How to Hack Optimism (& Maybe Even Happiness)
We all get a bit down sometimes. And that’s entirely normal. We cannot and should not always be happy.
Life can be so joyful and exciting and fun. But it can also be incredibly sad, mundane, and painful. We don’t get to control what life brings us. But we can control how we choose to approach and respond to it.
We get to select our lens and our focus.
When it comes to “hacking happiness,” I’ve found both a short-term, quick fix as well as a longer-term, more sustainable fix. I feel that the longer-term fix can be more helpful overall, but let’s be real...sometimes you just aren’t in an emotional space to get yourself into a continuous state of positivity, and you need some faster help.
So, to start, here’s my short-term recipe to try out the next time you’re feeling down and would like to pull yourself into a better state:
Step 1: Focus on your breath
Focusing on your breathing can help calm you down (...which can be particularly helpful when you start stressing out about how down you are). Deep and steady breathing has been shown to reduce stress levels and can even decrease your blood pressure.
Lead yourself through a breathing exercise for a few minutes, taking long, slow, and deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. (For reference, I've laid out a breathing exercise that I’ve personally found to be helpful in one of my past articles: “Beware the Power of Your Routine”).
Step 2: Be accepting of the emotions you’re feeling (don’t try to suppress them)
Remind yourself that it’s okay to not always feel happy. Don’t fight your negative emotions right out of the gate. (Attempting to resist them will usually kick-off a negative feedback loop that will make you even sadder).
It can be important for us to learn how to get through tough periods of our lives and still be productive (or at least functional) despite a low mood.
Step 3: Practice gratitude
At either the outset or the end of your day (your choice), make a list of 3 things you’re grateful for, happy about, or that you just appreciate. Keep a notepad next to your bed specifically for this purpose to help remind you to engage in this activity each morning or evening. Instill it as a daily habit.
Practicing gratitude helps to redirect your mind toward the positive things in your life so you are more appreciative and focusing on the things that warrant your focus (not to mention setting yourself up to be more likely to let go of negative circumstances).
Step 4: Recognize & acknowledge positives
At the end of each day before going to bed (again, using that notepad you keep by your bed for practicing gratitude), make a list of 3 great things that happened that day from your perspective.
These items from your day can be significant or insignificant in nature. Here are some examples from recent lists that I’ve made:
- I had the opportunity to attend a talk that Brené Brown gave in Boulder (one of my personal heroes)
- Discovered a new coffee shop in town and had an incredible Americano
- Pushed myself out of my comfort zone and made an effort to connect with 3 new people today
What these items are isn’t as important as is the act of recognizing them.
This exercise is about getting you to focus on the positive more regularly. By making this a daily practice, you’ll subtly be training yourself to recognize positives more consistently.
And know what’s amazing? The more you focus on and anticipate positive things happening, the more you’ll take notice of when they do happen. (Disclaimer: the same feedback loop can happen with respect to negative things, so that’s why it can be so key to espouse an optimistic and hopeful outlook).
Now, if you feel like you’re ready to tackle the longer-term strategy for happiness, just keep reading. And here - I’ll even hook you up by starting with the punch line:
“Learned optimism” is a real thing. And it can help you to more consistently battle melancholy, make you more productive, and even improve your overall health.
With that out of the way, let’s dive a bit deeper into the steps you can take to achieve more sustainable, longer-term happiness:
1) Reframe your views on what can be learned and improved upon (with enough time and effort)
What core beliefs do you hold around learning and how to achieve success? Do you believe in talent, or in effort? How do you interpret your wins as opposed to your losses?
Many attributes that we generally assume to be innate, set, or fixed can actually be improved upon with sufficient effort.
Intelligence - our IQ scores aren’t fixed. They can change, for better or for worse, over the course of our lives.
Talent (in any given thing) can improve with practice.
Optimism - how optimistic or pessimistic we are is not static.
To briefly expand on this last point, we are able to “learn” whether we respond to situations or adversity with feelings of pessimism and helplessness versus optimism and resilience.
