6 habits of people who stay positive (even in tough times), according to psychology

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Late last year, I interviewed acclaimed Indian actress Alia Bhatt. Bhatt broke into Hollywood last year with her film, Heart of Stone, opposite Gal Gadot. She also became the first Indian to become the brand ambassador for famed fashion label, Gucci. 

In our conversation, Bhatt told me that she was keenly aware of the privilege she’s had due to her parents, and that they have often given her advice from the hardships they endured on their paths to success.

Her father, renowned Indian director Mahesh Bhatt, struggled for years with alcoholism and he had a succession of flops during his career. Bhatt’s mother, Soni Razdan, had a difficult time making it as an actress and took whatever roles she could, no matter how small. 

Still, her parents taught her to see the positive, and to to be grateful for any success that came her way. 

“[My parents] made me aware of how fortunate I was early on,” she told me. “My parents struggled to get to a point where I could enjoy their privilege. I do recognize that. If tomorrow I don’t do well and stop getting films, I’ll still always acknowledge the fact that I got such great opportunities, so I can never really complain.”

I think being positive and grateful for what you have while still being optimistic that things can turn around, is the best formula for overcoming difficult times. 

Here are six habits of people who stay positive—even when times are tough—according to psychology. 

1) They let themselves feel all their feelings

We live in a culture that promotes toxic positivity. 

Let’s say you lose a loved one for example. The world expects you to grieve for a certain period of time—usually six months—and then simply continue on with life. 

We don’t promote a toxic positivity where you force yourself to feel positive feelings even when you’re feeling the exact opposite.

Healthy, well-adjusted people allow themselves to feel all their feelings—even the negative ones. They don’t avoid them, they don’t bury them, and they definitely don’t try to distract themselves from their feelings with crutches like food, drugs, or alcohol. 

They process them and then simply don’t let themselves dwell on them for too long. 

Six and a half years since my father passed, I’m still surprised by how just new low the surface my grief is. 

Just this past weekend I was on my way back from a shopping day in Toronto with my family. We were in the car listening to some new and old-school Indian songs when all of a sudden one of my dad’s favorite songs came on. 

It was my brother’s playlist so it’s not like I knew the song was on it. I hadn’t heard it in years and the tears just started streaming down my face. At first, I tried to hold back the tears so my family wouldn’t see them, but because it was dark I decided to turn my face towards the window and just let them flow. 

I felt a lot better afterwards and I’m happy I cried because I felt closer to my dad at that moment. It reminded me that despite the fact that more than six years have gone by, that he is still a very active part of my life. I found that comforting. 

“When we fight, criticize, shame, dismiss, or in any other way reject feelings, our own or someone else’s, those feelings we want to get rid of actually grow stronger,” says Nancy Collier, LCSW from Psychology Today

She says that we can often be afraid to allow and validate our difficult feelings because we think that we will get stuck in them or that letting those feelings wash over us will make us feel worse. 

“We’re afraid, too, because we think that we shouldn’t have such feelings and that we’re bad for feeling what we shouldn’t feel. But, in reality, the more we say yes to our challenging feelings, and allow and acknowledge them, the more we can move through them and, thus, the less stuck we are in life.”

Life is ironic: the more we make room for what hurts, the better we feel. 

Says Collier: “To acknowledge our feelings is to acknowledge what’s true, which always feels good, even when what’s true may not be good.”

2) They put a stop to the trajectory of their negative thoughts 

Noticing negative thoughts can help you turn to a more positive frame of mind. 

You could say something to yourself like: “There it is again. There’s the mean thought that has a habit of holding me back. 

“Identifying negative thoughts can help you build awareness, explains licensed professional counselor, Laurie Gatti

“When you do catch yourself thinking negatively, you can change the trajectory of your thoughts with opposite statements.”

For example, let’s say that you don’t think you’re accomplished enough to apply for your dream job. Instead of letting those negative thoughts become a self-fulfilling prophecy, you can stop those thoughts and remind yourself why you would be amazing at that job.

Also remind yourself of all the times where you didn’t think there was a chance in hell you would get something, and you did. 

Challenging negative thoughts may also involve learning to forgive yourself for past mistakes.

Let’s say you’re someone who has had anger issues in the past and has lost relationships because of it. 

You’re working on yourself and are learning how to identify your triggers (perhaps with the help of a therapist) so as not to let your negative emotions get the better of you. 

Sometimes, you may have thoughts that make you feel ashamed of how you treated people. Remind yourself that this was the old you and that you have come a long way since then. 

Learning to forgive yourself is the only way you can truly move forward as this newer, better, and healthier version of you. 

3) They reframe how they see their situation

Let’s say you’ve been laid off from your job and you’re in the process of finding a new one. Things have been tight and stressful because there’s only so far that your savings will go. 

