by Jennifer Margulis
Thich Nhat Hanh, the renown Vietnamese Zen master, doesn’t like to rush. When he used to walk to give lectures or teach a class, he went slowly enough to notice the slant of light filtering through the trees and the crows wheeling in the gray-blue sky overhead. And as he walked, he also gave thanks—silently offering his gratitude for the natural world around him.
As Hanh explained in his book, The Art of Mindful Living, the practice of noticing and of giving thanks helps us stay in the present. It encourages us to be aware, alert, and serene. And when we live in the present moment, instead of spending our time mulling over the small hurts of the past or the big, seemingly intractable problems of the future, it helps us have a positive attitude, relax, and feel happy.
Positivity Connected To Longevity
A 2019 study on optimism conducted by a team of researchers from Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that a positive attitude is associated with an 11 to 15 percent longer lifespan and a greater chance of living to or past 85 years old.
The correlation between a positive attitude and longevity was independent of income, health conditions, and even healthy behaviors (like not smoking). “Overall, findings suggest optimism may be an important psychosocial resource for extending life span in older adults,” the Harvard researchers concluded.
But, unlike Thich Nhat Hanh, many of us rush and even grumble through our daily lives. A walk to work is more like a race from Point A to Point B. A hike in the forest often is as well. We usually aren’t smiling, counting our blessings, or appreciating the beauty in the world.
Instead, we’re talking on the phone, fretting about an upcoming meeting, or feeling angry at the driver who zoomed through the zebra stripes instead of stopping to let us cross the street.
Of course, whether you consider yourself a positive person—like actor Jason Sudeikis’s 2020 Golden Globe winning character Ted Lasso—or a Negative Nelly, there will always be times when you will feel weighted down by worry. The trick is not to be happy and positive all the time, according to Susan David, Ph.D., author of the book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. For David, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and an executive coach, emotional nimbleness is important.
“…[B]eing flexible with your thoughts and feelings so that you can respond optimally to everyday situations—is key to well-being and success,” David wrote. In David’s view tipping the scales towards optimism is about loosening up, being emotionally flexible, and living life with more intention.
Your Attitude Is Contagious
The human smile is the most scientifically studied of facial expressions, according to Yale University Emerita Professor of Psychology Marianne LaFrance. Smiles are actually contagious, LaFrance explained in her book, “Why Smile? The Science Behind Facial Expressions.”
In fact, when a human sees a smiling face for just a fraction of a second (one study LaFrance cited found that just four milliseconds was enough), we unconsciously feel a miniature jolt of positivity. And it doesn’t just stop there. If you are smiling and in good spirits, a friend of a friend is more likely to feel good as well, LaFrance said.
But that smile—and the good feelings that go along with it—needs to be genuine to be most effective. Real smiles activate two muscles: the zygomaticus major and the orbicularis oculi.
The zygomaticus major is the muscle that attaches at the corners of the mouth and pulls those corners up and back. This muscle is under our voluntary control, which is why fake smiles in photographs abound.
As anyone who has ever looked into the face of a person whose lips are curling upward without real emotion behind the smile can attest, there is something unsatisfying about zygomaticus major smiles.
In order to have a winsome and contagious smile, you have to activate the orbicularis oculi, the muscles that contract around the eyes. Most of us can’t deliberately make ourselves smile with our eyes. We actually have to feel the emotion behind the smile. In other words, we have to shift our attitude.
Sir Bernard Arthur Owen Williams, the English philosopher, is credited with saying: “The day the Lord created hope was probably the same day He created spring.” It’s always easier to be hopeful and positive in the spring: The days are getting longer, the snowdrops are pushing their way up out of the frost, the birds have come back.
But if the flowers and sunshine are not enough to reset your mood, here are some ways to spring clean your attitude.
Attitude Check ABCs
Affirm positivity: How you talk to yourself, as well as how you speak to others, plays an important role in having a good attitude. Negative self-talk, especially when you are having a bad day or going through a challenging time, will make your experiences even worse. According to the late self-help expert Louise Hay, an inspirational writer and the founder of the publishing company Hay House, you can heal your life (both psychologically and physically) by paying more attention to your thoughts.
When Hay herself, who experienced tremendous adversity as a child, began to change her attitude, her life started to improve in remarkable ways.
Hay’s blueprint for an attitude shift included actively practicing positive self-talk, which she called affirmations, as well as “mirror work.”
