Do you ever look at happy people and think that they’re the lucky ones, that they have a charmed life? Or that they figured out some secret that somehow continues to elude you?
Here’s the truth: There’s no secret or charmed life. Happiness is a state of mind. And positivity is something we can practice—a skill we can learn. Deciding to cultivate an optimistic outlook has benefits beyond just having a good time. Positive thinking builds the resilience that keeps us strong during difficult times. It helps us stay open to possibility, which means we’ll be able to see solutions and opportunities that a closed-off, negative perspective might easily miss.
Does this mean we have to commit to rose-colored glasses, or deny that anything bad could ever happen? Nope. It means choosing to see the world as a series of doors, not dead ends.
Here are four happiness hacks that can help you tap your inner optimist and feel the effects of positivity in your life as early as today:
1. Flex your positive muscle. Like building muscle, cultivating a positive outlook takes time and practice. Being an optimist doesn’t mean never having another negative thought. It means facing negative events with an open mind and being able to pivot when things don’t go your way. Reframe adversity—both big and small—as an opportunity to strengthen your positivity.
How: For every negative thought that pops up, practice coming up with one or two positive outcomes from it. In addition, whenever a situation arises that would normally cause a cascade of negativity, apply the Trap It Map It Zap It technique: Trap the negative feeling as soon as it arises, map it to the triggering thought, and then zap it by questioning the accuracy (“What evidence do I have to support this?”). Most of the time, you’ll find that your negativity took over and that things aren’t so bad. You can use that positivity muscle to push back on it and shift your mindset.
2. Make the good stuff stick. The good stuff—a kind word, a nice meal, a compliment—often just passes through our consciousness like soup through a sieve. The key is to catch those positive experiences and give them some staying power. We do this by training our brain to recognize good feelings and develop a positive radar to scan the world for uplifting moments.
How: Try practicing the STAR, a technique we developed here at meQ:
Step 1: Scan for positive thoughts. Pay attention to the thoughts running through your mind and identify a positive one.
Step 2: Tune into how you’re feeling. Notice how that good thought positively impacts your body, mind, thinking or mood.
Step 3: Appreciate it. Take a moment to feel grateful for that person, act, or accomplishment. Studies show that a regular practice of gratitude directly impacts your emotional wellbeing.
Step 4: Ride the wave of positivity. Relish the good thoughts and feelings that you’ve tuned into. Studies show that if you can stay in the zone for just 17 seconds, your brain will create new positive pathways, making seeing the good easier and more automatic over time.
3. Assume the best of other people. One of the greatest perks of being an optimist? Rich, rewarding relationships. Optimism encourages openness to new experiences and people. A practiced optimist gives others the benefit of the doubt, and expects to like people, until they give them a reason not to.
How: When you meet someone new, make the choice to see them as the potential to be a friend, someone whom you could learn from or whose company you might enjoy. See how differently that predisposes you to connection than, say, if you assume they’ll be boring. Same goes for existing relationships. Rather than assume that the friend who hasn’t returned your call doesn’t care about you, give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it has nothing to do with you (which 9 out of 10 times is true).
4. Give it away. Giving has been shown, time and time again, to benefit the giver even more than the recipient. Research bears this out: Neal Krause of the University of Michigan followed nearly a thousand adults over a period of three years, and found that offering social support to others reduced their anxiety when they were under economic stress. Stephen Post wrote about this and other studies in his book, Why Good Things Happen to Good People, in which he cited a study that found that teens who are giving, hopeful, and socially effective are also happier, more active, involved, excited, challenged, and engaged than their counterparts.
When you give, you feel useful and valued—and this also helps you see the world through a positive lens. After all, in order to empower someone else, you have to believe that the effort is worth it. Can you think of a better way to define optimism?
How: Time and money are in need the world over. But don’t underestimate how valuable you can be to the people around you—by being a good listener, by telling someone how much you appreciate them, and by advocating for someone at work who could benefit from the support. And don’t be surprised when, as a result, you feel just a bit more spring in your step.
Terri Trespicio is a New York–based lifestyle writer. For nearly a decade, she served as a senior editor and radio host at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Her work has appeared in Jezebel, XOJane, Marie Claire, Prevention, MindBodyGreen, and DailyWorth. Find her on Twitter @TerriT