How to Be More Positive (When Life Is Not Going Your Way)

If you’ve ever thought that some people are naturally more positive than others, you’re right. Research shows that your outlook on life—whether you take an optimistic or negative view—is partly down to your genes.[1] But the good news is that biology is only one factor. Your environment and lifestyle make a big difference to your outlook. By making some changes, you can adopt a more upbeat attitude.

In this guide, you’ll learn how to live a more positive life, stop worrying so much, and keep a positive mindset when life gets you down.

Sections

  1. 15 Tips to be more positive
  2. How to be positive when life keeps you down
  3. Side effects of negative thinking
  4. Toxic positivity – the dark side of positive thinking
  5. Common questions

What is positive thinking?

Positive thinking is the practice of taking a realistic but optimistic view of yourself, others, and life in general. Being a positive thinker does not mean living in denial of your negative emotions, ignoring problems, or trying to trick yourself into feeling happy.

Positive thinking is about:[2]

  • Choosing to look for the best in yourself and others
  • Choosing to learn from challenges and setbacks
  • Choosing to make the best out of difficult situations

Benefits of positive thinking

Positive thinking can improve your physical and mental health. For example:

  • Positive thinking can lower your risk of depression and improve your mood.[3]
  • Deliberately replacing negative thoughts with more positive thoughts can reduce feelings of worry and anxiety in people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).[4]
  • Taking an optimistic approach to life can increase your longevity by 11-15%.[5]
  • Positive thinking is linked with a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease.[6]
  • Positive thinking can help you face setbacks and stay resilient in difficult times.[3]

Positive thinking could also help your social life. In general, positive people are happier and more fun to be around than negative people and are more likely to have satisfying friendships.[7]

15 Tips to be more positive

No one can feel upbeat and happy all of the time, but as a general rule, you can choose to keep a positive outlook. By learning how to think more positively, changing your habits and lifestyle, and moving towards your goals, you will probably find it easier to be more optimistic.

How to think more positively

Your thoughts and feelings are closely linked. For example, if you have negative thoughts like “Oh, life is so difficult!” or “I’ll never reach my goals,” you’ll probably start feeling low, anxious, or helpless. If you can challenge your thoughts and learn to focus on the good things about yourself and your life, you can become a much more positive person.

Here are our tips on how to think more positively:

1. Accept yourself

It’s hard to feel positive if you dislike yourself or beat yourself up for past mistakes. When you accept yourself—flaws and all—you may find it easier to be positive and confident.

  • Try to stop comparing yourself to other people: Comparisons can make you feel dissatisfied with yourself and your life. It can help to remember that:
    • You can never tell how someone really thinks or feels, so it’s impossible to make an accurate comparison.
    • Even if someone is truly happier or more successful than you, this doesn’t mean you can’t improve your life and feel good about yourself.
    • You have some control over your triggers. For example, if social media makes you feel inferior, use it less often.
  • Forgive yourself for past mistakes: Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?” and “How can I avoid making the same mistake again?” when you slip up. Think about what you’d tell a friend if they were in a similar situation. Try to show yourself some compassion. Everyone gets things wrong from time to time.
  • Own your flaws: Realize that most people don’t pay much attention to you.[8] Even if they did discover or point out your flaws, you could probably cope. Allow yourself to picture the worst-case scenario. For example, if someone said to you, “You’ve got bad skin!” or “You’re not very good at math,” it would hurt, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

2. Practice positive self-talk

Talking to yourself in a kind, encouraging way can help you like yourself better, which in turn can improve your mood and help you stay positive.

For example, let’s say you’ve been trying to eat a healthier diet but eat two candy bars one evening after dinner.

  • Negative self-talk: You idiot, why did you eat all that candy? It’s terrible for you. Do you actually want to be healthy?
  • Positive self-talk: Ideally, I wouldn’t have eaten the candy, but it’s not a big deal. Tomorrow, I’ll buy some healthy snacks I can eat when I’m hungry.

It can help to imagine you are talking to a friend or someone else you respect. We tend to be harsher on ourselves than we are to others. Positive self-talk is realistic but also encouraging and supportive.

The next time you catch yourself using negative self-talk, consider these questions:

  • Are my thoughts based in reality, or am I jumping to conclusions?
  • Am I choosing to overlook the positive side of a situation?
  • What can I do to improve this situation?
  • Am I blaming myself needlessly?
  • Am I seeing the world in a black-and-white way? Is this situation really as bad as I’m making it out to be?
  • What would I say to a friend who was in my place?

