Finding joy and maintaining a positive attitude can boost your physical and mental health
It’s no big secret that it’s been a rough few years for all of us. Deadly viruses, tense politics, higher prices—any one of our modern-day worries can be enough to shift our mindsets to the pessimistic side. Stress can suck the optimism out of anyone’s attitude, and when it’s prolonged, it can increase the risk of anxiety and depression. That’s certainly not a formula for maintaining a positive attitude.
Fortunately, when unsettling things happen in our lives, they happen around us, not within us. “Ultimately, we are not our thoughts,” says Henry G. Lawrence, creator and host of The Positive Mindset Podcast. “If you are having negative thoughts, those are not you. When you are stuck in the negative energy, you feel that energy.”
It’s one thing to want to be a more positive person, but it’s quite another to wrap your head around how to make that happen. And yet maintaining a positive attitude is possible no matter what life throws at you. Once you achieve a more optimistic place in your head, the rewards will soon follow. You may even learn how to be happier in your daily life, practice gratitude even in tough times, set boundaries for yourself and determine your non-negotiables to maintain a sunnier outlook.
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What is a positive attitude?
At its core, a positive attitude is having an optimistic outlook and expecting good things to happen. “A lot of people come to my podcast because they feel the opposite,” says Lawrence.
And he believes that a positive attitude runs deeper than just keeping your thoughts on the bright side. “I think finding inner peace is the true positive energy, not just the joy and happiness. You absolutely want those, but inner peace is the highest form of positivity,” he says. “When you have that, you are able to observe or find what you want out of every situation in your life.”
Why is having a positive attitude important?
First and foremost, an optimistic mindset is associated with better overall health. According to the Mayo Clinic, a positive attitude can increase your lifespan, lower rates of depression, boost your immunity and even lower your risk of death from cancer and cardiovascular disease.
A JAMA Network Open review of 15 studies, involving more than 200,000 participants, found a 35% lower chance of getting heart disease and a 14% lower chance of early death in people who were optimists.
And not surprisingly, a sunnier outlook is also associated with a raft of mental wellness benefits. It’s linked to better well-being, fewer symptoms of depression and a greater likelihood that you’ll adopt good mental health behaviors and coping strategies, according to an article published in a 2022 issue of Frontiers in Psychology.
“You will start to see the good in every situation,” says Lawrence. “If you have a positive mindset, you will see the silver linings in every situation.”
Tips for staying positive
Maintaining a sense of optimism can come from both sustained efforts to keep it and little mood pick-me-ups when you need a quick shift in your mindset.
Happiness isn’t always directly connected to a positive attitude (we all know an optimistic grump or two), but these strategies can help you spark cheerful thoughts, promote optimism and learn how to be more positive—and how to stay positive too. And you may just find yourself in a better emotional place without even trying to be happier.
1. Stop the negative self-talk
For many of us, there’s no harsher critic than our own brains. Instead of giving ourselves well-deserved compliments, we beat ourselves up internally, which drags our self-confidence and positive energy down. “We devalue who we really are,” says Lawrence. “If you are going through tough times, why shouldn’t you be the positive healing energy that’s needed?”
If you find yourself blaming yourself for everything, personalizing things and catastrophizing that any bad thing is likely to happen, take yourself out of that headspace as soon as you recognize it. The tips below will give you tools that’ll help you to do that.
2. Believe in the magic of music
Call it the power of positive thinking: Research shows that listening to happy songs improves your outlook, so long as you believe it will. A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that participants who listened to cheery music with positive intentions noticed an improvement in their moods. The group that wasn’t told to think of the music as a happiness booster didn’t feel the same way.
Not sure what tunes to crank to cultivate a brighter outlook? “Choosing music that is uplifting to you can really help with that,” says Lawrence. Put in a set of earbuds at the office to help you stay positive during your workday too.
3. Volunteer for a meaningful cause
There are many good-vibe benefits of volunteering, from reducing feelings of loneliness to giving you a sense of purpose, all of which can give you a brighter vantage point in life. But to get the most positivity from helping others, your intentions need to come from the right place.
“Giving and supporting your community is great,” says Lawrence. “But there are a lot of people who do so many good things on paper but still feel so empty inside. If you’re volunteering just to check a box, it won’t have the same mood-enhancing effect. Serve in a way that you needed when you were younger. We should become the person we needed when we were growing up.”
4. Stop and smell the flowers
Sure, they put a smile on your face when you look at them, but the smell of flowers can cause a major mood boost too. A study from the American Society for Horticultural Science found that floral scents boosted cheeriness by improving energy levels and suppressing feelings of depression.
And there may be other reasons why making the effort to sniff floral scents can help cultivate a more positive outlook: “Being present in the moment, like stopping to smell the flowers, is incredibly valuable for inner peace,” Lawrence says.
