Yale’s Happiness Expert Explains 8 Strategies for Staying Positive When It Feels Impossible

Photo: Stocksy / MARCO GOVEL
Reading horror-tinged headlines, fearing for the health of our loved ones, and worrying about personal finances are just a few of the things that can send the human mind on a negative spiral. Considering that there are myriad additional factors that can impact mood, it can be helpful to start learning how to stay positive, especially for those times when it feels impossible.

According to psychologist Laurie Santos, PhD, host of The Happiness Lab podcast and professor of Yale's perennially popular happiness course, it’s first crucial to be clear that optimism isn’t, and shouldn’t be confused with, toxic positivity—or pretending everything is perfect even though there’s information to prove otherwise.

“What optimism really is involves an attitude of hopefulness about the future.” —psychologist Laurie Santos, PhD

“What optimism really is involves an attitude of hopefulness about the future,” says Dr. Santos. “And that's the key—if you believe there's a real possibility that things will get better, then you're willing to put the work in that's needed to make things better.”

Experts In This Article
  • Laurie Santos, PhD, cognitive scientist, professor of psychology at Yale University, and host of the podcast The Happiness Lab

The idea that optimism is linked to better results holds true scientifically. A 2021 study found that optimism predicted better performance among college students taking their first exam and medical students getting their residency assignment. Undergraduates were more satisfied with their studying, while medical students were more satisfied with their decision making.

That said, being optimistic doesn’t mean stopping yourself from feeling all the feelings. There’s no need to feel like you have to push down your negative emotions—because that borders on toxic positivity, which is flat out unhealthy.

Instead, find out what happens to your brain when you have negative thoughts and look to Dr. Santos’s eight strategies for how to stay positive when you know you'd benefit from some uplifting energy.

What happens to your brain when you have negative thoughts

Part of the human central nervous system is something called the autonomic nervous system—which is responsible for our involuntary bodily functions, like heart rate, digestion, and sexual arousal. Within the autonomic nervous system, there are two distinct nervous systems: the sympathetic nervous system (our “fight or flight” response) and the parasympathetic nervous system (aka our "rest and digest” response).

Our thoughts, whether negative or positive, directly trigger one of the systems within the autonomic nervous system.

"When we think negatively, we wind up activating our fight or flight system." —psychologist Laurie Santos, PhD

“When we think negatively—either worrying about the future or ruminating about things that went wrong in the past—we wind up activating our fight or flight system,” says Dr. Santos.”This means we shut off our rest-and-digest parasympathetic nervous system—the system we need for rest, digestion, sexual health, and all kinds of other important daily functions.”

As hard as it seems to pull yourself out of the negativity rabbit hole, Dr. Santos recommends doing so whenever possible because “these anxious negative simulations about the future really affect our bodies in a big way.”

8 strategies for how to stay positive, according to a happiness researcher

1. Shift to the light side of the news cycle

According to Dr. Santos, when the world feels increasingly frightening, we need to know there’s still good out there and not just consume a steady stream of fear-stoking articles or news segments.

"Trying to balance some of the doom and gloom so that you're seeing some of the positive things can be really powerful." —psychologist Laurie Santos, PhD

"You can pay attention to what's going on, but try to up-regulate the information about the positive news," Dr. Santos says. "Trying to balance some of the doom and gloom so that you're seeing some of the positive things can be really powerful."

And sometimes, it just might mean limiting your exposure to news in general. "What I've done myself is to really decrease the amount of news that I'm consuming, particularly before I go to bed," says Dr. Santos. "I now have a rule of like, basically past 6 or 7 p.m., I put my phone away and am not on social media as much. I'm really trying to not be consuming the news at that time."

2. Find things you're grateful for

Keeping a gratitude journal can help ease anxiety and lead to better sleep, which might be why Dr. Santos recommends practicing gratitude when you’re wondering how to stay positive.

