I wrote in a post in 2013 called 13 Bible verses to overcome disappointment. I said that I was not born an optimist, and I don't think anybody really is. What a depressing thought, but it was 100% true for me at the time.
I have good news for you. In the years since that, I have grown into an optimist.
I have developed those skills, and now I usually see the world through rosy glasses, though I will be the first to admit that I still have snarky and sarcastic moments once in a while.
Why does a positive mindset even matter?
Positivity matters. A lot.
And it doesn't just make you a more pleasant, likeable person (though it does that too); it makes you healthier.
A recent study at Johns Hopkins University found that, all other risk factors being equal, patients with a positive outlook had a 30% lower chance of having a heart attack than their more negative counterparts. The reasons are not known, but researchers believe that the body's response to stress probably plays a part. It makes sense - people who experience the world as a negative place are more likely to feel constantly stressed and bring on all of the physical harms of all those stress hormones.
Using a Growth Mindset for Positivity
When I was in college, there was a girl in my student government organization named Jen. She had curly white blonde hair and glasses, and she was nice. Those are the only things I remember about her: her blonde hair, her round-rimmed glasses, and her being nice.
I had a strong dislike for Jen. She was too nice. She was sweet and kind, and she never said anything negative. Her personality was flat to me, just nice. And I distinctly remember not liking her which is pretty much the dumbest thing ever.
I think, deep down, I was jealous that Jen could be positive, upbeat, and nice to everyone, and I couldn't. I struggled mightily with depression in college, and I was snarky and sarcastic and negative and extremely insecure and I drank way too much. I am still snarky and sarcastic by spells, but I have developed over time the ability to see the positive and the good and the nice in most things and most situations, the same way Jen did all those years ago.
I have learned through the past five or so years that having an optimistic outlook is not something that we're born with; it's something that we learn and grow and develop over time. It's a habit, just like eating my feelings and exercising daily and brushing my teeth.
If I, someone who deals with the realities of bipolar disorder, can develop a positive outlook, I truly believe that anyone can. It is possible if you are willing to put in a little work and self-awareness.
I have been learning about a way of thinking called the growth mindset. More than 30 years of academic research performed by Dr. Carol Dweck shows that the brain is malleable - that is, it can change and grow in response to your thoughts and actions. It makes total sense: the more you do something, the stronger the connections get and eventually, a habit is formed.
Dr. Dweck's research focuses mostly on intelligence and attitudes on academic successes and failures, but I believe it extends to matters as simple as your outlook, whether you see the world as a mostly positive or mostly negative place.
For most of the first 35 years of my life, I had a negative outlook. I viewed the world as a scary place, probably due to the fact that our house was broken into when we were not home when I was about 8. I had repeated nightmares about the men who did it: what they looked like, how they got in, and what they took. Awake and asleep, I imagined them lurking inside and peering out at me through the windows or just outside my window in the dark, waiting for me to fall asleep so they could sneak in. The world, previously safe and secure, took on a nasty, terrifying cast.
This fear of break-ins and home invasion followed me well into adulthood. I would wake up in the middle of the night, after I'd moved out on my own, and I could have sworn there was a man standing in the hallway outside my bedroom. I played, over and over, how I would hide under the bed if someone broke in. It was horrible, and it didn't end until I stopped watching true crime shows like Law & Order and the nightly news well into my 30s. I never put this "entertainment" together with my irrational fears, but clearly, they were playing a part. Once I banished them, my fears eventually faded away, and today, I don't worry about home invasions or break-ins at all.
A lot of other scenarios went into my negative outlook. I have a fair amount of self-hate due to the fact that I believe my body to be fat and ugly, and I struggle with depression and anxiety and other issues as well. I know you also have your things and, while they may be different than mine, they are no more or less painful and impactful on your life.
I want to tell you, right here and right now, that it is possible to grow a positive outlook even in your circumstances, even with these burdens you're carrying. If I can do it, you can do it.
Try some of the strategies below to move towards the positive outlook you're hoping to find.
17 Easy Ways to Develop a Positive Outlook
- Focus on the positive & pleasant. In 1999, a team of researchers at the University of Florida studied words. Specifically, they asked study participants to rate hundreds of different words on how pleasant (or not) they were. The result of the study is a published list of all the words, each with a ranking as to the relative good feelings associated with it. As you might imagine, words like kitten and sunshine and friendliness scored high, but there are words on the list that you might not expect like pancakes and opinion and mighty.
I have created a set of 403 of these words, made into flashcards that you can use to study, meditate on, and use in your conversations to increase the positivity in your brain and interactions. The words range from very simple, like sun, to much more complex, like ecstasy.
I've created two separate workbooks containing the same 403 flashcards, one for children and one for adults. The only difference between them is that each includes a long list of activities (51 for the kids and 32 for the adults) that help you absorb, focus on, and use the words from the flashcards in your everyday life. I'm really proud of these workbooks because I know they will help a lot of people to develop the positive attitude they really want for themselves.