Double the positivity by taking note of these moments. Pick up a gratitude journal and make a habit of gratitude journaling to keep track of the times you stop and smell the roses.
5. Hit the couch
Naps are often considered a guilty pleasure rather than the mood-maintenance tool they can be. Rest is the tonic that our minds need to help us refocus and rebalance. (Does anyone have a positive mental attitude when they’re feeling exhausted? Nope.) “Sleep is self-care,” says Lawrence. “If you’re using naps for that, they’re perfect.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that both short (15 minutes) and long (one hour) naps can be beneficial, but it’s better to avoid slumbering for much longer than that because it can disturb your essential nighttime shut-eye.
If you’re working from home these days, fitting in a daytime nap can help you stay more positive about your work life and be happier at home. Research from the Journal of Administrative and Business Studies found that daytime napping boosts happiness and can also help you improve work performance.
6. Hang out with optimistic people
Feeling like your attitude could use an adjustment? Inspirational books and quotes can help, but what really makes a difference is spending more time with people who have good outlooks on life, says Lawrence. “Being around positive people will help make you more positive over time,” he says. So the next time you’re looking to hang out with someone, reach out to a pal who always puts a smile on your face.
Have a co-worker with an attitude problem that makes you feel like you hate your job whenever you talk to them? Skip that next lunch date and make plans with a cheery office mate instead.
7. Stay hydrated
Staying properly hydrated isn’t just important for your physical health—it lubricates your brain too. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that even mild dehydration made healthy women feel more pessimistic.
Dehydration was also linked to fatigue and scattered concentration, neither feeling ideal for a positive outlook, so aim to quench your thirst on a frequent and regular basis. According to the Mayo Clinic, men should aim for about 15.5 cups a day (3.7 liters), and women should consume 11.5 cups (2.7 liters).
8. Try a digital detox
By now, we’ve probably all heard the news that too much time spent on social media can be bad for our mental health, leading to negative feelings about ourselves and an increased risk of depression—especially in younger adults. Putting down the glowing rectangle and spending more quality time in the real world can help us foster a more positive mindset. “A digital detox as a road to a more positive attitude? It’s a simple yes,” says Lawrence.
Feel like it’s a big leap to give up social media entirely? Balance the time you spend on it with healthier activities. “If you get on social media for 10 minutes, then meditate for 10 minutes to help practice gratitude, for example,” he says.
9. Dance like no one is watching
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Think you have two left feet? Bust a move anyway. Research from the University of Northern Colorado found that people who make time to dance have improved cognitive development and creativity as well as a better sense of self-worth.
So the next time you’re down in the dumps, blast some Beyoncé—or some Donna Summer, if you’re feeling a disco vibe—and put on your dancing shoes. Having your family or roomies join you can help brighten the outlook of your entire household. Bonus points if you add at-home karaoke to really ratchet up the fun.
10. Move more
There’s no shortage of anecdotal evidence that exercise helps clear the mind, but the solid research will help you truly believe it: A study in Frontiers in Psychology found that people who expect to get mental benefits from exercise are more likely to reap attitude-improving rewards.
Whether it’s taking a walk, getting your blood pumping with a Zumba class or lifting weights to strengthen your muscles, exercise of any kind is helpful for a positive outlook. The effects of exercise on our emotions do more than yield a positive attitude. Exercise can also reduce stress and anxiety. So go with a favorite sport or try something new, like rock climbing or kayaking, to reap the mental health rewards.
11. Watch what you eat
There’s an old saying that we are what we eat, and our brains and our moods follow that same principle. “Rewarding our body with food that heals us makes us grow stronger, and a healthy diet keeps your body and mindset in balance,” says Lawrence.
A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains is a proven winner for both physical and mental health. Think of it as a happiness diet.
It’s fine to eat comfort foods for a mood boost every once in a while—doesn’t everyone smile when they eat a cookie?—but keep an eye on what your go-to foods are, particularly in times of mental stress. When you reach for a bite, “ask yourself, Is this food rewarding temporary pleasure centers, or is it treating my body as it deserves?” Lawrence says. “If you keep answering ‘pleasure center,’ your mindset probably isn’t so good.”
12. Take it outside
Spending time in the great outdoors can change your outlook in a hurry (and provide you with plenty of opportunities for small moments of joy). A study in the journal Scientific Reports found that spending as little as two hours a week in the open air is associated with a boost in feelings of well-being.
The vitamin D in sunshine may also have something to do with it. A study in the Journal of Clinical Medicine found that the mood-boosting benefits of the vitamin are more effective coming from the sun than from supplements. “There’s a lot of science behind the sun being good for your mood and other health factors,” says Lawrence. “We need it to grow just like the plants.”
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