3. Let it go
Besides blaming themselves for setbacks, people can also fall into the trap of ruminating on bad events long after they’re over. Rather than accepting what’s happened and moving on, they get stuck in their negative feelings—then, to make matters worse, they beat themselves up for feeling bad!
People who criticize themselves for having negative thoughts and feelings have higher levels of depression and anxiety, and lower levels of psychological well-being and life satisfaction. That’s because when you blame yourself for your feelings, it creates a vicious cycle, where ruminating leads to bad feelings which lead to more ruminating.
If you find yourself ruminating about a fight with a friend, a difficult situation at work, or the current state of American politics, try a new approach: Identify and stop resisting these negative thoughts and feelings. For example, you might think, “I’m feeling lonely,” or “My job isn’t going well,” or “I’m frustrated right now by our government.” Naming and accepting your negative emotions and thoughts will help keep you from holding onto them so tightly and will clear the way for a more positive attitude and response. So, practise letting it go to shift your mind towards more optimism.
4. Avoid comparisons and practice gratitude instead
There’s a great poem by Kurt Vonnegut about his conversation with author Joseph Heller during a party hosted by a billionaire. When Vonnegut asks Heller how he feels knowing that this billionaire makes more money in a single day than Heller will ever earn from sales of his novel Catch-22, Heller responds that he has something that the billionaire will never have: the knowledge that he’s got enough.
This poem vividly illustrates what research corroborates: Happy people don’t need to engage in social comparisons. Instead, they practice gratitude for what they have—a good way to increase optimism and well-being.
While people vary considerably in how much they engage in social comparison, those of us with a more negative mindset find it hard to avoid, particularly on social media. Most people post only the good parts of their lives—successful kids, fabulous vacations, impressive careers—which can lead us to believe that our own lives don’t measure up.
This may be why college students believe that they experience more negative events (e.g., bad grades) and fewer positive events (e.g., fun parties) than their peers, which makes them lonely and dissatisfied with life. In contrast, college students encouraged to practice gratitude by counting their blessings tend to be happier than their peers.
If you find yourself in a comparison trap, try quitting your social media habit, or at least shifting how you think about the overly positive portrayals you find there. Instead of feeling sad about how your life doesn’t measure up, focus on the very real things that are good in your life—e.g., my kid’s not going to be valedictorian, but he’s got a great group of friends; my family’s not spending two weeks in Tahiti, but we really enjoy our summer on the Jersey Shore.
5. Find some (any) humor
In virtually any situation, it is possible to find some humor, and making an effort to do so can help you shift a mindset towards optimism later on. I remember when my high school freshman son Andrew received a failing grade—a 58—in his first trimester of Spanish. Although it worried me, he was able to find the humor in it, insisting that it wasn’t an F; it was an F+! And Andrew’s optimistic interpretation actually paid off: At his high school graduation, he received the award for “most improved,” and, ironically, he’s now a college junior majoring in Spanish!
Finding humor helps people cope with the small irritations of daily life, but it is particularly important in coping with serious life circumstances. For example, people with fibromyalgia (a debilitating and chronic condition marked by widespread bodily pain) who relied on smiling and laughter to deal with small daily life stressors—such as a waiter spilling water on you—reported lower levels of psychological distress and fewer physical symptoms. This ability to take things in stride reduces stress and its negative effects on physical and psychological well-being.
So, the next time you are in a dark or trying situation, try humor. Remind yourself that this situation will probably make for a good story later, and try to crack a joke about it. Say you’re laid off; imagine the most absurd way you could spend your last day, or the most ridiculous job you could pursue next—like kangaroo handler or bubblegum sculptor. Allowing yourself to experience humor can take the edge off.
I’ve used these strategies to boost optimism in my own life, and even though my natural inclination is clearly not to see the silver lining, I find it easier all the time to shift my thinking in ways that do make me happier. Adopting this type of optimistic worldview has taken me time, energy, and effort, but it has really paid off. This shift towards more optimism has helped me feel happier.
If this type of positive mindset doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t despair. Try to find someone who can help you cultivate this skill by being a role model. Remember that boyfriend of mine who miraculously changed the tire? He’s now my husband.
Learn Simple Strategies for Feeling Happier by Shifting Your Mindset.