The Science of Happiness: 10 Ways to Choose Optimism 18

The other day, I sat listening to five children giggling in my basement. They were “camping” with a pretend fire, roasting pretend marshmallows and having a joyous time. The thought crosses my mind, “How would it be to be a child again? To laugh without reserve, to create make-believe worlds, and spend much of your day playing and enjoying life.”

In contrast, my own thoughts are often more of a checklist:

1. Work – check
2. Children dressed and fed – check
3. Bills – check
4. Bathrooms cleaned – in progress…

And so on.

So, what do children have that I could use–that we all could use? And, in the midst of adult life, where does happiness come from? Are we born with a tendency for happiness? Is it based on our life circumstances? Or, is it possible that we can create happiness, just like those five little ones create giggles and pretend roasted marshmallows in my basement?

Sonya Lyubomirsky in her book The How of Happiness shares where our happiness comes from.

Raising Optimistic Children

When I read this research, I thought. OK, 50%. How does my family tree look?

And here we are…

Family Tree

Deep breaths! Am I doomed?

I decided maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to look at my family tree for too long…

But only 10% for life circumstances? Really? 

Before I read this research a few years ago, I would never have believed it. Certainly it has to be more than that? There is a study on paraplegics and lottery winners that shows over time, people who win large sums of money are no happier than people who become paralyzed in tragic accidents. Perhaps our life circumstances really don’t determine so much.

We can't direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails

We each have about 40% to work with, and 40% is a lot!  Isn’t it wonderful that in this life we get to choose our way, our own path.

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist around WWII. During this time, he and his family were taken to the concentration camps. There, his wife, mother and brother were all killed. Frankl survived. Through all the horror and terror that he saw and experienced, he came out with this perspective:

Viktor Frankl - Everything can be taken from a man but one thingEven in the most difficult circumstances, we have our ability to choose. We can use our agency to choose happiness.

As we think about what to do with our 40%, I have a few suggestions. We can choose optimism. Optimism has many benefits (see 10 Reasons to Choose Optimism Today), and not only that, when we practice optimism we can be examples to our children.

Here are 10 Ways to Choose Optimism Today: 

10 Ways to Choose Optimism Today

1. žDon’t try to be a Pollyanna.

›Choose accurate and credible optimism.

Being optimistic doesn’t mean that everything is chocolate and sunshine and “perfectly perfect”. There have been studies that have shown this type of optimism actually can create depression and hopelessness. Because, life isn’t always sunshine and rainbows! Life is filled with ups and downs, happiness and sadness, good and bad. There is opposition in all things.

That is why some studies have shown Facebook (and other social media use) can cause envy, sadness, and even feelings of depression! Too much perfection is unrealistic. (See If Facebook Use Causes Envy, Depression Could Follow and Facebook Use Predicts Declines).

So, when we talk about optimism, we are talking about believing that in the end, things will work out. This type of optimism uses hardships and trials as a jumping point to learning and opportunity.

So, when you choose optimism, choose wisely.

ž2. žBe aware of your own self-talk.

›Avoid pessimistic thoughts.

Notice what you say to yourself when you face difficulty. Does it look like this?

I am such a failure! 

Things never work out for me!

How could I be so stupid?

Challenge negative thoughts. We all make mistakes. We aren’t all good at everything. Focus on those things that you do well.

I had a bad day today, but I am good at…

I am disappointed that this didn’t work out, but I am going to keep trying.

I know I can do this. I will keep practicing.

3. žFind the opportunity in every difficulty.

›There are actions I can take.

Even in the midst of difficulty, we still can choose. Just as Viktor Frankl stated, there is one thing that cannot be taken from us. So, in the midst of difficulty, we can ask ourselves:

What can I learn from this?

How can this change me for the better?


4. žSurround yourself with positive people.

›Optimism is contagious.

