Our society is obsessed with cutting corners to save time, looking for shortcuts to happiness, and championing results over process; literature around how be happy, happiness and positivity has exploded in the last decade.
The problem is that happiness can be evasive—even people appearing to be smiling and upbeat aren’t positive and happy all the time. What is the difference between the people who seem happy and those who always seem unsatisfied and focused on the negative? It’s that happiness is a chosen mindset—it’s not something you can suddenly achieve and have forever, it’s something you have to choose every day.
The good news is we can rewire the neural networks in our brain—a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity means we can reshape how we think, behave, and work. Think of your brain as a road network. You automatically follow the same route driving home from work without thinking about it. Now imagine that your thoughts are the car: just like you can consciously take a new route home, your thoughts can be trained to follow a different pathway. We can actually rewire our brains to routinely scan for the positive instead of the negative. It takes effort to retrain your brain, but once it becomes more automatic, the way you view challenges and setbacks will change. A meta-analysis of 275,000 people by Lyubomirsky et al. showed that happiness leads to a greater level of success in every domain. It will change the way you view yourself and how you communicate. I attribute my success as a World Champion Cyclist and entrepreneur to my positive mindset.
My tips for cultivating a positive mindset:
1. Change your explanatory style.
In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor reports research by Martin Seligman that people’s explanatory style is often a good predictor of success in everything from sports to sales to even recovery from surgery. Being aware of how you describe situations to yourself is massively important. For example, someone who has whiplash in a car accident could say, “Bad things always happen to me. My neck hurts, I’m uncomfortable and I wish that never happened.” Or they could say, “It’s unfortunate that I got into a car accident, but it could have been way worse! I got lucky.” See the difference? You don’t have to negate feelings of frustration, anger, or sadness, but it’s important how you tell yourself the story surrounding those feelings. Achor recommends, “Choose a counterfact (an alternative reaction to a scenario) that makes us feel positive rather than helpless.”
2. Try meditation.
Meditation teaches us to be more conscious of our thoughts before we get lost in them. Being aware of when you are thinking unproductive, negative thoughts will help you create space and hit the pause button. If you catch yourself thinking negatively, pause and start over to reframe a positive counterfact.
3. Maintain social investment.
The first thing to go when we get overly busy or stressed is social time. However, research from the Harvard Men Study (a 70-year study) shows the importance of social connection, akin to the importance of air or water. A strong sense of community is also tied to longevity. John Robbins’ book, Healthy at 100, shows that being around people you care about helps you stay healthy and live longer.
4. Stop focusing on perfection and focus on the process.
Things will not always go to plan. When we invest in the process instead of the outcome, we feel more satisfied. Focusing on the outcome ties our happiness to the future—we say “I’ll be happy when I achieve, get, become x.”
5. Take responsibility for yourself.
People handle stress in different ways, but stress feels the worst when we feel helpless and without any control over outcomes. Passive approaches to stress are from our “learned helplessness,” a theory coined by Seligman, which is when individuals don’t try to get out of a negative situation because the past has taught them to think they are helpless—it’s what happens when you give up. However, you can also obtain “learned optimism” through reframing your explanatory style. It’s hard to take responsibility for all our actions, but it gives us control and the power to change our situation.
6. Focus on why you can, not why you can’t.
This goes hand in hand with taking responsibility for yourself. The next time you say you can’t do something, stop and think about it. My dad used to tell me, “It’s not can’t, it’s won’t.” It’s empowering to realize you can do something, but you have to choose it. Mostly, if you say that you can’t do something, you are choosing not to try and might be entering a state of learned helplessness.
Many techniques can help us trend toward happiness and optimism while still being real and keeping our feet on the ground. Our attitude and how we show up on a daily basis also have a ripple effect to everyone around us!
Sonya Looney is a World Champion Mountain Biker and a podcaster, speaker, and expert in the fields of plant-based nutrition, mindset, and adventure travel. Through taking on the world’s hardest mountain bike challenges, Sonya applies lessons learned from the trail to everyday life to inspire personal growth and a positive headspace. Learn more about Sonya: sonyalooney.com
Article was published in The Good Life magazine.