- Use positive affirmations. There is tons of evidence - both anecdotal and scientific - that reading and repeating positive affirmations has a profound effect on the mind. It's like how athletes mentally rehearse their game when they're not on the field, and it makes them better in practice. Mentally coaching yourself by repeating positive affirmations sets your brain up to see the good in the world and in yourself. Check out my 40 positive affirmations for Christian kids, 40 positive affirmations for Christian moms, and 44 positive affirmations for defeating temptation and breaking out of addiction.
- Remember the 3-1 rule. Barbara Fredrickson, researcher at the University of North Carolina and author of the book Positivity, writes that people with a positive outlook have at least 3 positive experiences for every negative experience in their lives. What if you have a lot of challenging situations? you might be asking. Well, that means that it's time for more self-care. All positive experiences count, even if you've had to manufacture them, so grab an enticing book or call a friend or cuddle with your pet or have sex with your husband. All those good vibes will build upon one another and iron out the rough stuff. And also, be hypervigilant about noticing the good stuff, which leads me to my next tip.
- Practice gratitude. I have written lots about gratitude and thankfulness because it's such a great idea to pause and reflect on the things you're thankful for. Researchers have consistently found that joyful people have some sort of gratitude ritual or practice. You can write in a journal or make a jar or even just say what you're thankful for around the dinner table, but the key is that you're focusing on the little things that make your life good on a regular basis.
- Pray. Prayer can be tricky, can it not? If you are praying desperate please help me prayers, I don't think those are going to help you with being a more positive and healthy person. Or, if you are praying a grocery list of wants and "needs" from the Lord, also probably not going to help you much in your quest toward positivity. But if you use your prayer time to thank God for all that He has done in your life and praise Him for His mercy and grace, then your prayer time will most likely contribute to a better feeling of well-being and a more positive outlook.
- Read the Bible. Friend, the Bible is full of amazing hope, light, wisdom, peace, and joy. There are dark parts too, of course, but the bulk of it is uplifting and inspirational and motivating. If you're new to the Bible, check out one of these:
- 25 Bible verses on joy & happiness
- 13 Bible verses to encourage you in times of stress
- 20 Bible verses on gratitude & thankfulness
- 13 Bible verses to overcome disappointment (one of my top 5 most viewed posts ever)
- Get the negative stuff out. Brené Brown says that shame, blame, and guilt all live in the dark, and if you take them out and expose them to the light, they cannot survive. Her advice is to talk about them with someone, and that is great if you have a friend and confidante you can turn to. I, however, do not feel that I have a person like that who is available and willing to listen to all my junk without judging me. I've met someone recently who could maybe become that person, but I'm not 100% sure. So what I do is journal my junk, all the nasty feelings, and all the experiences that I can't get out of my head. I write (are you shocked?) about the stuff I'm thinking and feeling. Getting it out of my brain and into my journal frees me up to focus on the other items on this list.
- Smile more. Another study, this one from the University of Kansas, found that smiling (even fake smiles) reduced heart rate and blood pressure during stressful situations. If you're fuming over something or feeling frustrated or frazzled, flip over to Facebook or YouTube and watch some funny cat or dog or kid videos and smile your way back to happy.
- Practice reframing. This is something I've been learning about in grad school this semester. A psychological frame is like a picture frame; it can make the thing inside look a lot better or a lot worse without much effort. A psychological frame is how you think about a given situation, its purpose or reason for being. So instead of getting angry that your child left her underwear tangled up in her inside-out pants on the floor of the bathroom for the 40,000th time, say a prayer of gratitude that you have a healthy, active child who is too busy to take her clothes off one piece at a time (and then calmly call her to come to the bathroom and fix her oversight). I'm not saying that you should excuse things that are wrong, just that you should try to think about them in a way that makes you grateful for them rather than irritated by them.
- Meditate. Barbara Fredrickson, the UNC researcher I mentioned above, reports in her book Positivity that people who meditate daily report a more positive outlook. The practice of daily meditation - in as little as 10 minutes per day - increased her 2008 study participants' feelings of well-being, belief in their life's purpose, mindfulness, and even decreased symptoms of physical illness. That's a whole lot of benefits from a few minutes' worth of effort. If you don't know where to start, try an app like Headspace for a simple, guided meditation, and use my feel-good flashcards for meditation material.
Full disclosure: I have tried to meditate many times and always fail at it. Every time I get in a good meditation groove, I get a terrifyingly intense pain in my temple. So I quit meditating. Meditation is not for everyone, but it has a lot of great benefits and is worth a try at least a few times.
- Build resiliency. Resiliency is toughness, grit, the ability to bounce back from losses and difficulties. Everyone has setbacks and challenges, but resilient people don't get weighed down by them. Resiliency could be a whole blog post on its own, but for now, try some of these strategies:
- Feel your feelings (including the negative ones) but...