3. Practice gratitude

Some research shows that taking time to feel grateful can help you feel more optimistic about the future and better about your life in general.[9] Grateful people tend to have a higher quality of life and report better physical and psychological wellbeing.[10]

At the end of each day, set aside a minute to list at least three things to be grateful for. They don’t have to be big things; you can feel grateful for little things too, such as a cup of good coffee or a funny chat with a coworker.

However, although gratitude is powerful, it’s not a cure-all for negativity or mental health problems.[11] Although mental health professionals sometimes recommend gratitude as a treatment for anxiety or depression, research shows that gratitude exercises are only modestly effective for treating these problems.[12] It’s best to think of gratitude as just one tool that can help you to develop a positive mindset.

4. Practice being present in the moment

Research shows that being present in the moment—sometimes known as “mindfulness”—can improve your psychological wellbeing and general mood and that mindful people tend to experience fewer negative emotions.[13][14]

Try these simple mindfulness exercises:

  • Ground yourself in the present using your senses. Ask yourself, “What can I see, hear, touch, smell, and taste?”
  • Focus on your breathing for a few minutes. Take deep breaths in and out, concentrating on the sensation of air entering and leaving your lungs.
  • Try a free mindfulness app that offers simple exercises to help you stay in the present moment, such as Smiling Mind.

5. Learn to see both positive and negative perspectives

Deliberately taking a positive perspective can improve your mood when you have to deal with a problem or setback.

Here are some strategies to try:

  • Look for lessons you can take from the situation. For example, if you give a presentation at work and your boss gives you negative feedback, you could try to see it as a learning experience. Their comments could help you become better at public speaking, which is a valuable skill.
  • Praise yourself for coping with the situation. If you’ve faced a challenge and tried your best to overcome it, try to feel proud of yourself. Sometimes, overcoming adversity can prove that you’re stronger or more competent than you thought. In the future, you’ll be able to remind yourself that you’ve coped with problems in the past, and you can probably cope again.
  • Look for potential opportunities: For example, if your relationship has recently ended, it’s natural to feel sad, but you could choose to focus on potential opportunities. As a single person, it may be easier to find more time for your hobbies or to meet someone more compatible.

6. Practice self-compassion

Practicing self-compassion means being kind to yourself when you fail or make a mistake, accepting your negative feelings, and remembering that you are a fallible human just like everybody else.[15] Self-compassion can help you stop being so self-critical, which in turn can help you stay positive.

Try to speak to yourself kindly, especially when things go wrong. Remind yourself that we all make mistakes. Try to avoid using words like “should” or “must” because this can encourage an unhelpful all-or-nothing mindset.

Verywell Mind has a useful introductory guide to self-compassion and how to practice it.

7. Focus on the good things

It’s easy to become preoccupied with your problems. Looking for the things that make life more enjoyable and interesting can help you be more positive in life. Challenge yourself to find a way of having fun even in situations you’d normally find boring or annoying. For example, if you are stuck in a dull work meeting, you could tell yourself “Well, at least I get free pastries!”

8. Learn to see the humor in life

Some situations are tragic. It isn’t always possible to find something to laugh about. But many of the things and situations that irritate us do have a funny or absurd side. If you can see the humor in life, it can be easier to stay positive.

For example, let’s say you spend a long time wrapping holiday gifts for your friends and family. But when you’ve finished, you realize that you forgot to label them and you can’t be sure what is in each package. Although it will take a while to reopen each one to check what’s inside, you may be able to laugh at the thought of giving everyone random gifts or laugh at yourself for overlooking something obvious.

Creating a more positive environment

The people you hang out with, your daily habits, and the approach you take to solving your problems can make you feel more positive. Here are our tips on how to create a more positive environment for yourself:

1. Spend time with people that make you feel good

Emotions are contagious.[16] If you spend time with people who are upbeat and happy, it’s likely that their good mood will rub off on you.

Minimize the amount of time you spend with toxic people who like to moan and complain. When you are looking for new friends, try to find people who make you feel good.

You don’t have to cut negative friends and relatives out of your life altogether, but your mood might improve if you hang out with them less often. It can also help to prepare positive topics of conversation and be ready to bring them up if the other person gets bogged down in negative topics.

2. Deal with problems in your life

When you deal with your problems, you’ll learn that you have the ability to take action and make your life better, which can be a positive and empowering experience.

