It’s no secret that an optimistic outlook, fueled by a healthy dose of gratitude, can directly contribute to happiness and success. But—according to studies focused on two types of optimism, realistic and idealistic—there may be a catch. These studies demonstrate that realistic optimists are generally healthier and more successful than their idealistic counterparts. Realists see a half-filled glass as half-full, not half-empty, and are authentically grateful for what’s there. Idealists see a half-filled glass as more than half-full or even overflowing, forcing an unrealistic or self-enhanced perspective.
Striking the right optimistic mindset can take some practice, as we tend to either over or undershoot our target. The good news is, you can help cultivate healthy and realistic optimism through mindful, strategic gratitude exercises that are grounded in reality.
One powerful exercise is to keep a gratitude journal, which researchers have found can improve a person’s overall outlook and wellbeing. In one study, researchers examined the differences between a group of adults who kept a weekly gratitude journal and those who did not. Those who wrote down what they were grateful for demonstrated a more optimistic outlook, an improvement in exercise routine, and a decrease in physical aches and pains compared to those who didn’t keep a journal. Researchers suggest that showing gratitude works in what they called a virtuous cycle: the more you’re grateful for, the better you think and feel, and the more you have to be grateful for.
Pro Tip: If you’re going to use a gratitude journal, studies show that weekly (or even bi-weekly) entries are more helpful than daily ones. Also, go for quality rather than quantity: logging fewer, realistically meaningful events has shown a greater benefit to positive thinking than an equal or longer list of superficial or overblown thanks.