Spoiler alert: You have a lot more control of your emotions than you think.
That ability to bounce back more quickly is something that will also help you in other aspects of your life. Optimism has been linked to better health, better success in business and happier relationships, according to Thompson, mostly because being positive often means you’re a more persistent person. And if you’re persistent, you’re probably more likely to succeed.
So, how can you capture all this good energy for yourself? Turns out, there are small tweaks you can make to your everyday routine that will help you be a more positive person—some of which are backed by actual scientific research. Here are 14 tips recommended by psychologists for how to be more positive:
1. Seek out the activities that bring you joy—no matter how small.
One of the biggest misconceptions people have about positivity and happiness is that these emotions just happen, says Dr. Erin Olivo, PhD, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Center for Wise Mind Living. When you’re feeling sad or angry, you can usually point to a specific instance that caused those feelings (a fight with your friend, getting passed up for a job opportunity, etc.). But it's not always easy to recognize that feelings like joy or love can also be triggered by particular activities or events—even when you find yourself down in the dumps.
How do you know what will trigger your happiness? Well, that’s up to you. Got a song that always makes you want to dance? Put it on. Or, if playing with your dog always lifts your spirits, make time throughout the day for fetch, work on a new trick, or just watch them be the adorable doofus they are all on their own.
"Everyone has to figure out what their own triggers are for joy or love or excitement, and once you know what some of those are, you can actively seek those out," explains Olivo.
2. Keep a gratitude journal.
In three related studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychologyin 2003, scientists researching different ways a person can be more positive concluded that giving thanks shouldn’t be reserved just for the fourth Thursday in November. Keeping a gratitude journal is as easy as taking a few minutes every night to write down three things that happened that day that you are grateful for. Not only will this practice encourage you to appreciate the positive moments in your life, but you’ll also start to look out for all those things you're grateful for throughout the day.
One pro tip from Olivo, though, is to be as specific as possible in expressing your gratitude for the day. Don’t just write that you’re happy the sun was shining. Say that you’re happy you were able to take a break from work by taking a walk around the block in the sunshine, and it left you feeling refreshed. "We’re actually trying to generate a feeling," she says. "We’re not just trying to do the task of 'make a list.'"
3. Do something for someone else.
Nothing wrong with the "treat yourself" mentality, but if you want to feel happier longer, it might be better to adopt a "treat others" mentality. Feeling like you’re contributing or being of service to others has been shown to give individuals a longer-lasting hit of dopamine than doing something for yourself, according to Olivo. So, the next time you’re treating yourself to a latte, consider treating the person behind you in line as well.
If you’ve been skeptical of the thousand and one mindfulness apps that have taken off in the past year, now might be the moment to actually give one a try. Both Thompson and Olivo recommended mediation as a way to calm your body and quiet the outside chatter. Meditation practice also helps you to focus your mind, which means you can work on choosing to focus on an experience (like, say, an awkward first date) as a whole, instead of just zeroing in on the negatives.
5. Accept that the world is chaotic.
As much as you plan and schedule and think ahead, there are some things you just can’t control (sorry, but that superpower is currently out of stock). Once you accept that, Thompson explains, you can spend less time wishing you could change all those chaotic things you simply cannot. "It is obviously something that you don’t want, but by fighting against it in your own mind, all you’re doing is adding additional layers of angst and anxiety on top of an unwanted situation," she says.
Instead, use that time and energy to make a clear-headed decision about what you can do in a particular situation. (Case in point: A global pandemic. You can't control how the rest of the world acts, but you can choose to take proper safety precautions for yourself.) There will always be things that seem unfair or are unequal, but rather than harping on those injustices, think about how you can make things better.
6. Get out into nature.
As much as spending the weekend bingeing Netflix sounds like a great idea, taking a moment outside will do wonders for your mood. A 2019 study from the U.K. published in Scientific Reports found that spending two hours a week outside helps boost both your physical and mental health. Don’t feel like you need to spend two hours on a strenuous hike, though—Thompson says that even an easy walk in the park will do the trick.
7. Don’t give into negativity bias.
At the end of the day, do you ever find yourself still thinking about the one bad thing that happened as opposed to the dozens of great things? You’re not alone—and if you’re looking for something to blame... blame your brain. According to Olivo, the brain is built to keep you alive, which means it's wired to scan your environment constantly for everything that could go wrong or whatever might bring you harm. This also means that brains have a tendency to focus on the negative, in general, over the positive, which is known as "negativity bias."
But just because your brain is biased doesn’t mean you have to be. By regularly choosing to focus on the positive in a situation or seeking out the positive things in your environment (partner, family, friends), you can help train your brain to be less reactive to negative circumstances, Olivo says.
8. Write a gratitude letter.
This practice takes being a more thankful person to the next level. There are definitely those ride-or-die people in your life whom you may or may not have ever told how grateful you are for them. Let those VIPs know how much they mean to you by writing them a gratitude letter, describing all the ways they've impacted you. Thompson pretty much guarantees this will make both them and you have a better outlook on life.
9. Understand that you’re in charge of your emotions.
Maybe you’re someone who’s come to this article because you know you have a tendency to be a little negative (hey, we've all been there). FYI: It's not "just the way you are." The fact that you focus on how things are going wrong more than others is partly due to the behaviors you saw modeled growing up and your personal experiences, Olivo explains.
But trying to be a more optimistic person can start with the simple decision to be a more optimistic person. "Our emotions are not just something that happens to us," Olivo says. "We can actively affect change in our emotions. We get to decide how we’re going to feel." How you react to a situation, how you approach a situation, and how quickly you bounce back from a situation are all things that you (yes, you) can control.
10. Exercise, eat right, and get enough sleep.
Olivo refers to these three as "all those things that your mother said," and, turns out, Mom was right all along. Fulfilling these basic needs will help you be less vulnerable to negative feelings, she says. Granted, you might not feel motivated to go on a run or snack on an apple instead of a cookie all day, every day, but the more you do, the more likely you’ll be able to generate positive feelings in your life.
11. Grin and bear it.
There’s a reason why people say to fake it 'til you make it. No matter how much you don’t feel like it, there is some scientific evidence that smiling helps you feel better. The act itself sends a signal to the brain that helps calm the negative thoughts you might be having and releases those feel-good neurotransmitters (like dopamine) that help bring on the warm and fuzzies.
12. Take the negative when it comes.
No matter how much you adopt the previous tips into your life, there’s no guarantee that you won’t encounter some bumps in the road. (In fact, the guarantee might be that you will experience a setback at some time—you're human, after all.) But if you’re able to experience negative and positive emotions together, this balance helps give you more perspective, Olivo says.
This is similar to the idea that losing something helps you see how much it mattered to you, she explains. (Laid off from your job? Remind yourself of everything you accomplished, and take pride in that.) "The more you can bring in the positive, it might not help you immediately today to be more positive, but all the research shows that it will help feel more positive down the road," Olivo adds.
13. Have an encouraging mantra at the ready.
It can also help to be your own cheerleader when you do experience setback (think Jerry's mat talk from Cheer). Dr. Thompson suggests telling yourself things like "You can do this," "You’ll get through this," "You’re doing your best, and "You’ve got this" will help you get through those tough times.
14. Remember that it’s a journey.
Becoming a positive person doesn’t just happen overnight. You are trying to rewire your brain’s natural instincts, after all. But as long as you consistently work at having a more positive outlook, your mind will eventually follow. "You’re truly training your brain," says Olivo, "You’re training your brain to do something different than what it even wants to do."
And that journey alone is worth feeling good about.