When I was 22 and waiting for a friend in a local bar, an acquaintance shattered my ego and I’ve been the better for it ever since. His words, and my reaction to them, invited me on a journey of self-observation where I discovered I could abandon negative thought patterns and embrace new, joyful ones.
The research on positive mindset as a factor in health outcomes, relationships and work performance consistently shows positive people are healthier, have better relationships, and enjoy more success at work both as individuals and teams. In many of the experiments, researchers teach participants how to practice positivity through specific actions or behaviors. For the 20 years (and counting) since that day in the bar, I’ve deliberately chosen to practice a positive mindset. Some people are born optimists. For the rest of us, we have to work at it.
These four practices are like my mental fitness routine to maintain a positive mindset. Let’s start by waking up.
1. Explore the glitch in the matrix
If you’ve seen the 1999 movie The Matrix, you probably remember the scene when Neo (Keanu Reeves) remarks to his compatriots that he’d just experienced déjà vu. His new friends let him in on a secret: Déjà vu is a glitch in the simulated reality of the matrix. It’s a sign that something’s changed and an opportunity for those aware enough to see it. To me, the matrix is an analogy for the comfortable habits we’ve grown used to. These programs run in the background of our lives. We don’t become consciously aware of them unless something startling happens. Something startling happened to me in that bar, when my 22-year-old-self sat next to an acquaintance while I waited for my friend.
I attempted to strike up a conversation with the guy, beginning with the cold weather. He nodded faintly, sipping his scotch.Then I tried another topic: the customers who’d stiffed me, their waitress, on a $100 dinner check. Still nothing. He just kept raising the glass to his lips. After my third attempt, he set his glass down on the bar with a heavy thud and turned to face me. “Wow,” he said, “you’re a miserable person.”
Like a sonic boom, I heard the words before I felt their impact. Once they registered, I stood up, walked out into the night, and drove home. Luckily, my motions were automatic because my brain was busy. Something about the moment, the messenger, and the circumstances of my life at the time left me open to the question: What if he’s right?
What I didn’t do was accept his words as fact. He wasn’t a trusted advisor — he was simply an instance of déjà vu — a glitch in the matrix. He told me a thing that I, at some level, recognized. I entered into the question of whether or not I was a miserable person with an honest desire to understand the truth.
Over a period of weeks and months, I closely observed myself. Why did I say the things I said? Why did I notice the bad and not the good? The truth was, I was not a miserable person. But I could see why he thought so. Eventually, I realized I’d imbibed certain patterns from my childhood that weren’t useful anymore. In fact, they were damaging my relationships and injuring my happiness. I could now make different choices.
2. Notice three unique, good things about each day
Shawn Achor studies happiness. He’s the author of the 2010 international bestseller, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles that Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Achor says happiness isn’t the result of success, it’s the cause of it. Gratitude, he notes, is a key way to create happiness. One of the practices he recommends is called ‘three gratitudes’. By sharing with friends, family, co-workers, or even a bedside journal, three, unique things we’re grateful for during the day, we actively re-wire our brains from ‘scanning’ for the bad to looking for the good.
3. Write and send authentic and specific notes of appreciation
Several years ago my life upended when I experienced four of the top five life stressors within a six-month period. But, this was also a time of re-birth for me. So, when I felt overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of my life, I didn’t close down, I reached out. I sent emails to my colleagues thanking them for a specific thing they had done or said. These notes were short, just a line or two. But each time I hit ‘send’ my spirits rose. Research by Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania showed a lasting positive effect on overall happiness of individuals who expressed gratitude.
Not only did I feel good for having said a sincere ‘thanks,’ I also experienced bonus benefits. For example, many times I received a reply in response to my email. Sometimes, I’d receive an expression of gratitude in return. But more importantly, I heard from people who said they’d been having a bad day until they received my note. My words of gratitude came at just the right time to lift their spirits. Gratitude not only creates a virtuous cycle in our own brains, it also has a pay-it-forward effect ultimately increasing the positivity and happiness of those around us.
4. Laugh at yourself
“Can you die from getting water in your lungs?” This was the question I asked a room of colleagues before our formal meeting began. A fellow* with a winning smile twinkled at me, “Yes,” he deadpanned, “it’s called ‘drowning.’” I burst out laughing, as did the rest of the room.
I’m willing to bet most smart people say or do dumb things once in a while. This practice asks us to embrace these moments. Several studies point out that people who are able to laugh at themselves are healthier and happier. Having a sense of humor about yourself can be a powerful way to bond with co-workers and has other career-boosting benefits.
I’m sincerely grateful to the man in the bar for helping me wake up. But I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone. The important messages of life are there, waiting for us to notice them. Ignore them long enough and they smack you. Instead, let this be a gentle call to action. If you sometimes dwell on the negative, take yourself too seriously, or notice your relationships at work or at home aren’t as joyful as they could be, start practicing. You’ll be happy you did.
*Much later, I married this guy in part because he always makes me laugh.