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I will try to create more happiness and less unhappiness in the world around me


Action 31

Be positive but stay realistic

How do you think and feel about the past, the present and the future? Do you tend to see the good side and the opportunities or do you tend to focus on the problems and things that might go wrong? How realistic are you being? All of this matters for how happy and satisfied we are with our lives

Why do it?

People who are optimistic tend to be happier, healthier and cope better when times are tough. So there are a lot of advantages to looking at the world through a positive lens and focusing on the things that are good. However, it's possible to be unrealistically optimistic which isn't a good thing. And it's certainly not helpful to put a positive spin on everything or pretend that things are fine if they're clearly not

Whether we are naturally an optimist or more of a pessimist, it's impossible to know what the future holds. So perhaps the best of both worlds is to be a realistic optimist - someone who tends to maintain a positive outlook, but within the constraints of what they know about the world.

Whether we tend to be optimistic or pessimistic is part of our personality, and can be hard to change - but it is possible. We can become more conscious of our own patterns of thought and learn skills to help us be more flexible in our outlook.

Where to start

Here are three ways of 'thinking about your thoughts' - you can use them to help shift your outlook on life:

  1. Reframing. Imagine you've been on a day out with friends and the weather was dull - in fact it rained on and off all day. Assuming the day went well in other regards, would you see it as a wash out or a success? In reality you could view it as either, depending whether you were choosing to comparing it to a hot sunny day or one with torrential rain. This isn't about changing the facts of what happened, just how we choose to interpret them. Simply shifting our 'frame of reference' for a situation can change the way we feel about it. If we tend to see the worst, reframing can help balance out negative thoughts and get the most out of the situation. So try asking yourself: How else could I choose to interpret this situation?
  2. Appreciate the moment. There's a lot of scientific evidence showing the benefits of being more mindful - that is more consciously able to notice the world around in the present moment - what surrounds us, what we can see, feel, smell and hear. There is also strong evidence that a focus on what's good or going well balances out the natural human tendency to look for what's wrong. The amount of water in the glass is the same whether we choose to see it as half full or half empty. So try asking yourself: What is good about what's happening right now?
  3. Be open to opportunity. They way we think about the things we're aiming for affects our levels of ambition, our willingness to take risks and how we make decisions. Seeing things as problems, chores or issues to overcome, we may be less motivated to work towards and stick at them. As a result we may be less likely to achieve our goals. Seeing things as potential opportunities (or positive challenges) can be powerful. It leads to what psychologists call 'approach motivation' - our sense that we're moving towards things we want rather than avoiding things we don't want. It also gives us a greater sense of control, which is vital for happiness. So try asking yourself: What are the opportunities here that could help me achieve my goals? What is the positive challenge for me in this?

[1] Carver, C.S., Scheier, M.F., Miller, C.J., & Fulford, D. (2009). Optimism. In S.J. Lopez & C.R. Snyder (Eds.)Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. NY: Oxford University Press.

[2] Schneider, S. L. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: Meaning, knowledge, and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist, 56, 250-263.


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Positive emotions make us more resilient

Our emotions affect our long term well-being. Research shows that experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones leads to a tipping point beyond which we naturally become more resilient to adversity and better able to achieve things.