An excerpt from The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity (BenBella Books).

During the second trimester of my third pregnancy, my husband and I went to our local hospital for a routine ultrasound to check on the health of the baby. As the parents of two sons, we were both ecstatic to learn that this new baby was a girl.

Illustration my Mare Rosenthal
But then the doctor shared some not so good news; the ultrasound revealed spots on a part of the brain that indicated the baby was at increased risk of having a serious genetic disorder, trisomy 18. If she indeed had this disorder, she would have trouble gaining weight and would very likely die before her first birthday.

As soon as we got into the car, I burst into tears. All I could see in my mind was carrying this baby throughout the remainder of my pregnancy while knowing that she was going to die. I couldn’t imagine a happy outcome and at this point couldn’t talk about my pregnancy without crying.

My husband responded to this potentially devastating news in a completely different way. He dropped me off at home, returned a few hours later with several pink gifts—a blanket, a sleeper, a small bear—and told me, “This baby is going to be fine.” His optimistic nature led him to imagine only good outcomes. (For the record, this baby weighed more than 8 pounds at birth and is now a very healthy, although somewhat stubborn, 14-year-old girl.)

I’m telling you this story to illustrate the tremendous role personality plays in the mindset we adopt. Yes, bad things happen to us all—a failed romantic relationship, a disappointing work outcome, a fight with a friend, scary medical news. But we respond to unhappy events in really different ways.

Some people, like my husband, seem magically able to find the silver lining in any situation. Perhaps you’ve heard the joke about the very optimistic boy who, upon receiving a room full of horse poop for Christmas, exclaims, “There must be a horse in here somewhere!”

Other people, and I include myself in this group, don’t naturally find the silver lining. Instead, we obsess about and ruminate over bad events in our past, replaying them over and over again in our minds, and imagine the worst possible outcomes for events in our future. This approach is certainly not the recipe for feeling better.

Those who approach life with a more positive mindset are happier regardless of their life circumstances. And if a positive mindset doesn’t come naturally to you, there are several strategies you can use to adopt a rosier outlook and live a happier life.

Think about a time in which you’ve been in a really good mood. Perhaps you noticed that when you are feeling happy, you aren’t so bothered by the everyday small stresses—traffic jams, long lines and irritating people just don’t get under your skin. Sure, they amount to common annoyances, but your good feelings help you take these types of events in stride. Maybe you cope with the long line at the grocery store by flipping through a magazine, or relish spending an unexpected quiet evening at home watching TV after a friend cancels dinner plans at the last minute. These are examples of how feeling good helps us adapt and stay positive, no matter what.

Although all of us feel happy at times, some people, like my husband, go through life naturally feeling pretty good. These people go through life expecting things will work out well for them and find it relatively easy to look on the bright side. (This ability to only foresee positive outcomes is vividly illustrated by Sigmund Freud’s story about the man who said to his wife, “If one of us should die, I shall move to Paris.”) They are also resilient, meaning they bounce back from negative experiences with relative ease.

People who see the glass as half full are able to buffer the effects of difficult life circumstances.

Not surprisingly, people who adopt this type of positive mindset experience better psychological well-being,

Book cover: The Positive Shift
including fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. This ability to consistently see the glass as half full means that they are well-poised to respond to life’s challenges. In turn, they are able to buffer the effects of really difficult life circumstances, such as a cancer diagnosis or the death of a spouse. For example, research shows that people with an optimistic approach to life show lower levels of posttraumatic stress after surviving a school shooting.

But the good news is that, regardless of our natural tendency, with practice we can all get better at responding to life’s challenges in more positive ways. In fact, learning and practicing strategies for adopting a more positive mindset changes neural pathways in the brain so that this sort of adaptive response becomes more natural. We often assume that experiencing negative events leads us to feel bad. And although it is true that disappointing and upsetting life experiences can have short- and long-term consequences on our happiness, it is not the mere experience of such events but rather how we react to, or think about, them that really matters. In sum, even when people experience the exact same event, how they respond to and think about it has a major impact on how they feel.

In ninth grade, my oldest child, Andrew, was performing poorly in Spanish class; at the midway point of the fall trimester, his grade was a 50. I was pretty anxious about this until Andrew called at the end of the trimester to tell me he had good news about Spanish. But when Andrew proudly announced his 58 grade it was not by any stretch of the imagination the good news I had expected to hear.

An illustration of a man holding a cartoon sun
Nevertheless, Andrew was undaunted and pointed out that this grade was 8 points higher than his midterm average. When I noted that a 58 was still an F, Andrew in his optimism responded that it was really an F+. But again, he pointed out that his trajectory—meaning the 8 point improvement—suggested he would have a 66 at the end of the second trimester.