When you are around happy and positive people, you feel better, happier, and uplifted. When you surround yourself with negative people, you join the crowd. Negativity can surround you and leave you feeling flat and gloomy. Surround yourself with those that radiate positivity, a bright outlook, and a can-do attitude. You may find yourself feeling a bit brighter, happier, and more positive yourself.

5. žSmile often. 

›Smiling improves your outlook and lowers stress level.

The research on this is clear: smiling changes your outlook and lowers your stress level. Even if you fake it, it makes a difference. Smiling during brief stressors will reduce the intensity of your body’s stress response. So, take a minute and smile! You will feel better.

6ž. Live in the present.

›Enjoy the moment.

This is called being mindful or present-focused. Allow yourself to notice the little things surrounding you. Use all of your senses. Notice the sights, smells, sounds, and feelings that you have and be focused on what is happening right now. Your body will begin to relax and you will see things a little more clearly. You will enjoy the moment and be more able to self-regulate when stressors do arise.

7. žHave goals for the future.

›Allow yourself to dream, set goals and accomplish them.

Having a dream, something to look forward to, or a goal you are working on. The feeling of anticipating an experience has positive benefits. It leads to greater happiness, more pleasantness, and greater excitement. People who are anticipating a positive event are better behaved and more patient. Be aware that this works for setting goals, planning a vacation, and looking forward to an experience in the future. It doesn’t work as well when you goals/dreams are based on accumulating material possessions. Experiences are more joyful and memorable: so allow yourself to dream of some great experiences! 

She believed she could, so she did

8. žDevelop patience and humor.

›As we each will face trials, we can choose how to view them.

The other evening, I was feeling out of both patience and humor. It was past dinnertime and I was rushing around trying to come up with something for me and my children to eat. My husband was gone for the night, and I was feeling slightly irritable. My little ones were laughing and giggling, and wanting a piece of mommy’s attention. I was in one of those brittle moments of motherhood where I felt if I chipped off one more piece to give them, I would break.

“Mommy, watch this…”

“Mommy, I need…”

“Mommy, can I…?”

I turned to them, with my hands on my hips, and in an exhausted and stern voice said:

“I need you to take care of yourselves for a minute until Mommy finishes dinner!”

Suddenly, giggles stopped.

My youngest turned to me with a confused look on her face:

“Mommy…why is your voice so serious?”


Ahh, so there it is. It didn’t really matter if dinner was late, or the house was a mess. It didn’t really matter that I was stressed about an upcoming event. I could have used a dose of patience and humor!

And, I really don’t want my children to only remember my “serious voice”.

9. žFind beauty in imperfection.

›Find balance in perfectionism.

We are all imperfect; every one of us. We all have faults, imperfections and difficulties. And, I love it when someone shares their imperfections with me, because then I think: “I can relate.” 

We come to love not by finding a perfect person, but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly

10. Cultivate the sacred.

There is a link between regiousity, spirituality and happiness. Prayer and scripture study are forms of meditation that are correlated with well-being, reduced stress and anxiety. Cultivating the sacred means making space in your life for time away from the profane. Quiet time. Meditation. Development of peace and stillness in your present environment. Believing in something bigger than yourself can create hope, create community with others with similar beliefs, and foster resilience during difficult times.

You are Beautiful for you are fearfully and wonderfully made

So, as you choose optimism, which of the above are you really good at? Which could you work on? I know there are definitely a few I am working on.

But, don’t forget: 40%! We can choose. And, that is pretty awesome!

Share your story with me! What do you do with your 40%?

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Wife, mother of twins, speaker, and creator of Balm to My Soul.I love to write, speak, sleep, snuggle and, if I really get lucky, inspire and help others. I am clearly imperfect but determined to be a little better every day. Some days are better than others! Thanks for stopping by!
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About Elizabeth

Wife, mother of twins, speaker, and creator of Balm to My Soul. I love to write, speak, sleep, snuggle and, if I really get lucky, inspire and help others. I am clearly imperfect but determined to be a little better every day. Some days are better than others! Thanks for stopping by!

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