The following steps may help:

  • Define the problem: The more specific you can be, the better. You cannot come up with a solution until you know exactly what the problem is. For example, “I need to find a better-paying job with a commute of less than an hour” is better than “I don’t like my job.”
  • Think of as many solutions as possible: Write down everything you can think of, even if some of your ideas are impractical.
  • Get help if you can’t think of many solutions: Ask someone who has faced a similar problem for ideas, or get help from a professional who is qualified to advise you.
  • Choose the best solution: Weigh up the pros and cons of each solution. Remember that sometimes there won’t be a perfect answer to your problem. Your goal is to pick the best option.
  • Decide on a practical course of action: Draw up a list of realistic action steps and a reasonable deadline.
  • Implement your plan: Be prepared to change direction if necessary. You might discover new information or come up against setbacks, or you may need to break steps down into smaller steps if they feel too overwhelming. If your solution doesn’t work, try another.

3. Take actions toward your goals

Working towards your goals can help you feel more positive about yourself.[17] If you haven’t made much progress towards your goals recently, here are some things to try:

  • Check that you have a clear plan: If you aren’t sure what you want to achieve, it can be hard to know where to start. Draw up a detailed plan. Specify what your ideal outcome would be and the steps you need to take.
  • Set aside time to work on your goals: If you have a busy life with many priorities, it’s easy to lose sight of your goals. Schedule time to take action. Even a few minutes per day can add up to make a big difference.
  • Set yourself some sub-goals: Some people find that breaking their big goals down into smaller milestones keeps them positive and motivated. For example, if you want to lose 50lbs, you could set yourself 10 goals of losing 5lbs.
  • Take a very small step: If you feel completely overwhelmed, ask yourself, “What’s one small, quick thing I can do today that will move me closer to one of my goals?”
  • Get support: It can help to ask a supportive friend or family member to keep you accountable. For example, you could agree to check in with them at the end of every weekend. Knowing that someone is invested in your success may help you keep going.

The Berkeley Well-being Institute has a detailed guide on how to set and achieve personal goals.

4. Take care of your health

When you feel physically well, it can be easier to maintain a positive outlook.

Try to:

Take regular exercise: Research shows that optimistic people tend to be more physically active than inactive or minimally active people.[18] It’s not clear whether optimism leads to more activity or activity triggers optimism, but other evidence shows that exercise is a natural antidepressant,[19] so it’s a good idea to work out regularly if you want to become more positive. Just 30 minutes of physical activity can significantly improve your mood.[20]

Eat a healthy diet: Poor nutrition can put you at risk of low mood,[21] and eating a healthy diet that is rich in fruit and vegetables and low in saturated fat can improve your mood within a few weeks.[22]

Get enough sleep: Poor sleep quality may trigger low moods.[23] A healthy sleep routine may help you feel more positive. Aim for 7-9 hours per night.

5. Limit information sources that put you in a negative mood

It’s good to stay informed about the world and to keep up with the news, but negative programs, radio shows, social media feeds, and newspapers can make it hard to stay positive. Try cutting back on media that brings your mood down. It can help to set aside a few minutes per day to catch up on world events from trusted sources and focus on more uplifting content the rest of the time.

6. Create a small, positive ritual to start your day

Starting your morning on a positive note can make it easier to stay optimistic throughout the day.

For example, you could:

  • Have a cup of tea and sip it slowly while watching the birds in your garden
  • Do 10 minutes of stretches or yoga as soon as you get up
  • Read a few positive quotes
  • Write down 3 things you’re grateful for in a journal

7. Ask for feedback

It can help to identify situations where you tend to be negative. If possible, ask a trusted friend, colleague, family member, or your partner for help and constructive criticism. You could say, “I’m trying to become a more positive person. It would be great if you could let me know when I’m being negative so I can break the habit.” You could agree on a discreet code word or signal to use when you’re around other people.

When the other person gives the signal, check your behavior and attitude. For example, if you’ve been complaining about a minor problem, make a deliberate effort to change the subject and talk about something more positive.

How to be positive when life keeps you down

It’s hard to stay positive and hopeful when it feels like everything in your life is going wrong. If you are going through a particularly tough time, it may help to:

  • Find something you can control. Setting a very small goal or making small changes can give you something positive to focus on. For example, you could reorganize your closet or set yourself a goal to walk for 15 minutes every day.
  • Remember that everything changes. For better or worse, everything is temporary. It can help to remind yourself that most problems will pass eventually.
  • Look at the bigger picture. Remind yourself of the positives in your life; even in bad times, you may still have friends, a place to live, or a job.
  • Talk to a trusted friend or family member. Telling them what is going on in your life can help you feel less alone, even if they can’t solve your problems.
  • Use distractions (wisely). It’s not a good idea to try ignoring all your feelings, but sometimes, distractions such as music, movies, or video games can help you feel better.