Mirror work is when you look at yourself in the mirror and you tell yourself kind words. You could say, for example, “I have a positive attitude,” or “I get along well with my boss,” or “I love and respect myself.”
You may laugh, cry, or feel ridiculous doing mirror work. No matter. According to Hay, you can and will effect an attitude shift if you keep at it.
Act the way you want to feel: The American philosopher and medical doctor William James, had a very different prescription from Louise Hay’s for fixing one’s attitude. “Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together;” James wrote in a magazine article in 1899, “and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.”
James was advising us to act the way we want to feel, even if we don’t necessarily feel it, and the feeling will follow. Chances are you’ve done this (and it has worked). You were invited to a party that you do not want to attend but you forced yourself to go anyway and ended up having a good time, for example. Or you felt frustrated at a loved one but you acted kindly towards them in spite of your anger and the frustration and anger dissipated.
Banish bad influences: One of the reasons so many people today struggle to have a good attitude, experts say, is that we are spending too much time consuming digital media. Interacting on social media, playing video games, watching television, and surfing the internet can all be attitude crushing. It can also make us unhealthy, creating a vicious cycle.
According to one study published in the journal Pediatrics: “obesity is one of the best-documented outcomes of screen media exposure.”
People also suffer from greater sleep disturbances and insomnia, according to another study in the British Medical Journal.
But, perhaps most importantly, over-consumption of social media can lead to higher levels of anxiety. A particularly striking study from the University of Michigan found that the more young adults checked Facebook, the worse they felt about their lives.
To help you improve your attitude, then, it is imperative to limit the time you spend on screens. Consider deleting some of your social media accounts or adding time limits to them via third-party apps. Replace that unhealthy attitude-bashing media consumption with attitude-enhancing activities like exercise, mediation, and journaling.
Cultivate creativity: Reducing stress helps everyone be more emotionally agile and positive about life.
One way to feel less stress is to be creative. In one study of 39 healthy adults conducted by researchers at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 2016, 75 percent of participants experienced a significant reduction in their stress levels after just 45 minutes of making art.
The researchers tested saliva samples to measure cortisol levels before and after the art making sessions and also asked participants to write about their feelings at the end of the season. The study participants reported that they felt more relaxed and freed from constraints.
To reboot your attitude, commit to doing some art, just for yourself, every day.
Do kind acts for others: There is nothing more uplifting than performing acts of kindness for other people, and perhaps no better way to get past the negative thoughts, rejections, or bad results that are weighing you down. Being of service to others helps lighten their load and yours.
So next time you need an attitude check, try doing a kind act: Bring a meal to a friend, write an overdue thank you note, pick up the trash by the side of the road.
In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, researchers at the University of British Columbia found that there is a “positive feedback loop” between doing an act of kindness for someone else and well-being. Even the memory of a kind act you’ve done for someone can increase your happiness which in turn encourages you to perform more acts of kindness.
Express negative emotions in positive ways: According to Susan David, emotionally agile people are able to be flexible in dealing with our complicated, ever changing world. It’s not that they don’t feel stress or experience setbacks, they do. But they take these setbacks in stride, remaining engaged and receptive. In other words, they keep a positive attitude, act in accordance with their deepest values, and stay focused on their long-term goals.
We are all human and we all experience sadness, anger, and self-doubt. But emotionally agile people don’t get derailed by the negative. Instead, they express their negative emotions in positive ways.
There’s power, David argued in her book, in facing difficult emotions (including grief and trauma) instead of trying to avoid them. “…negativity is normal,” David wrote. “This is a fundamental fact. We are wired to feel negative at times. It’s simply a part of the human condition.”
Some positive ways to express negative emotions: journaling was one that helped David work through the grief she felt when she lost her father at a young age.
Talking with a trusted friend or family member—someone who won’t shame you for your feelings—can be a life line.
Hiring a coach or a therapist can also work wonders.
Mindfulness also helps, according to Thich Nhat Hanh. You notice the negative emotions. Accept them. Accept yourself for having them. And then you move on.
About the author: Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning science journalist, Fulbright grantee, and sought-after speaker.
She writes a popular Substack that has over 20,000 subscribers, Vibrant Life, and is a regular contributor to The Epoch Times. A different version of this article first appeared in print in the magazine Radiant Life.