9 attitude adjustments for a happier life
Even though you can’t always control what happens, you can productively deal with what life throws your way. Whether you tend to fall prey to faulty logic or interpret situations in pessimistic ways, by recognizing your own knee-jerk reactions, you can shift your state of mind from negative to positive. We spoke with mental health experts to get their advice on the best ways to handle the most common negative mindsets and learned that a little tweak in attitude can make a big difference in outcome.
Your boss points out a mistake you made on a report and you're instantly gripped with fear that you're going to be fired, even though you're a top performer.
To overcome this type of attentional bias, in which you over-focus on the negative despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, author of the bestselling book A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness, suggests the following approach: “Remember that everyone makes mistakes. They provide an opportunity for you to learn and do even better next time.” Add balance to your perspective by mentally reviewing some of your work-related successes, she advises. Then address the error, quickly refocus and move on. And keep in mind that assuming the worst only makes you anxious, which increases the likelihood that you’ll…make mistakes!
You’re making dinner plans with a friend, and even though you don't like any of her restaurant suggestions, you go with one of her picks and resent it later.
Often, we’re hesitant to give our input because we’re not sure if it’s worthy or whether others will be receptive. But that’s the whole point of communication; think of it as a chance to explore ideas, not as a performance or a battle of wills. You have every right to have your say, and your point of view is just as valid as anyone else’s, but don’t expect people to guess what you want or badger you for your preferences. Instead, offer some suggestions of your own, in a clear and friendly way (“I do like that place, but would you be open to trying…?”). And remember, if she’s not wild about your idea, then it’s her responsibility to say so.
Even though you were able to cross off 11 of the 16 items on your to-do list, you still feel unproductive because you wanted to finish all the tasks.
Negative perfectionism is linked to anger and rumination, such as obsessing about thoughts of inadequacy, according to a study published in the December 2010 issue of the International Journal of Psychology. With positive perfectionism, however, you do your best but allow for flexibility. To switch sides, keep in mind that a goal is meant to guide you, not measure your self-worth. And remember, you don’t have to be perfect to be acceptable, says Stephen Howard, MD, an Atlanta-based psychiatrist and psychotherapist. Think back to when you may have learned otherwise and try to counter negative thoughts with: “I’m doing the best I can, and that’s pretty good,” Dr. Howard advises. For example, instead of criticizing yourself for not finishing all your chores, commend yourself for the accomplishments you did make, and take a crack at the rest of them the next day. And, if you’re consistently not accomplishing the goals you set for yourself, you may be aiming unrealistically high. Next time, take a few to-dos off the list.
You’re feeling more anxious than usual today and assume this must mean that something bad is going to happen.
Steer clear of emotional reasoning, which means you're confusing feeling with fact. Try to pinpoint what might be stressing you out—lack of sleep, too much caffeine, an argument with your brother—and deal with the problem as best as you can. Try doing a few exercises or stretching for more energy, clear the air with your bro or take a nap (especially if PMS is the source of your stress: One study found that a 30-minute afternoon nap helped improve participants’ moods during that time of month). If you can’t figure out the cause of your anxiety and it continues to bother you, consult a therapist or physician for help.
You resolve to get in shape to look your best for your sweetie, but by the third session of your new boot camp program, you'd rather do anything but work out.
Studies show that intrinsic motivation—doing something for you, not someone else—is correlated with long-term exercise habits and better health outcomes. Instead of getting fit for your partner, think about the reasons that you want to improve your health, maybe to gain energy or improve your mood for example, and commit to being kind to yourself by taking steps toward those goals. Dr. Lombardo recommends making a list of your reasons and reading them out loud at least twice a day to keep them at the forefront of your mind.
You’re awaiting the lab results from a routine checkup and it occurs to you that something might come back abnormal, so you assume that must be true.
A close cousin of emotional reasoning, overimportance of thoughts is a cognitive error that leads us to believe that the mere presence of a thought means something. Instead, observe your thoughts as they arise, and don’t rush to assign meaning to them—especially if there’s no supporting evidence for your worries. Next time, don't expect your doctor to contact you with bad news. Rather, reassure yourself that there’s no cause for concern and that just thinking something doesn’t make it so.
You approach your boss with a new idea, but she tells you it doesn’t fit with the company’s goals, so you slink back to your desk and chide yourself for even making the suggestion.
“Rather than viewing this as a failure, consider it to be data regarding what happened and why, so that you can be empowered,” and use the information to your advantage in the future, advises Dr. Lombardo. Even though you’re disappointed, don’t take her decision personally or assume your ideas aren't good enough. If you believe you’ll never have success, then you won’t try, which will certainly bring failure. “And let your brain keep brainstorming,” Dr. Lombardo adds. “Creativity, regardless of what happens to the ideas, is an important part of bringing more happiness into your life.”
You recently recommitted to getting healthy, but that slice of cake you ate was so good, you just had to have a second slice…and then you spiraled into an all-day junk fest.
"Stop the all-or-nothing thinking (which has been linked to mental health issues and weight gain), and refrain from depriving yourself,” recommends Dr. Lombardo. When you do opt for the not-so-nutritious picks, try to eat mindfully to enjoy every bite. Then lick your lips, resume eating healthfully and get on with your day. “So often we feel guilty for ‘giving in,’ which raises our level of stress. And when stress levels are high, it's hard to think and act rationally,” she explains. So cut yourself some slack and learn to accept the small bumps that occur along the road of life.
Your significant other is often moody, despite your best efforts to cheer him up, so you assume the problem must be you.
First, be aware of how your past relationships affect your present ones. For example, if you used to tiptoe around your father to try to keep him happy, that experience—and the thoughts and feelings it evoked—are likely shading your reactions to your partner now, explains Dr. Howard. Don’t take someone else’s moods personally or make it your job to change them. Instead, remind yourself that these are his moods, and you can get on with your life and invite him to join you, Dr. Howard suggests. “Each of us has to be responsible for our own happiness."