How to Choose a Brighter Outlook

Here's something I keep noticing:  It doesn't take long for the conversation of any group of people to turn negative.

Whether the complaints are about pandemic protocols, politics, gas prices, traffic, the weather, or something else, negativity seems to be the default mode of many of us.

Blooming rose

We default toward crisis and mayhem.

In spite of morning news shows that try to insert upbeat "special interest" stories, those are rare, and always seem contrived to add a bit of lightness to the "real" business of the day.  Most news sources, from TV and radio to podcasts and social media, thrive on crisis and mayhem.  There's evidence that this actually warps our perceptions of reality.

Disconcertingly, when someone tries to add a positive remark to conversations that seem dominated by complaints, the comment is often challenged or dismissed as "wishful thinking."  Those Pollyanna viewpoints don't fit the prevailing theme.

In fact, my mother used to tell me I was too idealistic.  "It doesn't help you get along in the real world," she would add.

Yes, our ancestors evolved to be on the lookout for potential threats.  Those who were more attuned to danger were more likely to survive.  So maybe we're used to thinking more about negative experiences than about positive ones.

And I realize that life happens.  Plans get overturned, unexpected and bad things do happen, and difficulties have to be dealt with.  The world is flawed, no doubt about it.  And it's na├»ve to think otherwise.

But the world also contains beauty.  

No one is perfect, but many people are regularly kind and generous.  Some societal trends are bad, but others show improvement and hope for the future.  There is sorrow, but there is also joy, and we can find it if we look for it.

I'm not different to anyone else.  I've experienced my share of unhappiness and disappointment.  But I choose to nurture a happier outlook, because I cannot bear living with the alternative.

Maybe it's natural to focus on the negative.  Maybe it's a survival instinct.  But wouldn't it be great if we could rise above mere survival?  We could practice seeing blessings rather than banes.  We could spend more time spreading grace than assigning guilt.

I agree with ancient Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius who said "The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts."

9 practices that lead to a brighter outlook

There are many things in life we can't control, but we do have power over our own thoughts.  It takes practice, but we can cultivate an inner soundtrack that is positive.  And that foundation can not only make our interactions with others more uplifting, but can bring more happiness into our lives every day.

1.  Gratitude

When we focus on things to be grateful for, we essentially crowd out negative thoughts, and it becomes easier and easier to see the blessings in our lives.  It's hard to feel depression or self-pity, even during hard times, when you have a habit of giving thanks.  And expressing gratitude to others for what they have done for you strengthens all of your relationships.  A gratitude journal can help build the habit of appreciation.

2.  Controlling news intake

News programs are not just about reporting events.  Most news outlets are dependent on advertising revenue, and compete heavily for our time and attention.  They intensify the drama in order to hook viewers and keep them watching.  That's why you'll see the most traumatic information reported over and over again.  When you anxiously and repeatedly check headlines or scroll through social media, the level of stress can become toxic.

3.  Kindness

The Dalai Lama has said, "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion."  Studies show that self-indulgence doesn't increase our feelings of well-being, but being kind to others makes us feel valuable and useful, increasing our happiness.  And kindness seems to be catching.  One person being kind can make others in a group more kind, which lifts everyone's spirits.

4.  Forgiveness

Carrying a grudge is hard and unpleasant work.  Forgiveness enables you to move on with a lighter emotional load.  If you find it difficult to forgive a major transgression, practice with smaller things first, like that pushy driver or the friend who is habitually late.

5.  Connection

Loneliness has been linked to a number of physical and mental problems, including cardiovascular disease, depression, and decreased memory.  So healthy relationships are essential to a healthy life.  Improve connections by using screens mindfully, listening with full attention, and verbally expressing care and appreciation.

6.  Using your strengths

Do you know your strengths?  Consider taking a strengths inventory to identify them, and then look for opportunities at home, work, and in your community to use your talents.  This will increase your sense of purpose and competence, adding great meaning and happiness to your life.

7.  Being well

Physical health is a blessing that shouldn't be taken for granted, and a healthy body certainly gives us more energy and strength for a full life.  Honor your body through movement, sleep, and a nutritious diet.

8.  Savoring

Savoring can include basking in a personal accomplishment, luxuriating in a simple pleasure, anticipating future events, and remembering good times.  Positive experiences come and go, so it's important to pay attention to them when they arise.  Remove distractions, capture the moment in words or pictures, and share the good experience with others.

9.  Cultivating awe

Awe is the feeling we get in the presence of something vast that challenges what we think we know about the world.  Many people experience awe in nature, but it can also be found in music, art, literature, religious experiences, even in the remarkable accomplishments of others.  Regularly immerse yourself in one or more of these opportunities.

Personally, I want to live on an upward spiral rather than a downward slope.  I want to look for the beauty rather than wallowing in ugliness.  I want to actively choose happiness.  Won't you join me?

Updated June 2023


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