“We tend to naturally look at the hassles in life, but focusing on the things we're grateful for can get us out of an overly negative state of mind,” says Dr. Santos. “And if gratitude feels a little too heavy, try to focus on delights. Think about anything you find a bit delightful.”

3. Use technological connection to your advantage

Even though there’s certainly something to be said about the benefits of taking a social media break, social media also has a powerful ability to make us feel connected to others.

In stricter days of lockdown, you might’ve enjoyed Zoom yoga classes with your friends or a virtual dinner with your loved ones, says Dr. Santos. But even if you’re comfortable going out more, you can still benefit from using technology to cut the commute time from meeting up with the people you love.

When you can, choose voice over text.

You want to make sure you’re using technology to connect with friends and family, but also being intentional with how you use it. When you can, choose voice over text. "One thing to know is that science suggests that the act of intentionally connecting in real time can be almost as good as a regular social connection," Dr. Santos says. "And so we should be embracing these a lot more."

If you’re feeling particularly disconnected from someone in your life, consider this your sign to send them a voice memo or give them a call and check up on them.

4. Exercise

Negative thinking can cause anxiety, says Dr. Santos, and “Sometimes a good workout helps regulate your fight or flight system.”

Reducing said anxiety is just one of the many mental health benefits of exercise. You can opt for a high-intensity workout or maybe go for a nice walk around the neighborhood to feel more connected to your community. The important thing is that you get your body moving if you’re looking for how to stay positive.

5. Learn to love your alone time

Especially if you’re more extroverted than introverted, it can be challenging to look forward to spending time alone because you’d likely rather be with other people, since that’s one way you recharge. However, solitude allows time and space for self-care practices—like journaling, meditating, reading tarot, or whatever else brings you joy.

Embrace the potential mental-health benefits that solitude can give you.

This mind shift can actually be an answer to the “how to stay positive” question because it can give you a sense of control over how (and with whom) you spend your time. When you're not bogged down by a trillion social obligations, perhaps you have the space to embrace the potential mental-health benefits that solitude can give you. Or maybe you can finally get some reading done.

"[Solitude] can actually provide some time to reset things and focus on your own mental health in a way that might be tricky [otherwise]," says Dr. Santos.

6. Take a deep breath

Are you thinking that this is just too good, or simple, to be true? Allow Dr. Santos to explain, with science.

“It sounds silly, but another way to regulate negative thinking is just by taking a deep belly breath,” she says. Dr. Santos adds that deep breathing can activate the vagus nerve, which, in turn, activates our parasympathetic system. “Feeling less fight or flight can help us focus less on all that bad things out there,” says Dr. Santos.

7. Use time affluence to learn more about yourself

Even though COVID-19 seems less hopeless to some than it did before, everyone still has their own comfort levels as far as hanging out with others goes (as is their right). If you’re someone who prefers to stay in and are wondering how to stay positive, using your free time to get more in tune with yourself can be powerful—especially if you’re still feeling hopeless about the pandemic.

"If you can kind of get around the uncertainty of having the extra time, it can actually be a really powerful time to do things like take time to journal about what you find most meaningful, or engaging the kinds of strategies that researchers like Amy Wrzesniewski and others use to job craft, to really think about what you find most meaningful in your work, and sort of plan that moving forward," says Dr. Santos.

8. Recognize the irregularity of the situation

Entering year three of the pandemic might be why some people are thinking about how to stay positive (and, tbh, same). While it's great if you're able to continue working during this crisis, it's also understandable if you find yourself feeling foggy or having trouble focusing. While all of these feelings are valid, it's key to remember that this situation isn't normal and isn't permanent.

So don't beat yourself up if you're not performing at the level you have in the past, and grant yourself the same self-compassion you would give to a friend who's going through that sort of same thing.

Regardless of what’s gotten you down these days, remember that the circumstances will change for the better. That, in and of itself, is an answer to how to stay positive when it seems impossible.

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