Keep a Positive Perspective

Open All   |   Close All

Learning Objectives

  • Learn how to cultivate, utilize and maintain a positive “lens,” or attitude, regardless of the circumstances.

Quotes

“I demand that the world be good, and lo, it obeys. I proclaim the world good, and facts range themselves to prove my proclamation overwhelmingly true”. – Helen Keller, 1903

“We pay a high price for the disregard of happiness”. – Stefan Klein, Ph.D

“The actual secrets of the path to happiness are determination, effort, and time”. – the Dalai Lama

What is Optimism?

Is the glass half-empty or half-full? Did you make a mistake or did you learn a lesson? Optimism is not a genetic trait, though certain personality types are thought to be more prone to view life and its challenges with a more optimistic mind frame.2 Rather, it’s a perspective or positive “lens” that you wear, which is linked to improved adjustment and coping.4 Though life often presents daunting challenges, there are countless positive experiences that get overlooked. Happiness is an internal process5 that involves a series of conscious choices. However, making these positive choices entails having a set of skills.

It is important to understand that happiness is a willful experience. Happiness involves creating good habits that promote a sense of well-being, appreciating positive experiences and understanding that change is an internal process, not an external one.2 People often find themselves frustrated when they place the blame on outside circumstances that they can’t fully control rather than working to change their own role in or reaction to the situation.

Being optimistic centers around how a person interprets his or her present circumstances. People regularly dismiss experiences that can easily be interpreted as positive and give disproportionate attention to negative factors or influences.

You have a great team of labmates but your productivity is low. What sticks out here for you? Often in science and engineering, productivity is the linchpin for academic success and funding. But working with great people has helped you tackle the challenges of graduate school. In regards to work, people will judge their experience on what they have “amounted” to, or what they have produced instead of the process of reaching their goal(s).6 However, the product is the end result, which is not an actual experience, per se. The process is how your time is spent, which entails the formula for a successful outcome.

The Act and the Art of Happiness

Keeping a positive perspective, regardless of circumstance, entails developing a set of strategies that focus on the act and art of feeling happy. Happiness is not just an emotion, but a physiological response to your thoughts. Your brain and body are experiencing something that you interpret as a happy feeling. Just as you experience a chemical reaction when you are stressed or anxious, your body is equally responsive to things that cause a sense of well-being. The trick is to assist your brain with this process. Remember that this is your process. Happiness is a creative process where you craft your own strategies based on what enhances your sense of well-being.

Some happiness tips:7,8

  • realize that enduring happiness does not come from successes defined by outside sources
  • take control of your time
  • act happy even when it seems difficult to maintain that mood
  • do things that engage your skills
  • be more physically active
  • get adequate sleep
  • attend to your close/important relationships
  • reach out to others
  • be thankful each day for the positive aspects of your life

Being Mindful

Part of having a positive perspective is understanding that happiness is an emotion that involves conscious choice.7 It may be difficult to perceive happiness as something you choose to experience — why would anyone decide to feel any other way? However, making such a choice entails being informed about your own emotional process.

There are a couple of simple ways to become more mindful of how you bring emotion to your different experiences. First, mood attention involves monitoring your emotions and their frequency.9 I always laugh when I take my lunch breaks with Seerat. You might overlook this if you don’t think too much about your lunch breaks.

Second, mood awareness refers to labeling your specific feeling in the situation.10I feel really good when Seerat and I eat lunch because she has a great sense of humor; it lightens up my day. If you are mindful about what you are feeling and when you are feeling it, you can place increased focus on your positive experiences and emotions, versus attending to your more negative feelings.

Savoring

“Savoring” entails attending to, appreciating and enhancing the positive experiences in your life.7 You will sometimes focus on a positive memory or aspects of your life as a sort of “breather” from difficult life stresses.11 However, this is not savoring; rather it’s remembering a positive experience to cope with a negative one. Savoring is paying close attention to your experiences and finding gratification in the different aspects of your life in the moment in which they occur. These moments don’t have to entail large accomplishments or exciting events. They often take the form of simple things that get overlooked.

The temptation is to ruminate on the negative aspects of the day that have the “biggest” effect on you. However, savoring means enjoying the things that bring you happiness, even in the most subtle of forms. It’s the aggregate of “smaller” positive experiences that equate to the feeling of well-being. Savoring also helps you feel good for a longer period of time because you are fully experiencing something. Often a small but satisfying experience can be overshadowed by a larger, more gratifying event or a negative situation. But if you savor those smaller experiences, they help maintain a positive perspective because they are much more frequent than major milestones and are easy to identify in everyday life.7

Self-test

Jeewon has been working 10 hour days in the lab, 5 days a week for over two months now and today is no exception. Over the summer, most of the university is out of session so she finds a great parking space. She comes into the lab and is welcomed by a fresh pile of lab equipment sitting in the sink that has not been washed. Around mid day, Jeewon enjoys her lunch with her very funny lab mate, Seerat, who’s also very generous with her home-cooked meals. Her supervisor is once again putting pressure on her about her lab team’s work, which has been slow because the lab equipment to do the mutagenesis has not been working properly. Today he lets her know that because she is the lead on their lab team, instead of working on the symposium for the conference this week, he’d like her to help write the annual report for their grant — a task Jeewon is excited to do. After her long day at work, Jeewon comes home to her excited puppy who is finally potty trained! They go for an evening walk as the sun sets behind the mountains in front of her apartment complex.