And that’s important. Because people who react to adversity by feeling helpless and powerless to change their situation tend to suffer from depression. And people who respond to adversity with resilience and the sense that they can change things so long as they don’t give up are often more hopeful.
2) Learn to be an optimist
You can actually train yourself to be a more optimistic person. The process is largely centered around habit: you can build new habits and rewire your brain to approach the world differently.
We all inevitably encounter challenges and setbacks in life. But if we can learn to interpret those events differently when they happen and react to them by espousing an optimistic perspective, doing so can be beneficial.
Optimists tend to view their setbacks as temporary and impermanent in nature, whereas pessimists see them as much more enduring.
So what sort of explanations do you give when things go sideways in your life? Do you view the situation as temporary or permanent? And do you see it as a one-time event or something more pervasive in nature?
If you view a given challenge or setback as permanent and inescapable, you’ll tend to respond with feelings of pessimism and helplessness. You won’t be as likely to put forth effort to change your circumstances.
And that’s problematic because pessimists are more likely than optimists to:
be less healthy
live shorter lifespans, and
suffer from depression and anxiety.
In fact, across myriad studies, optimists have generally been found to perform better than pessimists at nearly everything they do.
So yes, I’ve set forth the case for optimism and why you should strive to become an optimist. But what are some more tangible ways to actively and consistently work to adopt a more positive mindset?
Here are some tips:
Practice optimistic self-talk
We are able to use language to cultivate more hope. Be encouraging and kind when you speak to yourself. When you consider your capabilities, be more growth-oriented and open in assessing them.
Over time, adopting this approach can change how you think, feel, and act in stressful scenarios.
Alter your interpretation of events
Practice interpreting situations as temporary and changeable as opposed to permanent or enduring. It will take work, but find reasons why the situation isn’t fixed. Believe you can move past them with effort and focus on their transitory nature.
Re-focus your mind on positive events throughout your day
This will take practice - particularly if you’re tired, hungry, or otherwise struggling to have your basic needs met.
You’ll have frustrating experiences, and negative thoughts will come. And that’s okay - allow them to come and to pass through your mind. But try not to honor them by putting them into words or granting them undue attention.
Instead, stay oriented towards positive thoughts. Grab hold of something good that you can appreciate and focus on.
Find role models or mentors that you can model after
Once you’ve found one or two people who seem to have positive mindsets, try asking them for advice or feedback when tough situations inevitably present themselves. Learn how they interpret those events when they arise and what meaning they give to them.
Ask for their recommended approach. Solicit their support in encouraging you and holding you accountable.
When you constantly remain open to (or, even better, search for) ways to improve your situation, you stand a chance of finding them. When you stop searching and assume they can’t be found, you guarantee they won’t be - it becomes self-fulfilling.
Our brains are remarkably adaptive, even into our adulthood. They can continue to grow and change. And we have the opportunity to shape them.
This means we are able to make positive changes - which is incredibly empowering to realize. Some have come to characterize this notion as having a “growth mindset” - the belief that it’s always possible to learn, to grow, and to improve.
Just like you can learn to persevere by continuing to push yourself forward in the face of difficult obstacles, you can similarly mentally push yourself to stay positive in the face of doubts. You can teach yourself to hope.
Now, I realize that I’ve laid out a lot of tips in this piece. And I fully acknowledge that learning to hack optimism may prove to be especially difficult, particularly if you tend to be more pessimistic by nature. But I’d encourage you to accept this challenge and really push yourself to give it a shot. Because what’s to lose in trying?
Life is all about challenging yourself and learning how to do things that you couldn’t do before.
Most of us struggle with pessimistic outlooks at one point or another. But we don’t have to let that bleak side of us control us or dictate our direction or approach to life.
It’s the very process of finding a way out of our suffering that makes us stronger -- not the suffering itself. So stay positive. Stay strong. Stay open to what’s possible. And then challenge yourself to find your way to happiness.