11 Ways to Stay Positive During Difficult Times

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With everything that’s going on in our world lately, I feel guilty being my normally positive, glass is more than half full, bubbly self. My heart is so heavy for those who are hurting—whether it be families separated from one another or those mourning the loss of a loved one.

I found myself slipping into a cycle of hopelessness this last week. The more I focused on the sadness, the less energy I had to give and that’s when I realized that a spirit of positivity isn’t something to suppress when bad things happen. misery won’t help anyone, but positivity does. You see, when your glass is (half) full...you have more to give to those who need it most without slipping into a place of lack. 

Being a data nerd, I looked into the science behind why we feel and do things the way we do and is being an optimist is hurting me more than it helps me when the going gets really tough. Scientists analyzed nine previous studies to see how both optimists and pessimists brace themselves for receiving important and potentially negative news, like medical test results. They found that even though people who identify as optimists tend to be more positive in general, they too start assuming the worst as the moment of truth about something important nears. It’s easy to understand this instinct, since some people tend to believe that preparing yourself for the worst will ultimately make it less shocking if it happens. On the other hand, some people would rather stay positive whenever possible, since it’s easier to fight off stress and anxiety when you have a sunny outlook. Here, we’ve gathered some of our favorite expert tips for staying optimistic when you’re dealing with some super hard stuff.
If you’re struggling to feel happy during these stressful + dark times, here are some mood-boosting strategies:

1. Remind yourself of reasons to be grateful. When things look really dark, it's hard to feel grateful, but remembering what's good in your life can help put problems into perspective. I have a friend who recently suffered a big disappointment at work. She said to me, "As long as my family is healthy, I can't get too upset about anything." This may sound like hackneyed advice, but it's really true. Perspective is everything and sometimes we need to shift things around in our mind to bring the situations that are stressing us out back to a manageable place.

2. Learn to reframe negativity. “The trick to positivity is not avoiding pessimism,” says Elaine Taylor-Klaus, a certified professional coach. “It’s really about how quickly you can redirect your focus from negative to positive. Critical thinkers are going to see problems to be solved, but the ability to ‘reframe’ the conversation is the really important skill for people to practice.” She recommends getting into the habit of acknowledging negative thoughts and then asking, “What else is possible here?” This can guide you back into a positive mindset more quickly.

“Bottom line: Negativity happens,” she says. “Positivity is a choice, and the quicker you learn to reframe, the more time you’ll spend in a positive space. Then, over time, the more likely you are to turn directly to a positive interpretation of events.”

3. Listen to your body and connect with nature. Take a twenty-minute walk outside to boost your energy and dissolve stress. Don’t let yourself get too hungry. Get enough sleep. Manage pain. When you’re anxious, it’s easy to stay up late and eat ice cream—and that’s going to make you feel worse in the long run. It's very tempting to run yourself ragged trying to deal with a crisis, but in the long run, you’ll just empty your cup completely.

4. Do something fun. Temporarily distract yourself from the stress, and re-charge your battery, with an enjoyable activity. Watching a funny movie is a reliable way to give yourself a pleasant break, and listening to your favorite music is one of the quickest ways to change your mood. Be careful, however, not to “treat” yourself by doing something that’s eventually going to make you feel worse (taking up smoking again, drinking too much, indulging in retail therapy).

5. Take action. If you’re in a bad situation, take steps to bring about change. If you’re having trouble with your new boss, you could decide to try to transfer. Or you could change your behavior. Or you could find ways to pay less attention to your boss. Ask yourself, "What exactly is the problem?" It's astounding to me that often, when I take time to identify a problem exactly, a possible solution presents itself.

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6. Volunteer. Volunteering is an amazing way to change your entire perspective, says Lyssa Menard, a clinical health psychologist, founder of Strategies for Change and assistant professor at Northwestern University’s medical school. “There are many organizations that don’t require an ongoing commitment, so sign up for an event that’s meaningful. Research shows that giving to others is one of the quickest routes toward happiness. While happiness and positivity are different, they’re correlated,” Lyssa says.

7. Make changes to things that are within your control. Spending time worrying about something that you can’t change isn’t really worth the effort. Instead, “Focus on areas where you have agency,” suggests Holly Burton, a career coach for women in male-dominated industries. “You may be stuck in a role you don’t love at work, but you could probably work a few extra hours a week and take on a project that interests you. You could also schedule some proactive meetings with your boss to make an action plan to develop the skills you need to make a lateral move,” she says. In most situations, whether they’re career-related or not, it’s possible to take actions to make things better for yourself.

8. Look for meaning. Re-frame an event to see the positive along with the negative. Maybe getting fired will give you the push you need to move to the city where you’ve always wanted to live. Maybe your illness has strengthened your relationships with your family. You don’t need to be thankful that something bad has happened, but you can try to find positive consequences even in a catastrophic event.

9. Connect with friends and family who feel like sunshine. Strong relationships are a KEY to happiness, so fight the impulse to isolate yourself. Show up. Make plans. Ask for help, offer your help to others. Or just have some fun and forget your troubles for a while.

10. Make something better. If something in your life has gotten worse, try to make something else better – and it doesn’t have to be something important. Organize your closet, deep clean your home, exercise your green thumb with some gardening/planting activities…the options are endless.

11. Be the change you wish to see. If you wish your friends would help you find someone to date, put your own matchmaking skills to work and setup two friends. If you wish people would help you find a job, see if you can help someone else find a job. If you can’t think of a way to help someone you know, do something generous in a more impersonal way. For instance: commit to being an organ donor! When you’re feeling very low, it can be hard to muster the energy to help someone else, but you’ll be amazed at how much better you feel. Do good, feel good; it really works.

What other strategies have you used to make yourself happier during an unhappy time?

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