We can shift our mindset toward more optimism and happiness. Read on to know five research-based strategies for doing that
When I was in my early twenties, my boyfriend, Bart, and I were driving on a freeway near downtown Atlanta when we got a flat tire. I immediately panicked—this was long before everyone had cell phones. I worried we would be stranded for hours, that I’d have to either walk alone and get help or stay alone with the car, that our whole day would be ruined by this car trouble.
As Bart pulled to the side of the road, I shared my numerous concerns. He looked questioningly at me and said, “I’m just going to change the tire—it will take a couple of minutes.” He changed the tire, and we were soon on our way.
This story illustrates an important principle: Some people find it easier to adopt a positive attitude than others, which influences how they respond to life’s setbacks. While I saw the flat tire as a major problem, my boyfriend saw it as a minor inconvenience. His more positive mindset kept him calm and allowed him to take appropriate action. My more pessimistic outlook simply led me to suffer and feel helpless.
This difference in how we perceive and respond to events and challenges in our lives matters for our happiness and health. When we shift our mindset towards more optimism, we are better able to buffer the effects of common daily life stressors and still feel happy. And, as one study found, optimism is healthy for us: People ages 40 to 90 tended to live longer if they were more optimistic—even taking into account other factors, like their diet, smoking and alcohol use, depression, and health conditions.
But here’s the good news for those of us who have trouble finding the silver lining: Our mindsets can change. We can shift our attitude in a more optimistic direction, no matter our natural inclination, with time, energy, and effort. Here are five research-based strategies for doing that.
1. Reframe stressors
Stress is unavoidable. We all experience daily hassles—like long lines, irritating coworkers, and endless to-do lists. While we can’t eliminate all stress, we can choose how we think about the challenges we face and adopt a new, more positive mindset around them.
Of course, some optimistic people seem to do this naturally. (Lucky them!) They go through life easily seeing the positive in irritations and bad events, which helps protect their mood. If positive reframing doesn’t come naturally to you, start by trying to focus on what’s good about your daily life stressors instead of what’s bad about them. For example, if you’re stuck in a traffic jam, take time to look out the window at nature and focus on its beauty.
Here are some examples of how you might transform a setback into something positive:
- Stuck in an airport? Consider it unexpected free time to call a friend or read a good book.
- Passed over for a promotion? This could mean it’s the perfect time to polish your resume or explore other—perhaps even more fulfilling—career options.
- No plans on New Year’s Eve? Fully embrace cozying up in front of the TV and watching the festivities in comfort, or maybe appreciate getting an early start on that New Year’s resolution to clean out your overflowing closet.
We can’t control what life throws at us, but we can all practice reframing difficult events as challenges to be mitigated, rather than calamities.
2. Practice self-compassion
Some people have a tendency to beat themselves up when things don’t go their way—which, not surprisingly, doesn’t make them feel better. To shift our mindset towards more optimism and happiness, we can simply give ourselves a break and treat ourselves with kindness, the same way we’d treat a close friend who’s having a hard time.
People who practice self-compassion are less likely to blame themselves when bad things happen, which works in their favour: They are less anxious and depressed and overall feel happier and more optimistic about the future.
For example, first-year college students who have more self-compassion during this difficult life transition are more engaged and motivated in college life—perhaps because they feel better able to handle the challenges college presents and more connected to other people in their lives.
So, when bad things happen, cut yourself some slack. Forgive yourself, be kind to yourself, and treat yourself with care and compassion.