10 Essential Habits of Highly Optimistic and Positive People: Lessons for the Rest of 2016

Optimism is a learned trait. From pruning social media to recording good things that happened, here are practical strategies to be more positive.

My top resolution for 2016 was to become more optimistic–because as the saying goes, “perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” Put differently, believing in positive outcomes makes them more likely to come true.

So far, so good (eight months to go!) Fortunately, research shows we can teach ourselves to view the world in a more positive and confident manner.

Meet Mike Erwin. He’s a former Army officer I first met years ago while writing a book–a veteran of both Afghanistan and Iraq who earned a master’s degree in positive psychology and leadership at the University of Michigan.

He’s founded two organizations since then: Team RWB (enriching veterans’ lives by connecting them to communities through physical and social activity), and now The Positivity Project, transforming character education through positive psychology & social media.

Mike is an expert on learned optimism, so I asked him to share how to adopt a more optimistic outlook. Here’s his top advice in his own words–with a few of my edits:

First, define the goal.
What is optimism? It’s a state of hopefulness and confidence about the future. It’s also a state we can train ourselves to adopt. We can resist pessimism, assert control, and learn to appreciate setbacks as what they really are–opportunities. Here are some suggestions on how to make it happen–both practical and profound.

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1. Prune your social media accounts.
We spend a lot of time on social media now, and it affects our positivity for better or worse.

So, take stock and prune–especially when we’re talking about media and organizations. Unfollow those social media feeds that routinely post negative thoughts, and follow more positive people and organizations instead. (Note: For example, you can find Mike on Twitter at @ErwinRWB.)

2. Write letters of gratitude.
Gratitude is the strongest predictor of well-being. One practical exercise you can do to boost gratitude is to write a real, meaningful gratitude letter to someone ever few weeks.

Take a full page or more to really thank someone for how they have impacted your life, and your well-being automatically increases. Bonus: Hand-deliver the letter if possible.

3. Ask whether someone is just trying to rile you up.
Outrage is the new funny. Many organizations’ social media goal is to make a post, a picture or video go viral–and even more than humor or inspiration, outrage goes viral.

So, if you want to be more optimistic, think before you react online, and understand that a lot of what riles us up now exists solely for that purpose, prompting you share it and contribute to domino effect of pessimism. So opt out–and whatever you do, never read the comments!

4. Write down what went well.
There is something positive to take from almost any circumstance. Often, it’s up to us to decide whether to look for the bad or the good–and most likely, we’ll find whichever it is we’re looking for.

In positive psychology, there is an exercise called “3 good things” or “what went well.” Every day for 3 weeks, sit down in the evening and write down 3 things that went well during the day. It won’t take long–a few days or weeks–and you’ll realize that your life, no matter how difficult or stressful, is full of blessings.

5. Throttle the news.
Beware of Trump, Clinton and the rest during this election year. (Remember the part about outrage going viral?) If you want to feel more hopeful about the future, be cognizant of how much time you spend watching the news and on social media.

Political ads and criticisms will be hard to escape in 2016, so maybe try replacing some TV or Facebook time with a book.

6. Exercise for a better mood.
Research has proven that moderate exercise has a significant impact on our mood and how we feel about ourselves. At this time of year, a lot of gyms will be trying to get people to join, usually touting the idea of weight loss or a new body.

That’s great–but even better is to make sure that you walk or otherwise exercising for 30 minutes everyday to feel better about yourself—and the future.

7. Find a supportive community.
Spending time with supportive people who share our passions can help us be happier in the moment, and more optimistic about the future.

If you’re not in that kind of community don’t worry–they’re not difficult to find now, many of them centered around hobbies and the ways we like to spend our time. When “I” is replaced with “we,” illness becomes wellness.

8. Hard work defeats failure.
Optimism doesn’t mean avoiding all failure and disappointment. As Napoleon Hill noted however, “there is one unbeatable rule for the mastery of sorrows…and that is the transmutation of emotional frustration through definitely planned work.”

If we want to feel more hopeful about the future, sitting back and obsessing about our most recent failure isn’t going to get us there. Instead, when we commit ourselves to a task at hand, it shifts our mental focus from the failure to the mission–and carries positivity with it.

9. Serve others.
One of the most practical ways to be more hopeful about the future is to realize that you can and do make a difference in people’s lives. By focusing on helping others, we gain the added benefit of increasing our own levels of happiness and optimism.

This is especially true when we focus our volunteer efforts within our own communities. So if you’ve been sitting on the fence, the new year is a great opportunity to take the definitive step and get involved in community service.

10. Put others first.
My academic advisor at the University of Michigan, Dr. Chris Peterson, was famous for saying, “I can sum up positive psychology in just three word: Other people matter.”

It doesn’t really matter how nice our clothes are, the car we drive or how many square feet our house is. Far more important is the the quality of social relationships we have in our life. If you want to have more meaningful lives and be more hopeful about the future—invest time and energy to build strong relationships with others. Those relationships will help us all to be more optimistic about the year ahead.

Check out the free bonus content: How to Raise Successful Kids (FREE 105-page e-book)

I also write for Inc.com, where this article first appeared. Here are a few other posts you might like.

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