Obviously, Andrew is a master at seeing all things in an optimistic light, and while his Spanish grade is clearly disappointing, his interpretation of his (F+) grade is actually quite encouraging. After all, anyone who can call home with the good news about a 58 clearly has a remarkable ability to find the silver lining.

Empirical research bears out the immense benefits of this type of optimistic framing. In one study, researchers brought in dating couples and told them they would be completing the exact same questionnaire to see if people in a dating relationship saw each other in the same way. The couple was seated across from each other at a small table and handed what appeared to be identical questionnaires. Initially, the questionnaires were in fact identical; the first page of each asked where the couple had met and how long they had been dating.

On the second page, however, the researchers threw in a distinct twist. One person was asked on this page to write down all the things they hated about their dating partner. The other person was asked to write down every single item in their dorm room, bedroom or apartment; they were also told to make sure to list at least 25 items.

Now, think for a minute about the experience of the first person, who was asked to write down things they hate about their dating partner and believed that their partner has been given the same instructions. They had to watch their partner frantically scribble to fill the lines, assuming that he or she in fact hates many—at least 25—things about them.

Finally, each person was asked to rate their feelings about their partner and their satisfaction with their dating relationship.

The researchers’ findings were not entirely what we’d expect. For people who didn’t feel very good about themselves, believing that their partner had a pretty negative view of them led to lower levels of satisfaction and closeness. This finding makes sense; after all, most of us would feel pretty offended if we believed that our romantic partner had so many critiques about us.

But for those who felt good about themselves, meaning those who go through life with this positive outlook, their findings were the opposite. In fact, for these people, believing that their partner had a long list of complaints about them led to greater feelings of closeness. Why? Well, their partner is still dating them, so surely they must love them so intensely to stay with them, given all their faults? Perhaps this person is really their soul mate? In other words, those who have high self-esteem can take what really should be a relationship-damning experience and find some good. And this ability to see the positive—in all situations—creates greater relationship satisfaction.

Here’s one reason why people see themselves and the world in such different ways: personality is at least partially rooted in your genes, so some people have an easier time adopting a positive mindset. In fact, research suggests that our genes may determine approximately 50 percent of our happiness. For example, genes may help explain why some people are more optimistic, or more extroverted, or even more resilient.

How exactly do genes predict happiness? Although this is an ongoing and obviously important question, researchers are just beginning to understand the mechanisms that explain this link.

Researchers in one study examined more than 830 pairs of adult twins, identical and fraternal, to test the role of genetic makeup and environment in predicting people’s well-being. Participants first completed measures of different factors predicting happiness, including self-acceptance, feelings of autonomy, personal growth, positive relationships, pursuit of goals and sense of control over their lives.

An illustration of a man with his head in a thundercloud

Their findings suggest that genetics predicts all six components of happiness. However, different genetic factors are linked with different components. In other words, a single gene doesn’t predict happiness, and different genes predict different components of happiness.

Genes also help explain why some people seem to skate through life, even when confronted with difficult circumstances, whereas others get bogged down in negative thoughts. One longitudinal study examined people from birth to age 26 to examine how stressful life events—such as unemployment, abuse and disabling injuries—predicted depression. For people with one type of genetic makeup, no matter how many stressful life events they experienced, they were no more likely to become depressed than those who had experienced no stressful events at all. But for people with another version of a particular gene, nearly half of those who experienced four or more stressful life events became depressed. They were also more likely to have thoughts of committing suicide.

Now, some people find the information about the power of genetics in predicting happiness pretty depressing. After all, this means that some people have a much easier time finding happiness than others. And while that is true, I think of the genetic link to happiness much like I think about metabolism. Some people can largely eat whatever they want and still not gain weight. (I don’t like these people, but they do exist.) Other people don’t have the benefits of a speedy metabolism, so they need to more carefully watch what they eat and engage in regular exercise in order to stay thin. But even people without a fast metabolism can stay thin, as long as they focus on achieving this goal through a healthy diet and regular exercise.

So, yes, some people do have a genetic head start on finding happiness—they may not need to exert much effort at all in order find happiness (my son, the Spanish scholar, probably fits into this category). But all people can do things in their daily lives that make them happier, regardless of their DNA.

No matter what your natural inclination, you can learn, with practice, to shift your thoughts, and improve the quality, and potentially increase the longevity, of your life. And this is a really important step to take, given the considerable scientific evidence that consistently thinking about, and ruminating over, the negative things in our lives can actually hurt our ability to think clearly and even, over time, lead to major depression. All you need are some relatively easy tweaks of your mindset.

One relatively easy strategy is to reframe daily life challenges by focusing on what’s good about them instead of what’s bad. One of my friends has a great strategy for finding the positive during frustrating traffic jams caused by a car accident: he reminds himself that he’s in a much better situation than the person who just had the accident.

