There’s an old saying, “People are about as happy as they make up their mind to be.”
That tells me there’s a relationship between mindset and happiness.
Add in this fact: happiness researchers say the average person needs to triple their positivity. The average adult’s positivity ratio is 2-to-1, while depressed people are 1-to-1 and healthy ratios start at 6-to-1. The average adult is just above depression and way below the healthy standard.
One way to get those ratios up is to work the grey matter between our ears.
This mindset idea fits with my definition of happiness as “a pattern of positive emotion that comes from seeing good things happen at a good pace.” The “seeing good” phrase is about mindset. It tells us that happiness is just as much about perception as it is reality.
Studies of optimists and pessimists prove this, showing that happy people don’t have better circumstances than unhappy people, but rather, they see the circumstances in a different way.
When I say that happiness comes from “seeing good,” I’m not just talking about physical sight, but the broader idea of perception that includes seeing with the mind’s eye. It’s what we mean when we say, “I call it the way I see it.” This broad idea includes the meaning we attribute to our sight, and the way we evaluate what we see. Whenever we look out at the world, or look at our interior world through memory and imagination, we instantly ask and answer two questions:
- What is happening? We characterize reality. Say a bunch of guys are watching a football game. One sees their team losing, another sees their team winning, while another is looking at the cheerleaders and yet another is caught up in a beer commercial. Still others are focused on the colors of the uniform, while others wonder about the cameras on wires and how they work. There’s a lot to see in any circumstance, and we see selectively as our narrow focus locks on to one thing and blocks out other things. People in the same situations almost always see different things in the situations. We characterize reality in different ways.
- How good or bad is it? Once we’ve characterized reality in our unique way, we then evaluate it. We see something as either good bad or neutral, and not only that, but we decide how much good or bad. There’s a level of goodness and badness. One guy has a thousand-dollar bet on the game, and his team is losing. This is extremely bad. Another guy doesn’t care much about either team because his team lost last week and is out of the playoffs. He slightly favors the winning team, so for him, this is slightly good. That’s why he’s calm while the other guy is freaking out.
The amount of good we see in our circumstances, in life, and even in the invisible world of memory and imagination, so almost completely driven by our thinking, not circumstances.
Given this mindset idea, here are some practical ways to cultivate a happier mindset.
#1: Cultivate gratitude.
When we focus on the good things we already have, we start to feel grateful. There are several good ways to do this:
- Write a “gratitude letter” to someone, telling them why you appreciate them, and then go read it to them.
- Write three things that went well today. Keep a diary, and journal the wins every day. Then review those wins before you go to sleep.
- Write out ten good things in your life.
- Ask, “What do I enjoy about this moment? Is there anything I see that I enjoy right now?”
#2: Savor the moment.
When good things happen, we often fail to reflect about how good they are. We just let them pass by. We get a sale at work, or watch our child succeed in sports, or meet a new friend, and quickly switch our thoughts to something else instead of locking our mind onto these good things.
We also can get so caught up in thoughts about the past and the future that we can’t enjoy the present, or so caught up in things happening somewhere else that we can’t appreciate things that are happening right where we are. We miss the moments instead of savoring them.
The key is to focus longer on the good things. By locking on to the good, for a longer time, we magnify the good and minimize the bad, which gives us more positive emotion.
#3: Turn off the news.
We live in a big world, filled with billions of people, and on any given day something bad is going to happen to a minuscule percentage of those people.
Good news doesn’t create the same ratings as bad news, so the media is naturally biased toward the bad. They want to keep our attention, and human nature is naturally more alert to bad things than good things.
That means there’s always going to be something bad on the news, even in a world that is filled with good things.
I say, opt out. Turn off the news. Let’s not spend a single second worrying about things we can’t control. If we can do something about a bad thing we see on the news, by all means, let’s do something. But if not, we’re just wasting time that could be invested in solvable problems.
- A friend gets injured and you can bring them a meal. That’s a solvable problem.
- We struggle with despair, and can change that by changing our perspective. That’s a solvable problem.
- We can spend thirty minutes in deep regret because we didn’t get our education and it’s hurting our career, or we can invest that same thirty minutes researching distance learning options and start working toward that degree.
For goodness sake, let’s solve problems and help people when it’s in our power to act. But if we’re talking about something happening a million miles away that we have no power to influence, it’s not worth thinking about. Not even for a second. It only makes us feel helpless and miserable.
#4: Find meaning in your pursuits.
There’s often more to our situations than meets the eye, because we have the power to draw deeper and longer-term meaning from the good things that happen to us. We can even use the power of meaning to turn bad things into good things:
- Just the other day some company executives told me they want to embed the principles of my book Automatic Influence into their leadership training for the next five to ten years. I could just celebrate that as a new client relationship, or I could see the deeper implications: the content is valuable enough to become a long-term leadership program for a whole world of clients. By extending the good to other client possibilities, I added meaning. What was good before became really good after.
- I remember a story of young Abe Lincoln, the lawyer, working on a case that eventually turned out to be a waste of time. But Lincoln wasn’t discouraged because he saw himself building his skills and developing content he might use later.
- In his book Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Emotions, Dan Ariely writes about a man with a hospital cleaning job that was so boring he considered quitting. “But his mother reminded him that he had one of the most important jobs in the hospital because people in hospitals are especially vulnerable to killer germs like staph,” writes Ariely. “Without his important work, she explained, these patients could easily become sicker and die. This shift in perspective renewed his pride in his job. He performed it with more energy, and not too long afterward he received a promotion.”
#5: Ask the right questions in hard times.
When bad things happen, and they always do, we often ask, Why is this happening?
This question can be constructive. We might find that we did something unwise and reaped a consequence. IF that’s the case, there’s hope, because we can change our future by changing our choices.
But many times hardship is unavoidable. Chalk it up to bad luck or the way life is. We can recover a positive perspective with these questions:
- How might this make me stronger and wiser? Maybe what is happening to us is actually happening for us. When we see benefits in hardship, we’ll recover quicker and make the most of it.
- What might I learn from this? Hardship creates questions, and whenever we’re asking questions, we’re in a good place to learn wisdom. We can seek wise counsel and consider how to do things better next time.
- What’s funny about this? Sometimes there’s humor in the hardship, and when we can find it, we immediately lighten the load.
Hardship can become helpful, and hopeful, with a change in perspective.