3 Tips for Staying Positive During Times of Uncertainty, According to Yale’s Happiness Professor

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The fate of the presidential election now hangs on slow-counting swing states (and the freedom to actually count the votes), but regardless of the outcome, the fact that the race is such a close call period highlights just how much work remains for cultivating a society not steeped in white supremacy, patriarchy, and bigotry. To be sure, the road ahead is a long one, and endurance to stay the path is necessary. That's why staying positive during times of uncertainty is important to know how to do—especially when "uncertain times" seem to go on forever. For cognitive scientist Laurie Santos, PhD, host of The Happiness Lab podcast and professor of Yale’s viral happiness course, "The Science of Wellbeing," the key is being able to identify and honor the things we can control.

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

"At this stage of the election, most of us can’t control the final outcome, but we can control how we react," says Dr. Santos. "Do we do a hard workout or drink two bottles of wine? Do we stress out at our kids or take a few deep breaths? While it doesn’t always feel like it, we always have the option of controlling our own mindset and our own behaviors."

"At this stage of the election, most of us can’t control the final outcome, but we can control how we react… We always have the option of controlling our own mindset and our own behaviors." —Laurie Santos, PhD

That said, it's important to keep your feet on the ground while trying to keep your head up. As Dr. Santos points out, positivity isn't always actually positive, and it can even become toxic when we ignore our genuine realities and authentic feelings and those of others. "There’s work by [psychology professor and academic] Gabriele Oettingen showing that thinking positive without recognizing the real obstacles in place isn’t a smart strategy," says Dr. Santos. "We should, therefore, recognize the obstacles we face personally and put plans in place to overcome those obstacles."

So, to help you face those obstacles, find moments of joy, and have success in staying positive during times of uncertainty, find three strategies from Dr. Santos below.

1. Write down what you’re grateful for

Adopting a gratitude practice can help you feel happier, foster better quality sleep at night, and some research even suggests it can nurture generally healthier lifestyle habits as well. And even during times of uncertainty, there are always things to be grateful for.

"Even in the election and 2020, there are spots where, if I look, I feel thankful," Dr. Santos says. "For example, the U.S. election would be much more of a mess if Florida or Texas had been hit by that category 4 hurricane that just happened to turn. I’m thankful that so many people got out the vote and worked hard to make this a fair election. There are lots of things to be thankful for even in a tough time, if you look."

2. Find something to savor

"Go back to the basics," says Dr. Santos. "Enjoy a nice cup of coffee or a delicious treat eaten mindfully—not compulsively doomscrolling election statistics."

For what it's worth, I find that this absolutely works. I spent 10 minutes with my hazelnut brew and Ava Gardner mug today, and it really gave me a morning reset.

3. Stay away from the news for a bit

This has been a true #mood this entire year, really, because with every browser refresh, there just may well be a horrifying news update. So it's been said before, and it'll be said again: Step away from your phone.

"Just because election coverage is running 24/7 doesn’t mean you need to be watching 24/7," says Dr. Santos. "Take a break from the anxiety and the screens. Go for a walk. Call a friend. Get in a decent workout. There are real opportunity costs to spending our time glued to the ballot counts."

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