Keeping a positive outlook doesn’t always come naturally. But optimism is like a muscle — you just have to train it, says Tchiki Davis, a psychologist and founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute.
And learning to see the glass half full has its perks: It can improve the quality of your life and may even increase lifespan, she says. When Harvard researchers studied 70,000 women over an eight-year period, the most optimistic quartile had an almost 30% lower risk of dying from several major causes of death compared with women in the least optimistic quartile.
If you’re looking to reap the benefits of a happier, healthier and more positive life, here’s what experts recommend you do.
The first step in approaching a negative situation with an optimistic outlook is to accept what you can’t change, says Karen Reivich, a psychologist and author of The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys To Finding Your Inner Strength And Overcoming Life’s Hurdles.
Once you’ve done that, you have two options: reframe or divert, says Dana Lightman, a psychotherapist and author of POWER Optimism: Enjoy the Life You Have…Create the Success You Want. Both will help you to instantly feel more positive, as they draw your attention (and thus, your emotions) away from the negative.
Reframing the situation involves looking for opportunity instead of ruminating on the loss. “When you’re going through something problematic, ask yourself, ‘What potential things could I gain from this?’” Lightman recommends. For example, people going through difficult breakups may find that they’ll gain the time to understand themselves. A rejection from graduate school may lead to a beneficial year of work experience in order to better prepare for higher education down the line, says Lightman.
Priming yourself to notice opportunities in the future instantly lifts you from a downward spiral of negative thoughts, Lightman explains.
Sometimes, raw, overly emotional negatives can’t be reframed immediately, she says, and in those cases, it’s best to divert your attention elsewhere. “Shift your focus to something else,” Lightman says. That could be something as simple as watching a funny video, calling a friend or taking a walk.
We’re really good at dwelling on the not-so-great, Davis says. But when we experience something positive — like a compliment from a friend or a beautiful day outside — we tend to let it pass without even noticing. Savoring or holding onto those pleasant moments and thinking, Wow, this is really great can actually strengthen positive emotions, she explains.
Be as descriptive as you can about the good things you notice, Davis recommends, even if you’re talking to yourself. The more you build your vocabulary of positive words, the more easily your brain will be able to access them, which will help boost your overall mood and outlook, she says.
Lightman suggests taking it a step further by writing down your positive experiences. Keep these notes in a jar, box or container. When you start to feel down, you’ll have a flow of positive thoughts and memories to read, she says.
You wouldn’t expect yourself to remember important tasks without writing them down on your to-do list, would you? Well, the same is true about positivity, says Davis. Write yourself a message on a sticky note and attach it to your computer screen at work, Lightman says. You might write down an inspirational quote you like, a reminder to smile or something you have to be thankful for. Small reminders help keep positivity front and center in your life, she says.
One of the fastest, most effective ways to feel happier is to show someone kindness, according to Davis. “In America, we’re so individualistic, that we think, ‘Oh I have this problem, I should focus on me and fix me,’” says Davis. “But really, the more we focus on other people, the more effective we are in terms of positivity.” In a 2017 study by Oxford University, researchers found that performing acts of kindness for just seven days had a measurable, positive effect on well-being and positive social emotion.
Most optimists have strong, supportive relationships, according to Reivich. “You don’t have to have a lot of them,” she says. “But you have to have people in your life where you feel like they’re there for you and you’re there for them.”
Optimists are also more likely than pessimists to use their support networks. “An optimistic thinker is more likely to say, ‘This is hard. Who do I need to call? What help do I need?’” Reivich explains. Negative thinkers tend to isolate themselves in tough situations, she says, which can breed more negative thoughts.
The comfort of knowing your own strengths and knowing you don’t have to do everything by yourself contributes to long-term happiness, according to Reivich.
Thinking about what you’re grateful for can instantly improve your mood, and as you begin to make gratitude a habit, you’ll see lasting benefits, Davis says.
It works because our interpretation of events influences our emotions more than the events themselves, Lightman explains. In negative experiences, gratitude is one of the most effective tools, as it can change the emotions you feel, she says.
Consider writing down three good things that happen to you every day — research has linked this act to increased happiness and fewer symptoms of depression.
Being grateful for the lessons learned in a negative situation, in spite of what led you to the lessons, will help you walk away from negative experiences with something gained. “If you don’t fall, you can’t learn to get back up,” Lightman says.
By Carly Breit, Time Living Newsletter