Even if you’ve been a sunny person in the past, sometimes life — and it’s taxes, deadlines, and work meetings — can push you into a pattern of negativity. And while you can’t always get rid of life’s obstacles (like taxes), there are some ways to approach the hard stuff with a better attitude and learn how to be positive. It sounds hard, but it’s worth it!
Joy sat down with psychologist Mark Shrayber, a lecturer at San Francisco State University, to discuss ways to stop negative thinking and practice optimism instead. He says that positivity is like a muscle, and the more you practice, the stronger you can build it. His tips and tricks will help you get in shape, stat.
Recognize negative thoughts, and then let them go
If you’ve ever imagined yourself, say, tripping and falling down during a big work presentation, you know the power of worry. But instead of ruminating on these negative thoughts and assuming the worst is going to happen, try to worry about things when they happen, not before, advises Shrayber. “Otherwise it’s just a whole lot of energy you could have spent somewhere else.”
That’s easier said than done. Rather than trying to eliminate negative thoughts altogether, Shrayber suggests that you identify your thoughts, recognize them for what they are (worry, anxiety, stress, etc.), and then accept them without acting upon them.
It can be a little bit uncomfortable, especially at first. But recognize that this isn’t an instant switch. “View changing the way you respond to your thoughts and emotions as something that you work on every day,” says Shrayber.
But also acknowledge their utility
You don’t have to be optimistic all the time: Stress- and anxiety-related thoughts do serve a purpose, shares Shrayber. (Plus, it’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll be able to banish every single negative thought.) For example, feeling a bit of stress over an upcoming presentation will likely help you take it seriously, and push you to do your best. Know that your negative thoughts have been a source of some comfort in the past, thank them for their service, and invite them to leave.
Give yourself a pep talk
When you’re about to face something tough, it’s helpful to run through your personal highlight reel of hard things you’ve made it through before. Often, people don’t give themselves enough credit for how they’ve handled difficult situations in the past, shares Shrayber. It’s easy to think, “I can’t handle the awful thing is coming,” but the fact is you have made it through hard times before, and you’re still here. What tools did you use to make it through before? Could those tools help you now? Or do you need more help this time — perhaps in the form of a trusted friend, colleague, or therapist? Remembering those past events can give you the confidence to get through your next challenges.
Write it down
Keeping a journal is a fun throwback to your childhood, and can even boost your mood, says Shrayber. “Each day, think about three good things that happened to you, and write them down.” Focus on the things that are going well for you, no matter how difficult other areas of your life might be, he suggests. And because it’s a practice—meaning something you get better at the more you do it—it works best if you can commit to doing it every day.
The most important thing of all when you are setting out to practice optimism is to keep at it. Studies show that optimism is 25 percent inherited, but that leaves the other 75 percent up to us. With practice, patience, and perseverance, a more positive outlook can be yours.