- Look for the silver lining. (See reframing and gratitude, above.)
- Believe that change is a part of life and accept it without reservation.
- Develop strong & healthy relationships with family and friends.
- Don't sit around waiting for circumstances to change. Get up and do something.
- Challenge negative thoughts. Negative thinking spirals out of control, doesn't it? Science has shown that our inner critic exaggerates and makes us feel worse than we should in most situations. For me, I can quickly go from I ate a candy bar to I am going to gain all my weight back and be fat for the rest of my life and nobody will ever love me in about two seconds. And then it goes on and on from there. When I start going down that path, I try to challenge my critic. For example, Eating one candy bar is not the same as gaining 100 pounds. What can I do to counteract the calories in this one candy bar? or What is the evidence that I'm going to gain back ALL the weight? The key is to prove the negative thoughts wrong before they have a chance to take hold and get bigger.
- Get more sleep. You cannot be at your best if you're sleep deprived, and sleep deprivation is considered anything less than the recommended 7-8 hours per night. You will always be snappy, grumpy, and miserable if you are too tired. Countless studies have shown the relationship between mood and sleep, including a big one out of the University of California at Berkeley in 2010 where general affect (i.e. overall mood), anxiety, ability to think (confusion), anger, aggression, and catastrophizing were all negatively impacted by a lack of sleep. Sleep deprived study participants reported less positive emotions (happy, cheerful, interested, excited, active, proud). Adequate sleep, on the other hand, resulted in better mood regulation, feeling more even tempered, and overall feelings of positivity and happiness.
- Be kind. Henry James said, "Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind." Whether you do regular random acts of kindness or just make an attitude of kindness your modus operandi, you will likely experience what researchers call the helper's high - a surge of hormones in the brain that actually make you feel good. Subsequently, being consistently kind can improve your overall outlook in a positive way. It's easy to get started; offer a sincere compliment or smile at a stranger. That's all it takes.
- Change your posture. Amy Cuddy, a psychologist at Harvard and speaker in the second most viewed TED talk in history, says that your posture can literally change your life in a fake it til you make it kind of way. She says that the physical body has significant impacts on the mind and displaying a "power posture" can boost confidence and overall feelings of well-being. You can watch her original TED talk below and learn more for yourself.
- Surround yourself with positive people. Emotions are contagious, and if you are hanging around with Negative Nelly and Complaining Kate, you are going to notice a lot more negative feelings than if you spend time with Positive Penny and Upbeat Irma. If you can't just overhaul your circle of friends, try redirecting the conversation by asking questions like, "What are you going to do about that?" the next time someone starts complaining. You might help your friend in addition to helping yourself.
- Give yourself some credit. We tend to shortchange ourselves and downplay our wins. It's human nature, going back to the evolutionary preference to look for danger and negative situations. But when we do that, we rob ourselves of the joy of the thing that we did. Listen, no one wants to be a bragger (and no one cares much to listen to one, either), but you really need to allow yourself to bask in the glow of a job well done.
For example, about two weeks ago, I was recognized by the Vice President of Medicare Operations for my company, my manager's director's boss, a man whose position is a full three levels above my own in the company hierarchy. He sends out a monthly newsletter, and I was one of only three people recognized in that newsletter for a job well done. I didn't post about my accolade on Facebook or LinkedIn (though I did consider that to be honest), but I did snap a photo of my computer screen and send to a good friend and to my husband. I didn't brag near and far, but I did share my pride with two people close to me whom I knew would cheer me on and remind me later when I've made a mistake that there's more to me than just that slip-up.
- Exercise. Listen, while you're doing it, sweating pretty much sucks. I'll give you that. But friend, read this carefully: researchers at the University of Toronto published a study in 2013 reviewing more than 26 YEARS' worth of data from 25 different studies, and EVERY SINGLE ONE without exception concluded that exercise makes people feel good and can even combat future depressive episodes. Every. single. one. showed that as little as 20 minutes of moderate exercise per day – just two hours per week – can make you feel good mentally and physically and prevent future depressive episodes even if you have high risk factors for them. Every. single. one. is all the evidence I need to keep up with my exercise habit. Not to mention, it really does make you feel good and powerful and accomplished for the rest of the day.
A Final Word on Developing a Positive Outlook
Positive people are not always happy. They experience the same setbacks and negative thoughts that the rest of us do, but they choose to receive them in a different way. They have different habits of thought that buffer them against gloom and doom.
Even if you are the most negative person on the planet, even if you have been that way for your entire long life so far, you can change. I promise you, you can change.
Start today. Start doing just one of the things above, and do it until it becomes second nature. If I had to make a suggestion, I would say start exercising and see where that takes you. You'll help your brain and your body all at once.
Whatever you decide to do, do it today. Don't put it off until tomorrow, and don't go another day just surviving when you could be living a positive, healthy, happy life.
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