When to seek professional help

Most people can become more positive by deliberately changing their thoughts and behaviors. But in some cases, it’s best to get some professional help. If you have depression or another mental illness, self-help may not be enough to make you feel better.

Talk to a doctor or therapist if:

  • You find little or no joy in your usual hobbies or activities
  • You feel low or hopeless a lot of the time
  • You can no longer carry out day to day tasks such as going to work, going to class, or keeping your house clean
  • Your family or friends have suggested that you might be depressed or anxious
  • You are having thoughts of self-harm or suicide

You can look for a qualified therapist on Betterhelp.

Side effects of negative thinking

Growing a positive attitude requires effort, but it’s worth it. Negative thinking causes many harmful side effects, including:

  • Increased risk of mental health problems. Rumination and worry are risk factors for depression and anxiety.[24]
  • Relationship problems. For example, if you tend to think the worst of other people, you might be more likely to have arguments and misunderstandings.
  • Missed opportunities. For example, if you have a negative self-image, you might not put yourself forward for a new job or approach a guy or girl you like.
  • Cognitive decline in old age. Repetitive negative thinking might be a causal factor for memory problems and dementia in older adults.[25]

Toxic positivity – the dark side of positive thinking

In general, it’s good to think positively. But it’s possible to take positive thinking too far. If you become fixated on positive thinking, you are in danger of slipping into “toxic positivity.”

What is toxic positivity?

Positive thinking has many proven benefits, but it’s neither helpful nor realistic to expect ourselves to remain positive in every situation. The belief that we should always be upbeat or optimistic, no matter how bad things get, is known as “toxic positivity.” Toxic positivity has been described as “an obsession with positive thinking.”[26]

Why is toxic positivity bad?

In general, trying to suppress your feelings will backfire. Research shows acknowledging and accepting your emotions is healthier than trying to suppress them.[27] For example, if your partner has cheated on you and ended your relationship, it’s entirely natural to feel a range of difficult feelings, including grief and anger. If you try to pretend that you’re happy the relationship is over instead of grieving it, you’ll probably end up feeling worse.

Toxic positivity can prevent people from getting help with mental health problems. For example, if someone assumes that positive thinking is enough to lift them out of depression, they might not get the treatment that could make them feel better.[28] Toxic positivity may also keep people trapped in abusive relationships because they believe that if they focus on their partner’s good points, the relationship will improve.

How to avoid toxic positivity

The best way to avoid toxic positivity is to respect and acknowledge that emotions—positive, negative, and neutral—are a normal part of life. Accept that you cannot be in a positive state of mind all the time, and don’t expect others to fake being happy if they are worried or upset.

When someone tells you about a problem, show empathy; do not just offer bland positive responses or platitudes. For example, let’s say your friend is distraught because they have lost their job. It would not be a good idea to say, “It’s OK, there are lots of other jobs out there!” Even if you mean well, this kind of response will make you come across as insensitive. A better response would be, “I’m very sorry to hear that.” You could then say to your friend, “I will gladly listen if you need someone to talk to.”

Common questions

How do I stop being so negative?

Seeing the best in yourself and others, taking a proactive approach to solving your problems, taking care of your health, and trying to appreciate the good things in life can all help you feel more positive.

What is the main cause of negative thinking?

Human beings have an innate tendency to pay more attention to negative rather than positive events, and negative thinking can easily become a habit.[29] Negative thinking can also be caused by mental health problems, including depression.

How can I be more positive in my relationship?

Focus on your partner’s good points and the love and support they give you. Suggest positive activities you can do together to build memories you can look back on. Challenge negative thoughts you have about yourself; in general, relationships are more rewarding when you have healthy self-esteem.[30]

How can I be more positive at work?

Finding a sense of meaning in your work can make it more enjoyable.[31] For example, if you work in customer service, focus on the fact that you have the opportunity to solve peoples’ problems. Making friends with your colleagues can also make work feel like a more positive place.[32]

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Viktor is a Counselor specialized in interpersonal communication and relationships. He manages Socialpro’s scientific review board. Follow on Twitter or read more.

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