It’s been a month since the layoff and you feel like you should have gotten a new one by now, or at the very least have some interviews lined up. But even any potential leads are coming up short.

It isn’t for a lack of effort: every day you’re online looking; you’re cold-calling and networking. Your resume is up-to-date.

Despite the stress, you’re feeling optimistic. It’s only a matter of time, you tell yourself. The right job will come your way and it will be worth the wait.

You wake up one morning feeling especially positive. You check your email, and sure enough, there’s a potential lead. Then you get a text from your friend saying she has no problem recommending you to her boss. Things are looking up. 

But then as if on cue, the lead falls through, and you also hear back from your friend that the position isn’t open like she thought. 

It would be very easy to emotionally spiral right about now. But you stop yourself. If these leads can happen, so can others. At least there’s movement. 

Positive people make it a habit to notice the good, even amongst the not-so-good aspects of life, says psychotherapist Kim Phillips, MS, LCMHC.

“We know from years of research that our brains are biased towards the negative. It can make a world of difference just to ask, ‘What else?’ This question does not deny what’s hard, but it invites us also to notice what is good.” 

It’s crucial to incorporate positive self-talk into your mental diet—especially when circumstances are difficult and challenging. 

Phillips says it can be helpful to identify a statement that you can tell yourself anytime you need that extra bit of encouragement. This can be something like, “We’re doing the best we can.”

“Remember that in most cases, you can control what you think and what you make of each situation. If you focus on negative thoughts, you limit your brain’s ability to naturally anti-depress itself.” 

Consider a recent bad moment you had, says Karla Lever, PhD, LCMHC

“You had the choice to make the unpleasantness more or less important depending on your interpretation.”

See the silver lining because more often than not, there always is one. 

4) They also put their focus on the big picture 

Positive people don’t make a habit of dwelling on the details. Instead, they focus on the bigger picture. 

They see setbacks as temporary road blocks and let their higher wisdom lead the way. 

“We’re often bothered by many of the ‘little things’ and we don’t realize their insignificance in the greater scheme,” says Preston Ni, MSBA

“Most of what annoys us won’t even be remembered hours, days, or weeks later. Instead of dwelling on minor incidents and letting them ruin your day, consider the big picture, and allow your broader, wiser, perspective to shape your outlook.”

A broader perspective can generate mindfulness, strength, and resiliency—not to mention a more positive mindset, says Ni. 

When issues heighten your sensitivity, try taking a deep breath, and saying one or more of the following sentence completions to yourself:

“At least…”

“Actually…”

“What’s more important now is…”

“On the positive side…”

“In the larger scheme of things…”

Keeping these put-it-in-perspective phrases in your arsenal can go a long way to making positivity a priority in your life. 

5) They know that happiness is a decision—not a set of circumstances 

I think that one gift of getting older is that people tend to focus more on what brings them joy and they tend to discard—or not care about—the rest. 

“A positive person focuses on what’s good in their life, finds joy in the simple things, and takes the general attitude that while there are lots of things they can’t directly control, they can control what they choose to focus on,” says Bill Howatt from The Globe and Mail

One of these things is the fact that we can’t control people’s opinions of us. 

I love the saying that goes: “Other people’s opinions of you are none of your business.”

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what other people think—it’s what we think of ourselves that is important. 

Positive people can inspire and influence others to reframe and to think about things differently, says Howatt. 

“Without being pushy, a positive person can challenge individuals to focus on what they can control. Most positive people know that life isn’t perfect. There are ups and downs, but to enjoy the ups it’s important to be aware of and acknowledge them.”

Positive people have the attitude that there’s more good than bad in life, and you only have to make the decision to enjoy it.

6) They’re kind to themselves 

I think I’m one of those people for whom self-compassion doesn’t come easy. 

If I don’t meet certain goals, particularly professional goals, I can be hard on myself. I’m one of those people who feels like she can do everything all at once, and then is somehow dismayed when things don’t go according to plan. 

Many of us don’t even know how to be kind to ourselves. There’s no one-size-fits-all way about it. 

“It depends on what brings you joy and peace, [and] it’s about connecting to those things that make you feel good about yourself and the world around you,” says clinical psychologist and relationship expert, Brenda Wade, PhD

Wade says that one way to be kind to yourself is to be mindful. This means getting curious about your emotions instead of being carried away by them or feeling shame. 

“When you let your emotions control you, you may overfocus on what’s ‘wrong’ and it may make trusting yourself more challenging.”

Also try to make being kind to other people a regular thing. 

Showing compassion to others may improve how you feel about yourself, says psychotherapist Erin Bircher

“Even the smallest act of kindness and altruism can help,” she says. “For example, try smiling and saying ‘hi’ to the cashier, or holding the door open for someone, and see how you feel.”

Kindness to yourself and to others can keep the positive momentum going. 

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