On the first day of fourth grade, Mrs. Lovelace told us, “Attitude is everything.” She repeated it frequently, insisting a positive mental attitude meant greater happiness in life. This sounded fishy to me, like we were supposed to force ourselves to be overly cheerful even when we felt sad. As time went on, I learned that having a positive mental attitude is more closely aligned with having a can-do mentality.
The best definition I’ve seen comes from Kendra Cherry, MS, a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist featured on Positive Psychology and VeryWellMind. She defines a positive mental attitude as “approaching life’s challenges with a positive outlook. It does not necessarily mean avoiding or ignoring the bad things; instead, it involves making the most of the potentially bad situations...viewing yourself and your abilities in a positive light.” Positive mental attitude is a habit you can easily develop—even if you’re a cynical fourth grader.
Why positive mental attitude matters
It’s been proven that stress and negativity actively impair our immune systems. On the flip side, positivity can boost our ability to fight disease. One study of 70,000 women over eight years from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found participants who regularly practiced positive thinking dramatically decreased their chances of developing heart disease, cancer, respiratory illness and infections. Lisa R. Yanek, M.P.H., and several colleagues at Johns Hopkins conducted a study that revealed positivity lowered the likelihood of a major cardiac event or heart attack by one-third—even in patients with a genetic predisposition to heart disease!
Plus, a little optimism goes a long way. Once you begin practicing a positive mental attitude, it tends to seep into other areas of your life. Before you know it, you’re healthier mentally, physically and emotionally.
So, how do we do it, especially at a time when it’s very easy to indulge our pessimism? Take it one step at a time and start here.
1. Feel your feelings
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) encourages anyone dealing with anxiety or negativity to name those feelings. Identifying what you’re going through and actually letting yourself feel it is the first step to letting it go. Have a good cry! A positive mental attitude isn’t the complete lack of sadness, it’s the ability to bounce back afterwards.
2. Take deep breaths
When you feel negative or down, a simple series of deep breaths can help you recenter and focus. Negativity thrives on rapid thoughts and rushed actions; slowing down and breathing deeply opens you up to a more mindful, compassionate approach to the situation. (Try some square breathing!)
3. Remind yourself emotions are temporary
We tend to feel hopeless when we don’t know how to bounce back from a rough situation. It’s imperative to remind yourself that emotions are temporary. This certainly does not mean the death of a loved one won’t still be sad years from now, it simply means the initial stages of grief don’t last forever.
4. Avoid all-or-nothing thinking
Also known as black-and-white thinking, all-or-nothing thinking is full of extremes and ignores the gray areas of life (spoiler alert: most of life exists in the gray). Mental Health America (MHA) gives the example of disappointing someone. Just because you let your girlfriend down today, doesn’t mean you’re a horrible partner and she should break up with you. Failing once does not mean you are a failure.
5. Be positive for 12 seconds
According to NAMI and neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson, your brain builds neuron connections in just 12 seconds. So, the next time you find yourself knee-deep in negativity, pause, close your eyes, take a deep breath and spend 12 seconds envisioning something positive. Maybe it’s a friend, a lover or a funny line from a movie. Need inspo? Do a Google image search for “puppies.”
6. Envision a positive future for yourself
Once you’ve got that 12 seconds down, MHA advises pushing yourself to spend 20 minutes a few times a week envisioning a positive future for yourself. This could mean writing down a list of things you would love to accomplish or crafting a vision board collage. Do not judge yourself as you do this!
7. Look for a silver lining
When something bad happens or we let someone down, it can be hard to look on the bright side. But this is the whole point of developing a positive mental attitude. Again, it’s not about ignoring the bad, it’s about embracing the positive. Are there any lessons you learned from a terrible experience? Maybe these lessons can be passed onto others to prevent it from happening to someone else. Are you proud of how you handled the situation? Did you witness someone else being heroic? Even a sliver of goodness can plant the seed of positivity.
8. Keep a gratitude journal
Gratitude is a huge component of keeping a positive mental attitude. Even in the darkest of times, there are nuggets of good and reasons to be thankful. Try writing down at least one thing you are grateful for every day (invest in a journal specifically designed to help you do this!). It doesn’t have to be monumental. It can be as small as, “I’m grateful for coffee,” or as big as, “I’m grateful that firefighter saved my life and paid me $1 million.
9. Adjust your perspective
One powerful way to maintain a positive mental attitude—and regain a sense of control over your situation—is to replace pessimistic thoughts with positive ones. Consider your situation and imagine all the possible positive outcomes. This can be challenging, but even attempting it can produce a more optimistic outlook.
10. Give yourself a positive mantra
Feel free to use Mrs. Lovelace’s “Attitude is everything!” Or, design a mantra that works for you. Studies show positive phrases (or images) can decrease anxiety and worry. As soon as you feel a pessimistic voice creeping into your head, say your mantra out loud.
11. Reach out to friends
Since life throws curve balls at everyone, chances are good your friends have also experienced setbacks. Reaching out to them gives you an opportunity to not only share your woes but to lend support to someone else. Commiserating and cheering each other up can instantly lighten your mental load.
12. Do something selfish
By this we mean treat yourself to something that brings you pure joy. Turn off your phone and spend time on a hobby you love. Watch your favorite movie. Order take-out from your favorite restaurant. Something that leaves you feeling good with no guilt or judgment.
13. Do something selfless
By this we mean doing something that in no way benefits you (although chances are you’ll feel pretty good about your actions afterwards, which is okay). Donate to a charity you believe in. Volunteer with an organization dedicated to improving your community. Doing good makes us feel good.
14. Take a social media break
Studies abound on the links between social media and depression. While social sites allow us to stay in touch with friends and family, they can also lead us to compare ourselves with others, feel ashamed about our choices, inspire major FOMO and so much more. Taking a break from this constant flow of negativity is healthy.
15. Incorporate positivity into your feeds
When you do return to social media, be sure to subscribe to feeds that make you feel good. Some popular ones include Good News Network, Tanks Good News and The Happy Broadcast. Again, find the most constructive feed for you. Need inspo? Do an Instagram search for “puppies.” (Notice a trend?)
16. Take notes and keep going
As you embark on your journey to keep a positive mental attitude, take notes along the way of what works for you and what doesn’t. Then, keep doing the stuff that works. Add to it! Do it more often! Over time, a positive mental attitude will become second nature.