Which parts can Jeewon savor? Count up the positive and negative events. Which are there more of?




Best Answer: B. There are 5 positive events: 1) Over summer, most of the university is out of session so she finds a great parking space. 2) Around mid day, Jeewon enjoys her lunch with her very funny labmate, Seerat, who’s also very generous with her home-cooked meals. 3) Today he lets her know that because she is the lead on their labteam, instead of working on the symposium for the conference this week, he’d like her to help write the annual report for their grant—a task Jeewon is excited to do. 4) After her long day at work, Jeewon comes home to her excited puppy who is finally potty trained! 5) They go for an evening walk as the sun sets behind the mountains in front of her apartment complex. In choice A, there are only 3 negative events: 1) Jeewon has been working 10 hour days in the lab, 5 days a week for over two months now and today is no exception. 2) She comes into the lab and is welcomed by a fresh pile of lab equipment sitting in the sink that has not been washed. 3) Her supervisor is once again putting pressure on her about her lab team’s work, which has been slow because the lab equipment to do the mutagenesis has not been working properly. There is a clear distinction between positive an negative events, ruling out D, and there are many more positive events than negative, ruling out C.

Affirmations

It’s easier for people to identify negative emotions. Maybe your lunch with Seerat got overshadowed by the meeting you had with your advisor afterwards. You were probably drawn to the fact that your palms always seem to get sweaty when you meet with your advisor because you are nervous about receiving negative feedback. These types of situations draw our attention in because they are unpleasant. However, you can train yourself to maintain a more positive attitude because the brain has a natural mechanism for turning off negative feelings.2 When negative feelings arise it will become easier each time to ward off unpleasant or painful emotions by replacing them with positive statements or affirmations.

Training your brain to feel happier entails letting it know what the instructions are for more positive thinking. Instead of focusing on your stressful meeting with your advisor, you can tell yourself that you will attend to the situation later. Typically, a stress reaction is catalyzed by the feeling of having to do something right now! But you can always think through the situation later when you are not feeling so emotionally charged. By repeating short, positive affirmations, you send the signal to your brain that your attention has been shifted.12 Your brain is like a suggestion box where repeated proposals get the most attention. Simple yet effective affirmations are:

— I can relax at will

— I feel peaceful

— I am letting go of tension

The key is to notice when negative thoughts come into your mind and then to greet them with an affirmation. When practiced, it will become routine for your brain to assume that the instructions for dealing with stress are to minimize it through positive thinking.

Shedding Unnecessary Happiness “Reducers”

One way to cultivate and maintain a positive perspective is to interrupt the patterns that reduce happiness. Leaving old baggage behind is one such strategy. Maybe last semester you had a professor who seemed to favor the male students, particularly ones from his home country. And even though you often collaborated on homework assignments with many of your male classmates, your grades were always lower. If you carry last semester into your current circumstances, you may feel unhappy or worried unnecessarily and/or unduly bias your present experiences. If you are prepared to deal with a similar situation in the future, there’s no point in anxiously anticipating it.5

Another important element that interferes with a positive perspective is the feeling of fear.5,2 There’s a difference between being aware of a certain situation or interpersonal dynamic and feeling scared that it will come up. How long will you avoid discussing the obvious mishandling of data by your labmates who seem to gang up against you anyway? Fear automatically provokes a chain of other negative emotions such as anxiety and doubt. If you can place fear aside, you can enhance your sense of well-being.

You can put fear aside by:

1) feeling prepared to handle difficult situations

2) stating positive affirmations to yourself

3) taking a break to relax from anxiety-provoking situations

Unfounded assumptions can also reduce your happiness.5 You may be wondering why your usual lunch buddy, Seerat, has been taking her breaks with Ramon and Petra all week and not even once invited you. Should you take it personally? Did you do something to upset her? Are your lunchtime conversations boring? Or maybe it could be that she, Ramon and Petra are using their lunch hour to prepare for the symposium they are collaborating on for next week’s conference. Jumping to conclusions can unnecessarily incite unpleasant emotions.

Self-test

Which of the following activities can be considered positive action skills?




