you’re thankful you’ve got a caring family … or decent food on the table.”
“You will feel a sense of gratitude to yourself that you’re not hard done by.”
University of South Australia clinical psychologist Doctor Nadine Pelling says having a positive outlook on life may sound simple, but for some people, it takes practice and attention.
She says people must identify what they are wanting to change first.
“Look at the ways in which you want to change, become aware of when you’re doing that you want to change and then follow through with it,” she says.
Dr Pelling says being more positive was sometimes as simple as doing something that makes you happy.
She says there was “very old research” which showed people’s moods lifted when they watch comedy shows.
“Bottom line if you have a break from negativity … you’re doing something different and you’re thinking different,” she says.
In the British documentary, viewers watched as presenter Michael Mosley, who has suffered with chronic insomnia for the past 20 years, explained how he wanted to become a “warmer, happier person and to sleep better”.
The father-of-four had his brain tested at Essex University by Prof Elaine Fox, a leading researcher into the science of optimism.
The results showed he had more activity in parts of brain associated with negativity, pessimism and a strong tendency to look on the dark side of life.
Past studies have found people who are prone to high levels of pessimism, neuroticism and anxiety suffer from `cerebral asymmetry’, where there is greater activity on the right side of their brain than the left. The cause of this is not yet known.
By analysing electrical activity in the brain, experts were able to show that the right side of Mr Mosley’s brain was three times more active than the left when in its resting state.
Prof Fox suggests Mr Mosley should undertake two forms of mental training daily.
The meditation exercise involved sitting in a quiet place and focusing on physical sensations, such as the weight of his body or breathing, for 20 minutes.
He met a former monk who told him about the ancient art of mindfulness, a form of meditation. The monk said that everyone could benefit from taking 10 to 20 minutes out of each day to cut off from the outside world and “live in the moment”.
The trick was to start doing this exercise for 10 minutes, then build up to 20 minutes.
Eventually the technique enables the person to let their thoughts come and go freely without ruminating on them.
The second exercise involved looking at a screen showing 15 blank or angry faces, and one smiley face.
Mr Mosley had to spot the smiling face and click on it. A new set of faces then appeared.
The idea behind the exercise was to train his brain to look for positive images. By regularly doing this, it is thought the brain learns to tune into positive thoughts more easily.
After seven weeks, Mr Mosley says he felt his mood lifting, he started sleeping better and felt more optimistic. He then returned to the lab to see if his brain had in fact changed.
Mr Mosley was told the “asymmetric” levels of his brain activity had become more equalised, a strong indicator he had become more optimistic.
In addition to this, his scores when reacting to the brain training game had changed.
He reacted more quickly to happy faces and more slowly to sad faces, indicating he was not seeking out negativity as much.
Dr Mosley told the BBC Two program, Horizon: The Truth about Personality: “I feel quite frankly astonished that you can notice that much change in just seven weeks.”
“I set out to see if it was possible to change my mind and I think I might have done it. I am absolutely thrilled.”
So, who said a leopard can’t change their spots again?