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Want to be more resilient? Work on developing an agile mind

A flexible mindset helps build resilience, happiness.

"I just want three stickers," my 3-year-old said looking at the pile of sparkly princess stickers.

I helped her count out an Arial and Jasmine and the old, stand-by princess Cinderella.

She looked at the other stickers in my hand as though they were gold nuggets and she was a claim jumper not about to give up. She wanted ALL of them and she grabbed and pushed and hit trying to stake her claim. That behavior is SO, not O.K., as a result, there would be no stickers today.

When I put them away, my girl, Sweet P instantly dropped onto the floor kicking and screaming.

"I NEED them," she said, her hands beating the carpet, her legs kicking like a frog. Then she stomped off to her room.

After a few minutes of silence, her bedroom door jerked open and a new and improved Sweet P spit out of the room, racing down the hall in pants covered with yellow flowers and brown bugs and red toadstools and snails and patterns that only a three-year-old could look cute in. She matched - I use the term loosely - those colorful pants to a t-shirt striped in fuchsia, royal blue, and pink with a sparkly LOVE scripted across the front. The socks, a pastel pair with the Easter bunny on top, were the most subdued aspects of her wardrobe.

But the screaming and kicking, the single-minded focus on the stickers, was over. She was smiling, eyes wide and clear.

"Mom, lookamyclothes," Sweet P says, waving her hands along her tiny body. "I put on my favorite things so I could get my happy back."

And with that subtle, mental shift, Sweet P was demonstrating a cornerstone of resilience - mental agility.

Our ability to shift our thought patterns between specific thoughts and more abstract ideas, depending on the situation, is the hallmark of mental agility, says Wilma Koutstaal, Ph.D., University of Minnesota psychologist. And those with a flexible mindset also tend to be happier and more creative.

When we are stuck in rigid thinking we become less productive, limited. Thoughts leaning only toward the abstract cause trouble too. They make it hard for us to complete a task or solve problems.

The goal is to move fluidly between the specific and abstract thought patterns so that we are able to flex and bend with the changing circumstances of our lives. When we do that, we are more effective problem solvers, more adaptable, more creative, more resilient. Happier.

Sweet P could have become fixated on the fact that she lost the stickers, instead she moved her thoughts from "I-want-all-the-stickers" to "I want to have a good day."

Enter: the toadstool pants.

Good news is, you don't need to wear toadstool pants, or any bug paraphernalia, to get your happy back. Little changes - taking the stairs instead of the elevator or playing classical music instead of rock - can shift the way you think, boost your mental agility and actually change your brain.

Variety is good too. We like things that are different, novel. Try sushi for the first time, or take a yoga class. Go for a hike instead of a run on the treadmill. Try something new and notice your thoughts becoming more expansive. Breaking out of old patterns opens up exciting possibilities and develops our brains.

It worked for Sweet P. She got her happy back and in the process she reminded me how to find mine.

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