People often mistake positive psychology to mean putting on a happy face and living without any negative thoughts. More realistically, my new book, The Stress Survival Guide for Teens, describes positive psychology as seeing your strengths, learning how to become more optimistic, gaining grit, finding flow (kind of like being “in the zone”), and having gratitude.
Grit and resilience are similar, but there is an important distinction. Resilience is the ability to adapt in the face of stress, in times of hardship, or in light of bad past experiences. Meanwhile, grit is the determination to keep working toward your dreams and develop the skills you need to accomplish even the toughest goals.
Some really positive news is that these happiness-building skills work for all ages. For this post, we will focus on three high-impact tools from positive psychology to quickly raise your happiness: optimism, gratitude, and flow. What follows is a brief description and activity for each one.
1. Open Yourself to Optimism
Optimism is a crucial part of positive psychology. It involves hopefulness and confidence about the future and believing in the chance of a positive outcome during tough times. The power of optimism is evident in a famous quote by Winston Churchill: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Eternal words of wisdom, indeed.
Optimism can help you view stressful times as more manageable. Becoming more optimistic will help you realize that negative events are only temporary, and sooner or later, good things happen.
It’ll help you believe in yourself and your ability to be successful. And it’ll help you see that when things don’t work out, it’s not all your fault—it’s because the circumstances weren’t right. This will help you try again.
Try This: Flip to the Upside
Reflect on a current situation that you don’t believe will turn out as well as you’d like it to. What are the beliefs that go along with seeing this situation in a negative light? Take a moment to identify the feelings and bodily reactions that you’re experiencing now or that you experience whenever the situation seems the worst. Then ask yourself the following questions:
What messages from my past or from others are leading to my pessimistic view of this situation? (Consider those stubborn, lingering sound bites floating in your mind, such as: “He’s out of your league.” “There’s no way you’ll get that promotion.” “Just saying—they really didn’t seem interested in what you were talking about.”)
Why else have I been buying into the idea that things won’t go as well as I’d like them to?
What would it actually take for this situation to go well for me?
2. Grab Some Gratitude
When you focus on the things in your life that you are grateful for, you’ll feel emotionally filled up. By appreciating the good things you have right now, you won’t be so focused on what bad things the future might hold. Feeling gratitude can be helpful when stress leaves you feeling washed out and empty.
Research shows that gratitude helps people feel happier. This may be because when you think about the good stuff that you have in your life and reflect on it with appreciation, the level of your stress hormone, cortisol, goes down.
Try This: Take a Gratitude Shower
You can help send your stress down the drain by stepping into an imaginary shower. Here’s what to do: Simply close your eyes and picture the “good stuff” in your life raining down on you. Start with whatever comes to mind first.
Perhaps you’re grateful for your intimate partner, family, or friends. Think of everything you do together and all the experiences you’ve shared. Remind yourself of each person’s good qualities, what you love about them, or why it means so much to you to have them in your life. Perhaps you’re grateful that you have a good job, or that you have cool interests. What are they? Think about the enjoyment they bring you and how much they have to offer. What opportunities for learning, discovery, or personal improvement do they represent for you?
You don’t need to limit yourself to the things you think you should be grateful for or what other people would say are the best things in life. Perhaps you’re grateful for a trip you are planning to go on soon or one you recently completed. Or maybe you value your record player, even though everyone else you know uses their iPhones. Or maybe you really love your iPhone. Perhaps you’re grateful for those worn old books you read again and again, or you love reading them on your electronic device instead. You can also be thankful for that navigation app on your phone, so you don’t get lost.
Stay in this shower as long as you want. No worries about the water bill with this one. Afterward, reflect on the following questions:
- How satisfying did it feel to notice the things in your life that you’re grateful for?
- Did being grateful leave you feeling emotionally fulfilled?
- Did the initial images of the things you appreciate lead you to notice more things you appreciate?
3. Get Into the Flow
Flow occurs when you’re totally absorbed in doing something interesting and challenging. It lowers your stress because it shifts you away from thoughts and feelings that upset you. Have you ever felt like you didn’t want to stop focusing on what you were doing because you were completely immersed in it? Maybe you were working on a job project that really meant a lot to you, and you were crushing it. Or perhaps you were training for a 5 or 10K, and you were really “in the zone.”
Have you ever been hungry or tired, but then started to do something you like and gotten so involved in it that your desire for food or sleep seemed to disappear? Yep, there are times when flow can even distract you from being “hangry.” When an experience or activity has you so engrossed that you lose sight of things going on around you or the physical sensations within you, then you’re likely in the flow. Even the simple act of walking can give you a flow experience, if you do it deliberately and really focus on what’s special about it
Try This: Explore Your Flow Experiences
Recall those activities you’ve been super involved in, felt really motivated about, and lost yourself in. To help you discover and reflect on times you’ve been in flow, think of your areas of interest and your most pleasurable experiences involving them. Now ask yourself the following questions:
- What engaging things have you done during which you were unaware of the passage of time?
- What things and situations have kept you really absorbed, leaving you feeling disconnected from outside pressures and demands?
- What things give you big-time satisfaction because you feel good about having done them?
- How does actively being engaged in fun, meaningful activities impact your stress level?
Now that you’re starting to recognize the times that you’ve been in flow, use that knowledge to help you get into flow the next time you’re feeling stressed.
Positive psychology is packed with loads of powerful strategies, such as the three ones presented in this post. Give them a try with an open mind, and once you do, you'll likely begin to feel a lot happier.
Bernstein, J. (2019)The Stress Survival Guide for Teens: CBT Skills to Worry Less, Develop Grit, and Live Your Best Life (The Instant Help Solutions Series), New Harbinger Publications.