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4 Attitudes of a Good Life

To ensure well-being, these attitudes must become habits.

Key points

  • We infer other people’s attitudes primarily from their behavior.
  • We infer our own attitudes almost exclusively from what we think and say, largely overlooking inconsistencies with our behavior.
  • We can make our attitudes match our behavior by intentionally developing habits – behaviors that bypass ego filters.
  • Connection, improvement, self-reward, and appreciation become habits with practice.

We infer other people’s attitudes primarily from their behavior and attribute inconsistencies between their declarations and behavior to phoniness, hypocrisy, or downright deceit.

We infer our own attitudes almost exclusively from what we think and say, largely overlooking inconsistencies with our behavior, to the point that it’s sometimes hypocritical to accuse someone else of hypocrisy. For instance, most people have strong attitudes about fairness. We’re hypersensitive to incidents when other people are unfair, especially toward us, but on autopilot, without deliberate reflection, we’re hardly aware when we’re unfair. The specs in other people's eyes tend to be more noticeable than the logs in our own.

Now the good news: We can make our attitudes match our behavior by intentionally developing habits – behaviors that run on autopilot. For instance, I’ve trained myself, when making a behavior request of family members, to ask sincerely, “Does this sound fair?” Suffice it to say, as a frail human, my requests are not always fair; asking gives me a chance to amend them.

The Attitude of Connection

Connection is a mental state. We feel connected via thoughts more than behavior, albeit thoughts of connection produce more connecting behavior – expressions of interest, affection, appreciation, enjoyment, passion.

Connection is also a choice. We choose to feel connected and choose to feel disconnected or isolated. In general, we like ourselves better when we choose to feel connected. Empirical evidence suggests that we function at our best with some investment in three levels of connection: Intimate, collective, and transcendent.

  • Collective connection results from emotional investment in a group, where individual concerns are secondary. Collective connections provide important feelings of belonging and social identity.
  • Transcendent connection helps us relate to something greater than the self—for example, God, morality, nature, the cosmos, or simply the vast sea of humanity.
  • Intimate connection includes good friends, lovers, and family members. These are the most personal of bonds, with the greatest amount of self-disclosure and investment in the well-being of others. To thrive, they require affection, unconditional safety and security for all parties, relative freedom from resentment and hostility, and compassion whenever needed.

Much dissatisfaction in love relationships rises from an unrealistic expectation that partners should fill all three levels of connection. Love relationships that isolate partners from family members, friends, community activities, or spiritual practice are doomed to failure.

Partners have lots of excuses for the choice to feel disconnected – not enough, or too much, talk, interaction, intimacy, concern, help, generosity, sociability, sexuality, and so on.

Without an attitude of connection, remediation of any of the above will be temporary. As soon as the talk, interaction, intimacy, etc., is over, disconnection, if not emotional divorce recurs.

Couples with an attitude of connection — that is, happy couples — regard themselves as connected, behave as if they’re connected, root their connection in common values, build lifelines (flexible ties), maintain good will, engage in a spirit of cooperation, try to be flexible, seek to understand each other, and establish brief but frequent routine rituals of connection — gentle touch, eye contact, spontaneous smiles — what Barbara Fredrickson calls micro moments of love.

The Attitude of Improvement

People with the attitude of improvement assume that, no matter what happens, they’ll make the best of it. They’ll consider possible outcomes of behavior choices and develop contingency plans when appropriate. They're confident, not that they won't make mistakes or fail, but that when they do, they'll recover, compensate, and eventually succeed.

The wild card in anxiety is perceived ability to cope. Worry that something bad will happen worsens with the perception that we won’t be able to cope with it.

Perceived ability to cope is usually less than actual ability to cope; we almost always cope better than we think we will. We’re not descended from the early humans who overestimated their ability to cope, who thought they could jump across the cliff or take on the sabretooth tiger. Underestimating the ability to cope tends to yield safer choices while increasing anxiety.

Start developing the attitude of improvement by listing times in the past when you coped better than you anticipated. Answer each worrying thought with specific ways you'll make the best of it, should it become reality.

There is always something you can do to make your experience a little better. The trick is focusing on incremental improvement, rather than how bad things are — on climbing out of the hole rather than who’s to blame for being in it.

The Attitude of Self-reward

Take a brief moment at the completion of each task, no matter how trivial, to acknowledge your success. Stress worsens when we race from task to task with no acknowledgement of success. Error rates balloon when we begin thinking about the next task before completing the current one. A few seconds of self-reward reduces stress and error rates, without slowing down overall performance.

The Attitude of Appreciation

Autopilot functioning precludes appreciation, making life seem dull, flat, and unprofitable. Develop the habit of noticing things about people, nature, creative works, crafts, or ideas to appreciate. Your world will become brighter and more interesting.

To ensure well-being, the four attitudes must become behavioral habits. The brain forms habits through repetition. Mindfully practice connection, improvement, self-reward, and appreciation, until you begin to do them automatically.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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