Happy people are more positive! Most people would agree with that statement. It’s easy to argue that happy people think more positively because they have more reasons to be positive. But what if the relationship works both way? What if deciding to be more positive can help us be happier?
Several studies have shown that happy people tend to have an overall more positive and optimistic outlook on life, while less happy people tend to view things in a more negative and pessimistic light (1). At first glance, it would be easy to assume that happier people actually do have more reasons to be optimistic and that more positive things happen in their lives. However, this seems unlikely given that studies show that independent judges rate the experiences of both the positive and the negative people equally, as well as the fact that optimistic and more pessimistic people respond differently to the same hypothetical situations (2).
Bad things happen in the world. We all probably feel like your lives are especially hard or unfair sometimes and we all feel like we have reason to be negative at times. However, something we often forget is that regardless of what happens, we always have a choice as to how we respond, and we can always choose to focus on the positive aspects instead of the negative ones.
To some extent, our tendency towards being positive or negative is genetic, which means some people are naturally more positive than others. However, all that means is that some of us need to work harder than others to have a positive mindset. Just like some of us have to work harder to be fit and eat well, or like academic learning comes easier to some of us while others are better at sports or learning practical skills. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and we all need to work harder than others for some things. In that regards, positivity is no different than most other things in life. And there are some really good reasons why putting effort into having a more positive mindset is worth it – even for those of us who need to work hard to achieve it.
Being positive enables us to build new skills faster
A positive attitude and mindset are incredibly valuable for both immediate and lasting happiness. It’s easy to see how being positive will make us feel happier
A positive mindset helps us earn more
Furthermore, those of you who are career-focused and who are striving for financial goals might be interested in knowing that research also suggests that a positive attitude has a direct effect on wage. As a result of his research into the effects of positive attitude on happiness and wage, Madhu Mohanty from the California State University, suggests that in order to raise our earning potential we should not only focus on the development of skills but also the development of a positive attitude (4).
Positivity can help us live longer
Positivity has also been linked to higher live expectancy and might help protect us from onsets of dementia. As part of a famous nun study, Deborah Danner and her colleagues analyzed personal essays written by 180 Catholic nuns in the 1930s (5). They found that the nuns whose essays were worded positively and optimistic ended up living about ten years longer than those whose essays included fewer positive and optimistic emotions. Furthermore, the more positive nuns also seemed to show fewer signs of early dementia. The findings of this study are particularly relevant because the participants were all nuns which means they had very similar lifestyles and lived in similar environments. Consequently, it’s less likely that other environmental factors influenced the results, and we can be more confident that there really is a link between positivity and the outcomes.
Valuable as it might be, being more positive is often easier said than done. However, it can be done. Here are a few tips that can help you get started.
First of all, don’t start off with the goal of being positive all the time – especially if you’re rating yourself quite low in positivity right now. Start with a smaller goal. Maybe you start by focusing on one specific area like your relationship or your job, or you pick a particular time of the day or week, or you focus on being more positive towards one specific person. Make a conscious decision to focus on the positive in this one specific area of your life and then expand over time.
Make time for positivity exercises. Take 15 or 20 minutes out of your day several times a week (ideally daily) to sit down and practice being positive. Think about a situation where you responded negatively and look at it with a positive and optimistic mindset. For example, you might have been hurt by something a friend or partner said to you. However, when you look at the same situation with a positive and optimistic mindset, you might find that the other person probably didn’t mean it in the way you interpreted it or that there was no way for them to know that what they said would hurt you. Or you might feel like things at work are not going your way and you’re not achieving as much as you could, but when you specifically make yourself look for the positives, you find that you’ve accomplished a lot and that your boss complimented you for the great work you were doing just the other day. If you struggle with this, ask a positive friend for help. Ask them to go through the situation with you and find the positives. You might be surprised at what they can see.
While exercises are not the same as responding positively in the moment, they can help you slowly change your mindset and attitude. The more you practice, the sooner you will find yourself being optimistic and positive as things happen in the world around you.
Thinking more positive is essentially a habit change. As such, it will take time and require persistence, and there will be setbacks. The hardest part is to remember in the moment, as something happens, to be positive and not fall back into the old habit of negative thinking. Little reminders can be very helpful with this. Put post-it notes up in strategic places around your house, your workplace, or your car, add an inspirational quote as your phone and computer screen background, get a coffee or tea mug with a positivity message, or ask a friend, partner or colleague to remind you. Anything you can do to remind yourself as often as possible will help you get to a more positive mindset quicker.
(1) Boehm, J., & Lyubomirsky, S.(2009-07-30). The Promise of Sustainable Happiness. In The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. : Oxford University Press.
(2) Lyubomirsky, S., & Tucker, K. L. (1998). Implications of individual differences in subjective happiness for perceiving, interpreting, and thinking about life events. Motivation and Emotion, 22, 155–186.
(3) Fredrickson BL. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philos Trans R. Soc Lond B Biol Sci. (2004) 359:1367.
(4) Mohanty, Madhu S. (2009). “Effects of positive attitude on earnings: Evidence from the US longitudinal data,” Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, vol. 38(2), pages 357-371.
(5) Danner, D. D., Snowdon, D. A., & Friesen, W. V. (2001). Positive emotions in early life and longevity: Findings from the nun study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 804–813.