Best Answer: C. Other positive action skills you should try to employ are: 1) Support Network: Do you have a group of people that you consider to be dependable and close friends? And 2) Relaxation: Do you know how to relax both your mind and body? D is not a positive action skill. You should work to do the opposite, to take time to do things that you enjoy on a regular basis, and remember to savor the smaller things too. By cultivating these Action Skills, you can manage unnecessary reducers and increase your happiness

CareerWISE Points

Having a positive perspective on life takes practice. It is a skill that involves personal choice and motivation, as well as personalized strategies that work for you. However, it’s something mostly everyone can do. There are countless experiences we have on a daily basis that make us feel happy, even if it’s just enjoying a freshly brewed cup of coffee in the morning or the lady at the coffee shop who always has something nice to say. The basic knowledge that each day you go to graduate school because you worked very hard to get there, had the talent and tenacity to do so, and have a well thought-out dream of being a professional in your field is good news! Don’t let the things that seem daunting draw your attention away from the other satisfying and more numerous events in your life.

CareerWISE Tips

  • Notice, appreciate and savor the positive aspects of your life no matter how small they are.
  • Practice happiness.
    • Train your brain to focus in on the positives and divert attention away from negative thoughts.
  • Worry once and then make an action plan.
    • Negative feelings often come from worrying about something that has already happened or will happen in the future, not on what’s going on in the present moment (unless it’s an emergency situation).
      • If it’s in the past, you’ll want to find ways to set your fear aside or translate your negative experiences into lessons or opportunities for growth.
      • If it’s in the future, prepare yourself accordingly and then have confidence that you have the skills to deal with whatever issue(s) confront you.
  • Remember, most things in life are not life-threatening.
    • Don’t over dramatize or overcomplicate them and make them worse than they have to be.
  • Staying positive helps you create more thoughtful strategies and, more importantly, enhances your enjoyment of everyday life.

References

  1. Keller, H. (1903). Optimism: An essay. New York: C.Y. Crowell & Company.
  2. Klein, S. (2006). The science of happiness. New York: Marlowe & Company.
  3. Lama, D. (1995). Awakening the mind, lightening the heart. New York: HarpersCollins.
  4. Sweeny, K., Carroll, P. J., & Shepperd, J. A. (2006). Is optimism always best? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 302-306. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00457.x
  5. Punset, E. (2007). The happiness trip: A scientific journey. White River Junction, VT: Sciencewriters.
  6. Rohrlich, J. B. (1980). Work and love: The crucial balance. New York: Summit Books.
  7. Bryant, F. B. & Veroff, J. (2007). Savoring: A new model of positive experience. Mahwaw, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  8. Myers, D. G., & Diener, E. (1997). The new scientific pursuit of happiness. Harvard Mental Health Letter, 4, 4-7.
  9. Salovey, P., Mayer, J. D., Goldman, S. L., Turvey, C., & Palfai, T. P. (1995). Emotional attention, clarity, and repair: Exploring emotional intelligence using the trait meta-mood scale. In J. W. Pennebaker (Ed.), Emotion, disclosure, and health (pp. 125-154). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  10. Swinkels, A., & Giuliano, T. A. (1995). The measurement and conceptualization of mood awareness: Monitoring and labeling one's mood states. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 934-949. doi:10.1177/0146167295219008
  11. Lazarus, R. S., Kanner, A. D., & Folkman, S. (1980). Emotions: A cognitive-phenomenological analysis. In R. Plutchik, & H. Kellerman (Eds.), Emotion: Theory, research, and experience: Theories of emotions (pp. 189-217). New York: Academic Press.
  12. Davis, M., Eshelman, R. E., & McKay, M. (2000). The relaxation and stress reduction workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
  13. Nelson-Jones, R. (2007). Life Coaching Skills. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

The Importance of Sharing Stories
The importance of hearing other people's stories.

Observations on Women's Safety (Part 2)
Discusses necessary precautions to take as a female student working late nights on campus.

Is Being Socially Compatible Necessary?
Reminder that it is not necessary to feel comfortable socially to do good science.

Ways to Cope with Minor Issues Related to Being a Woman
How to observe others' reactions to subtle comments in order to gauge an appropriate response.

Help and Support from Other Administrators
How to seek support from administrators outside the department when dealing with departmental sexism.

Non-Progress Is Still Progress
The importance of peer relationships and the learning process that takes place despite concrete outcomes.

Paths of Family Planning and Different Options Along the Way
How a flexible schedule as a professor made it possible to have a family and a career.

Being Comfortable as a Woman Among Men
Emphasizes positive peer relationships within her cohort.

Comments

We want to hear from you. Did this page remind you of any experiences you’ve had? Did you realize something new? Please take a moment to tell us about it—and we'll keep it confidential.

Your comments have been recorded.