4 Ways to Take Control of Your Happiness

Having a positive outlook doesn’t make you unrealistic. It makes you successful.
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Having a positive outlook doesn’t make you unrealistic. It makes you successful.

Believe it or not, our happiness is in our control. No, that’s not a rallying cry to go make your dreams come true (although that’s fine, too). But it is a call to recognize that you can choose how you react to the events in your life. Your positive or negative reaction to a situation results from your attitude. And your attitude shapes your reality.

In psychology, attitude is “a set of emotions, beliefs, and behaviors toward a particular object, person, thing, or event.” While positive perspectives come easier to some, attitude is not a character trait. It is entirely up to you. You can blame your lousy attitude on something else, such as waking up on the wrong side of the bed. But the truth is, it’s not your bed’s fault. It’s yours—and you can snap yourself out of it!

Why does this matter? It turns out that a positive attitude makes you more likely to succeed. Thomas Jefferson once said, “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.” I don’t know about you, but I’d sure opt for the former.

Optimism doesn’t mean that you have to be delusional about reality. Jonathan Haidt and other researchers maintain that optimists are better equipped to accept and handle reality than pessimists. According to what is known as the negativity dominance theory, negative things have a greater effect on our psychological state than do neutral or positive things. So, we have a natural bias toward unreasonable gloom-and-doom thoughts—yet we would actually be more aligned with reality if we chose to think positively.

Here’s how to take command of your attitude using these happiness principles.

01. Manage your thoughts.

A change in thought can cause a shift in emotions. You may be thinking, “Easier said than done!” I couldn’t agree more. While simple in theory, changing your perception of a situation is difficult in practice. Even if you will yourself to think positively—as I try to do—it can be challenging to shift your outlook from the bad to the good.

We often don’t realize the power of our own thoughts on our behavior and emotions. Researcher Seymour Epstein found that the emotions we experience—joy, anxiety, anger, love, sadness, despair, pride, and so on—come after a particular train of thought that relates to that emotion. I may become nervous before a meeting because I’m not sure if my client will like my proposal, for example. My nervousness might translate into a shaky voice and stumbling over my words—just what I was worried about! This can be turned on its head though: If I reminded myself to feel confident due to my extensive research and preparation, I would instead anticipate the meeting with excitement.

Daniel Goldman, author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, claims that the 80 percent of non-IQ forces that influence our success in life include “abilities such as being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulses and delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to empathize and to hope.” Coaching myself through unnecessary anxiety, like unwarranted nervousness, is one way of managing my emotional intelligence. Practicing self-awareness and regulating our thoughts helps as well. And stronger emotional intelligence makes it easier to be positive. That’s not to say you will never have downward thoughts. But you should aim to channel your thoughts toward the good for best results. Speaking of results . . .

02. Focus on positive results.

Train yourself to seek the positive short- or long-term outcomes of whatever is inciting a negative response. For instance, if you were hoping for a second date that never happened, the positive result would be that now you know your potential suitor wasn’t the right fit. There’s a better guy for you out there! In the moment, it may be discouraging because you were hoping that the relationship would develop further. But forcing yourself to put a positive spin on it will keep you from dwelling in disappointment and will help direct your attention toward more productive things.

This isn’t meant to encourage an only-good view of disappointments and setbacks. You can acknowledge the downside while keeping your sights set on the upside. In Manel Baucells and Rakesh Sarin’s book Engineering Happiness: A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life, the result of ten years of happiness research, they recommend, “Every day, reframe at least one experience from negative to positive. For example, if a package you’ve been waiting for hasn’t arrived yet, rather than getting upset, focus on how amazing it is that this package can travel across the country or around the world so (relatively) quickly.” This approach will help you develop the habit of looking for the good in everyday occurrences.

03. Find authentic experiences that bring you true joy.

We may believe that specific things currently out of our reach will make us happy. And we often blame our discontent on the lack of these things. Ranging from the material (money or possessions) to the intangible (recognition and love), we equate our happiness with them. But as I’m sure you’ve experienced, happiness doesn’t necessarily follow once we achieve or receive these. Known as the hedonic treadmill effect, we set even higher expectations after we get what we want. At first, we relish in our newfound external or internal gains. Inevitably, though, we become accustomed to the new thing, and we long for more.

To get off this futile treadmill, focus instead on pursuing happiness through experiences. Baucells and Sarin’s happiness research found that experiences make us happier than acquisitions. When we aim to improve our reality by acquiring achievements or things—a new car, a bigger apartment, a promotion—our pleasure is rarely long-lived. The fundamental principle of their findings is, “Happiness equals reality minus shifting expectations.” We adjust to our new reality that includes the possession of these things, and we set our sights on new desires.

Instead of setting another goal of attainment, find (and do!) experiences that make you happy right now. It could be a hobby, hanging out with friends, a long walk outside, or any experience that brings you peace. Recognizing your ability to influence your mental state by doing these achievable things will help you reframe your happiness assumptions.

04. Have faith in your resilience.

We often downplay our own strengths. “There’s no way I can get over this breakup. I’ll never have the courage to fight for that promotion. Confidence in our abilities stimulates positive emotions and helps us power through obstacles. It also increases the likelihood that good things will happen. This is due to the expectation element of the placebo effect popularized by medicine. According to this phenomenon, a particular outcome—medical or otherwise—has a greater chance of happening if we believe that it will happen. You are more likely to ace an exam if you have confidence in your studying and prep work. Conversely, you are more likely to fail an exam if you doubt your abilities. Believe in yourself! Squash self-doubt! A self-affirming outlook preserves happiness. And it increases the chances of good things happening in your life.

So, start small. Like any habit, changing your attitude takes time and practice. When you catch yourself thinking like Debbie Downer, realign your thoughts. Focus on the positive outcomes. Partake in experiences that bring you genuine happiness. Trust in your internal strength and proven abilities. Happiness is a decision. And it’s a decision that you have the power to make each day in every moment.

Photo Credit: Regina Leah Photography