Aside from feeling more confident, happier and less anxious, numerous studies show optimistic people also tend to have better health and live longer.

Unfortunately, thought patterns develop over time and become habits - and just like habits (even when they're unrealistic or even harmful) they can be hard to change. So how can someone break free from a cycle of negative, destructive thoughts?

Although it may take some time and determination, here are five keys to optimistic thinking that can help you start to see the world in a new (and more positive) light:

1. Practice optimistic thinking

Perhaps the first step toward optimism is creating new ways of thinking. It may seem difficult at first, but trying to notice the good in the world (and in yourself) will help develop optimism.

  • Write down three good things at the end of every day

In a famous positive psychology study, participants who wrote down three good things (and an explanation of what caused them at the end of every day) for a week became happier. Most notably, those positive feelings lasted for six months even after they stopped journaling.

This exercise is so powerful; it can even help people who are struggling with addictions to drugs and alcohol recovery. There's often a link between other mental disorders like depression and anxiety and substance abuse, so developing optimistic thinking can help prevent relapse.

  • Practice gratitude

Feeling grateful is connected with overall happiness and wellbeing. Studies consistently show people become happier when they write about what they're thankful for.

By focusing on the things you appreciate (even if they're small) you bring your attention to the good things in life and create more optimistic thought patterns.

  • Use affirmations

Retraining your brain to think positively may seem almost unnatural at first. Most people have spent years telling themselves they aren't good enough. To retrain your mind and change your outlook, try saying some positive affirmations like "I am optimistic" or "my life is always improving".

2. Challenge pessimism and negative thoughts

Aside from developing new thought patterns, you also need to challenge the old ones. Pessimism only sees one side of the story. If you think something bad will happen, you may even act in ways that actually prevent good things from happening.

  • Analyze your negative thoughts when they arise

Keep track of your negative thoughts and challenge them - if you start to doubt your abilities or think nothing good can come from a situation, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What evidence supports or contradicts my negative thoughts?

  2. Is something from my past clouding my judgment?

  3. Is there another way of viewing the situation?

  4. Create a new narrative or alternative outcome

After analyzing your thoughts, find other possible ways of thinking.

  1. What would someone who is optimistic think?

  2. What are the worst and best outcomes?

  3. Does this really matter in the long run?

3. Focus on reality and the present

Your emotions are your reality, but that's just part of the picture. Many people invent their own stories and narratives about what might happen and what others are thinking. Nothing is set in stone, so instead of letting your mind wander down these paths, ground yourself in the present.

Focus on breathing, spoken chants or slow movements in exercises (like meditation, yoga, or tai chi) to draw your attention away from your thoughts to focus on the present. This will help clear your mind so you can banish negative thoughts when they arise.

4. Surround yourself with optimistic people

It can be difficult to develop optimism if you're always around negative people.

If you have optimistic friends, spend more time with them. Find a role model, someone who inspires you and try to incorporate some of their positivity into your own thought patterns. You can also read about people who have made positive changes in the world or who have been particularly optimistic.

5. Take action

Changing your thought process is one thing, but it's also important to act in ways that encourage optimistic thought.

  • Smile at people when you're walking around your workplace or down the street. Although it might seem awkward at first, over time it becomes more natural and wires your brain for positivity.

  • Set goals, big and small. It takes a while to meet long-term goals, which may be discouraging. However, if you set small goals and make them, you'll start to feel more confident and realize you really can achieve those hard to reach goals.

  • Take on responsibility. The knowledge others are depending on you can help motivate you to act and accomplish things for the good of the group.

  • Volunteer. Helping others and giving back to the world in some way helps cultivate a sense of optimism as you start to bring about positive changes.

Becoming optimistic is a journey, but if you start following even one of these five keys to optimistic thinking, you'll begin to notice a change. At the same time, learning to break free from pessimism comes more easily to some than others.

Negative thinking usually stems from something that's happened in the past, which may require professional help to really understand and overcome. If you have trouble improving your outlook on your own or have had a traumatic past, a professional therapist may be better able to help you develop positive thinking strategies.

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