Train Your Brain To Be More Optimistic (You Need To For The Sake Of Your Kids)

Luke BenedictusBy Luke Benedictus.
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COVID-19. Climate change. Your moribund sex life. The shrinking size of Cadbury’s family-size chocolate blocks… There are plenty of reasons to feel downbeat about the state of the planet. But such negativity is often inflamed when you’re the sleep-deprived father of a toddler who’s currently screaming because you won’t let him push a half-eaten Tim-Tam into the power socket.

At such moments, optimism can feel like a mug’s game. As the world teeters on the brink, skipping along whistling Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah not only looks wilfully delusional but betrays an apparent lack of critical thinking.

Except that a growing body of research forcibly slaps down that view. Pessimism, it turns out, isn’t just unhelpful when you’re trying to survive the daily carnage of dad life. It’s also potentially bad for you full-stop.

A range of studies have found that pessimists die younger and are more likely to develop hypertension and heart disease than their glass half-full counterparts. At the same time, research from the American Journal of Human Genetics found that increased optimism boosts your career prospects, strengthens relationships, protects against loneliness, improves sleep quality and reduces the need for rehospitalisation after surgery. Optimism, in other words, strengthens your mental and physical resilience.

None of this would surprise Stuart Taylor, the CEO of Springfox, a company that provides evidence-based resilience programs. In 2001, he was diagnosed with a Grade 3 brain tumour and given just three years to live. At the time, Stuart had three kids with the eldest just five years old.

Thankfully, after a successful operation, Stuart began to get better. In the year that followed he prioritised his mental and physical health to make a full recovery. Convinced that overhauling his lifestyle had enabled him to survive this harrowing period, Stuart began to develop practical strategies to help others build up their resilience, too. In 2003, he founded The Resilience Institute Australia, now called Springfox, to pass on life tactics that, he suggests, are particularly relevant for parents.

“Resilience becomes so much more important when you’re a dad,” says Stuart, who’s now a father of four.

“We know that resilience is a learned competence and, while there’s an element of genetic load, most of our resilience comes from observation. So the extent to which a father is living in a resilient and thriving way has huge implications for his children because they’ll be seeing and taking on those skills, perhaps without even know that they’re doing so.

“Resilience is critical not only for a man to enjoy the experience of fatherhood. It’s critical to set up their child with that skill for life.”

Springfox’s Global Resilience Report identifies 60 factors that contribute to your overall grit. Predictably, many of these revolve around nailing the basics of regular exercise (“a fundamental component”), sufficient rest and quality nutrition. But another key ingredient is your ability to cultivate a mindset of “realistic optimism”.

“You’ll face lots of challenging times as a father,” Stuart says. “But the idea behind realistic optimism is to say: ‘Today’s a challenge, but tomorrow is going to be a better day.’ It’s about building a sense of realistic hope.”

Intriguingly, Stuart believes that positive thinking isn’t a hard-wired characteristic. You can actively “choose your thinking style”, he insists, and train yourself to think less pessimistically.

When something bad happens, it’s easy to get pulled into a negative tail-spin. To stop yourself becoming mentally derailed, Stuart recommends a basic technique of cognitive behavioural therapy founded on three words: Catch. Check. Change.

It starts with becoming more aware of your headspace. When you find yourself beginning to brood or catastrophise, catch the thought before it takes emotional hold. Next, check the thought by reflecting objectively on how accurate and helpful your reaction actually is. Finally, change the thought and nudge it into a more positive direction by reframing the idea and viewing it from a more pragmatic angle. “The more you do that, the more it becomes a habit,” Stuart says.

This isn’t just worthwhile for your own benefit. Your positive example can also help your children’s resilience by influencing how they’ll tackle their own problems. Unfortunately, the opposite also applies: approaching the world through a haze of negativity and gloom can rub off on them, too. As Stuart explains: “Kids learn how to be realistic optimists from their parents.”

That’s why you need to stay vigilant and keep an eye on your mental outlook, especially in the early stages of fatherhood when you’re time-poor, overstretched and vulnerable on multiple fronts.

“When you are tired, when you are stressed, when you are not exercising that’s the time when you’re more likely you’ll have unhelpful and pessimistic thoughts,” Stuart says. “And that’s also the time when it becomes even more important to stay on top of things.”

Go here for more information on Springfox

Are you struggling with anxiety or depression? You’re not alone. Click here to take the PANDA checklist to help you clarify what you’re experiencing and assist you to get help if necessary. Alternatively check out the Gidget Foundation’s support services for dads: here