It’s one thing to occasionally wake up on the wrong side of the bed, but it’s quite another to be a killjoy every. single. day. Studies have shown that you’ll lead a healthier, more fulfilled life when you’re an optimistic person. “Optimism really can change your life,” says Dr. Elaine Fox, a professor at Oxford University and author of Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain. And, guess what? Optimistic people don’t have to be annoying, always-super-chirpy types. You can be a glass-half-full type of person without getting on everyone’s nerves. “A healthy optimism is acting positively while at the same time being realistic and ready for what might not work out,” she says.
So, you’re ready to swap out all that negativity you’re feeling, but how, exactly, do you become an optimistic person? Is it something you’re just born with, or are there steps to make it over to the bright side? We got some helpful tips from Fox and a handful of experts who know how to keep things sunny. Heed their advice, and you’ll find a way to put a positive spin on the not-so-great things that happen in life (hello, breakups).
Focus on how you interpret things
“It’s not what happens to you that makes you feel good or bad,” says Dr. Fox. “It’s how you interpret what happens.” Fox says you shouldn’t try to change the way you feel about things, you should instead focus on how you interpret the world around you. Example: Your boss isn’t responding to your e-mails. Is it because she’s mad at you? Probably not, but if you’re not an optimistic person that’s mostly likely the first thing you’ll think. “When something happens that makes you feel bad, try to look for alternative and more positive explanations,” Fox says. Maybe it turns out that your boss wasn’t writing you back right away because she was on a flight, or back-to-back meetings. Her lack of response had nothing to do with you. It’s important to consider the other possibilities, so you won’t feel bad about yourself and blow things out of proportion. Keep this practice up, and you’ll eventually have your brain trained to naturally seek more optimistic (but still realistic) explanations for the things that happen to you.
Be grateful for the bad stuff
We’re always grateful when something good happens to us (a promotion, acing a test). So, this sounds a little crazy, but it’s a good idea to consider some of the bad things in life as gifts, too. “When you start being appreciative of the lessons you’ve learned from the not-so-good things, in addition to being grateful for the obviously good things, your outlook will begin to change,” says David Mezzapelle, author of Contagious Optimism. Mezzapelle says life is a series of ups and downs, all of which are necessary to achieve success across many of life’s themes. “That acceptance makes every day easier and it contributes to our optimistic outlook,” he says. For example, getting laid off from your job isn’t a great feeling, but it’s also not the end of the world. You can take it as a sign that it’s time to start the next phase of your career. A better job could be just around the corner, or you might eventually look back at being laid off as the start of an entirely new chapter in your life.
Don’t give up so easily
According to Dr. Alex Lickerman, author of The Undefeated Mind, it’s optimism that makes us keep trying. “When you fail, being optimistic keeps you coming back,” he says. “Success, to some degree, is because of simple persistence. And, optimism yields persistence.” Lickerman says optimistic people, in general, are more successful because they don’t give up so easily. The key to persistence? Believing in yourself. “When you fail, you might believe you can’t do something,” Lickerman says. “But, if you’re optimistic, it just means you can’t do it yet.” Even if you’re not feeling so confident about a task, you have to believe that you’re able to achieve it. And, remember, not everyone aces everything on the first try. The saying “practice makes perfect” exists for a reason.
Do the math
We all have active imaginations, and sometimes it’s easy to start thinking about that “worst case scenario.” But, guess what? The likelihood of something truly terrible happening to you is pretty slim. “Our ability to predict what’s going to happen is usually terrible,” Lickerman says. If you’re dreading something because you think it’s going to be horrible, you have to reverse that thought process. “We tend to think more anecdotally than statistically,” he says. If you hear about a terrible plane crash and you’re about to take a flight, you might seriously overestimate the likelihood of your plane crashing, too. Advice: Take a step back and estimate the actual likelihood of a bad thing happening. Usually, it’s not going to be as bad as you worry it will be.
Surround yourself with optimistic people
Remember, you’re not alone out there. We know that misery loves company, but it works the other way, too. According to Mezzapelle, Mary Lou Retton (the Olympic gymnast from the ‘80s) said it best: “Optimism is a happiness magnet.” “I believe this is one of the most accurate statements I have heard in this arena,” he says. “When you expose yourself to positive people, it brings you up.” Nicole Williams, LinkedIn’s career expert, agrees. “If you want to retain or grow your sense of optimism, then you need to stay as far away from the negative people of the world as possible,” she says. Yes, this can be tough when those negative people are friends or family members. But, you can limit your time with them and ignore their negative chatter. Need a role model? Williams points to Richard Branson. She says the mogul behind Virgin Group (who just so happens to be a self-made billionaire with his own private island) actively surrounds himself with people who want to make a difference in the lives of others. And, that optimism has certainly paid off.
ILLUSTRATED BY AUSTIN WATTS.