Looking on the Bright Side

Here at Optimize Your Life we are spending 2018 improving our lives. Each month gets its own theme, and April’s is the science of happiness.

We’ve already learned that 40% of our happiness is fully within our control and changes based on our thoughts and actions rather than being linked to our situation or genetics. We’ve looked at some actions that we can take by imitating the surprising amount of happiness that get at work and we’ve looked at how changing our thought patterns by practicing gratitude and appreciating the present can make us happier.

Today I want to take another swing at the “thoughts” side of the equation. Let’s look at the science behind how we can adjust our mindset for a happier life.

Events vs. Reactions

Studies show that happy people and unhappy people experience the same range of events.

This makes some intuitive sense once we understand that we don’t get happiness from more money or a bigger house or a great promotion. If our situation doesn’t make us happy or unhappy, then we’re mostly on a level playing field.

This means that to a large extent, happiness is largely in our heads. It’s not a question of what happens to us, but how we interpret it.

The ancient Stoics understood this. Epictetus taught that “It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgments they form about them.”

A bit more recently, Shakespeare’s Hamlet noted that “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. As the consistently verbose Bill Belichick says, “It is what it is.” We can’t control what happens to us. We can only control how we choose to respond.

The Science of Attitude

This theory is not based entirely on philosophers, playwrights, and football coaches. Although that helps.

Scientists are behind it, too.

Studies have found that it is easier to predict a person’s happiness by their attitude than by the events that they have experienced.

Others have found that happy people are better at focusing on the positive that exists in their life and minimizing the amount of time they spend thinking about the negative.

Still more have found that happy people “use a lower threshold in order to label an event positive.”

Optimism and Happiness

This means that optimists are happier than the rest of us.

Psychologists have run a number of studies on optimism specifically. However, each appears to have a slightly definition of optimism.

Sonja Lyubomirsky brings all of the research under one umbrella by concluding that:

“Looking at the bright side, finding the silver lining in a cloud, noticing what’s right (rather than what’s wrong), giving yourself the benefit of the doubt, feeling good about your future and the future of the world, or simply trusting that you can get through the day are all optimism strategies.”

With all of that covered, optimism studies show a great deal of happiness awaits us if we can just be a little better at looking up.

Causation

One question you may have (if you are as nerdy as I am) is whether we can show that optimism causes happiness rather than the other way around. After all, happy people would have more reason to be optimistic so how can we conclude that optimism actually makes people happier rather than happiness makes people optimistic?

For that, we have optimism interventions.

One particular optimism intervention brought students into a psychology lab to write for twenty minutes a day, four days in a row.

One group wrote a description of what their best possible life would look like in ten years. The other wrote on random other topics to act as a control.

The students who wrote about their dream future were happier on the days they wrote, happier weeks after the experiment ended, and even healthier months later.

Optimism is powerful.

Reach for Your Goals…Optimistically

Another benefit of optimism is that it makes you more likely to achieve your goals.

Optimists see more goals as within their reach, which makes them put in more effort to obtain them. They are more likely to keep working through hurdles because they take an optimistic view of their abilities, rather than a pessimist’s assumption that they just aren’t good enough.

In addition to being less likely to give up on their goals, studies have found that optimists also set more goals, set more difficult goals, and are more likely to take initiative.

As we learned last week, striving for goals makes us happier, which means optimism does double duty in building our happiness portfolio.

On top of that, the relationship between optimism and goals means that optimists tend to be more successful across all spheres of life. This can lead to increased self-esteem, more confidence, and stronger relationships, all of which contribute to happiness. These all lead to more reason for optimism and we start the cycle all over again.

A Buffer from the Bad

Optimists are also better at coping with the inevitable low points of life

Studies have found that optimists are better at coping with stress, difficulty, and tragedy. They are even happier than non-optimists after receiving grave health diagnoses.

This means that they are more likely to work towards getting healthier, work harder, and find their new condition to be an opportunity for personal growth. Ultimately, this leads optimists to be healthier in addition to happier.

If that’s not enough, they also have fewer low points. Optimists have more positive moods and higher morale generally.

This makes sense. If you have an optimistic view of the future, you are more likely to be excited and motivated to get up in the morning and get on with it.

Becoming an Optimist

“Okay, fine,” you may be thinking, “But I’m not an optimist.”

Fair point. Sorry to rub all of these benefits that you don’t get in your face.

But also, you can become one.

Think of the college students in the optimism intervention. It wasn’t one group of optimists and one group of pessimists. It was one group of people split up randomly.

The “optimists” in the study became that way through a twenty minute writing exercise.

You can become an optimist, too, by tweaking your mindset.

Give the twenty minute writing exercise a try. Write about what your ideal life would look like. Imagine achieving it. Spend a few minutes on some optimistic thoughts.

Catch yourself in negative thoughts and challenge them. Before deciding that you didn’t get the job that you interviewed for because you suck, think about some other possible explanation. Maybe you weren’t a good fit or they had an internal candidate that had a leg up or you were overqualified or the interviewer was having a bad day when they interviewed you.

When we don’t know the reasons something happened, we tend to fill in the blanks. Start filling in the blanks with something more generous to yourself.

Avoiding Delusion

One note of caution: Don’t go overboard.

We are aiming for a positive outlook on life, not delusion.

Interpret events positively wherever possible, but don’t lose touch with reality. If the weather channel says there’s a 90% chance of rain, go ahead and grab your umbrella rather than focusing on how sunny the sky looks right now.

Martin Seligman, who literally wrote the book on optimism, advocates what he calls “flexible optimism.” This means that you still need to think things through rather than blindly assume the best in every situation.

Be optimistic rather than pessimistic, but don’t let either blind you to reality.

Faking It

If none of this makes sense to you, you don’t believe you can change your mindset, and you think optimism is for suckers, then I’ve got one last trick in the bag for you.

Try faking happiness.

Studies have found that pretending to be happy – smiling, faking enthusiasm and energy, and even laughing that awkward forced laughter – actually makes you happier.

To be fair, this is a smaller boost to happiness than anything else we’ve discussed. You’re better off working to change you mindset, or set goals, or develop new skills, or practice gratitude.

But still, it’s a start. If nothing else works, fake it ’til you make it.

Join the Conversation!

What about you? Are you optimistic? Have you tried to make yourself more optimistic? Do you have any tricks for seeing the upside of situations? Let us know in the comments!

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