Consistently ruminating over the negative things in our lives can actually hurt our ability to think clearly.

People with a positive outlook are also able to find some humor, even when coping with difficult circumstances. As New York Times columnist Arthur Brooks described his wife’s reaction to a difficult parent-teacher conference about one of their teenage children, “At least we know he’s not cheating.”

Finding humor helps people cope with the small irritations of daily life, but it is particularly important in coping with serious life circumstances. For example, research shows that people with fibromyalgia, a condition marked by widespread bodily pain, who relied on smiling and laughter to cope with small daily life stressors—such as a waiter spilling water on you—report lower levels of psychological distress and fewer physical symptoms. This ability to take things in stride reduces stress and its negative physiological effects on the body. In other words, laughter may be—at least in some cases—the best medicine.

The next time you are faced with an unpleasant situation, search out any benefit, no matter how small, and focus on it with all your might. Framing it in a positive light will make a real difference in how you feel.

You probably already know that happiness, like the flu, is contagious. Many of us have friends and loved ones who always seem to be in a good mood, and spending time with them lifts how we feel.

One of the clearest studies to demonstrate this effect of other people’s happiness on our own happiness examined data from a large social network study. Researchers in this study had gathered data from more than 5,000 people living in Framingham, Mass., over a 32-year period (1971 to 2003). Although the study was designed specifically to measure risk factors related to heart disease (obesity, smoking and alcohol use), the researchers had also asked participants about their “social ties.” These social ties included relatives, friends, coworkers and neighbors living close by. (Remember, this study was started in 1971, before people could rely on cell phones, email and texting to stay in good touch with those who lived far away.)

The findings from this social network analysis clearly indicate that happiness is contagious. Specifically, people who are surrounded by many happy people show increases in happiness over time. For example, a happy friend living within a mile of a person’s home increases that person’s happiness by 25 percent. Having a happy spouse, happy next-door neighbor or happy sibling (who lives within a mile) also leads to increases in happiness.

Having a friend who has a happy friend (even if your actual friend isn’t happy) increases your own happiness by nearly 10 percent.

What is perhaps even more surprising is that happiness can also be increased indirectly, meaning through broader connections within a social network. For example, having a happy friend increases your own happiness by about 15 percent. But having a friend who has a happy friend (even if your actual friend isn’t happy) increases your own happiness by nearly 10 percent. And even more distant connections can make us happy: having a friend who has a friend with a happy friend still yields us a 5.6 percent increase in our own happiness.

Although this social network analysis has focused on the advantages of having happy people in our social networks, these relationships can of course also work in the opposite way. You probably already know from life experience that being around people who are negative can make you feel worse. Think about who in your life makes you feel better and who makes you feel worse. Try to spend more time with those in the first group, whenever you can.

An illustration of three women holding hands

In a creative test of the power of negative experiences to spread within a social network, researchers in one study examined how unhappiness can spread through social media. In this study, researchers first evaluated both positive and negative emotions conveyed in people’s Facebook posts. Then they compared the frequency of these emotional expressions to the amount of rainfall in each poster’s city. As you might expect, people tend to post more negative emotions, and fewer positive emotions, on rainy days. In fact, in a large city, such as New York City, a rainy day leads to an additional 1,500 negative posts by those living in that city compared to on a non-rainy day.

But what is even more interesting about this study is that the researchers then examined how one person’s Facebook post could influence the expressions posted by friends in other cities. These findings again provide strong evidence for the power of emotional contagion within a network. In other words, having a friend post something negative on Facebook increases the likelihood of a negative post, and decreases the likelihood of a positive post, by one’s own friends. To return to the New York City example, a rainy day in New York City not only yields another 1,500 negative posts by those living in the city (and experiencing the rain) but an additional 700 negative posts by friends living elsewhere (and not necessarily experiencing rain).

Although you can’t always eliminate negative people from your life—a close family member, a neighbor, a coworker—you can make a deliberate attempt to spend more time with those who make you feel good, and less time with those who don’t. This strategy is particularly good advice for those of us who don’t naturally adopt a positive mindset. Remember my husband’s optimistic outlook about our daughter’s health, even as I was mired in worry and sadness? Perhaps you can see now why I chose to marry him!


© 2019 by Catherine A. Sanderson. Sanderson is the author of five psychology textbooks and a parenting book, and she speaks regularly on the science of happiness, the power of emotional intelligence, the mind-body connection and the psychology of good and evil. This semester she’s teaching “Close Relationships,” an upper-level psychology seminar.

Illustrations by: Marc Rosenthal

Look for the Good

Here are some examples of ways you can start to reframe negative experiences.
  • Stuck at an airport? We all complain that we never have free time for ourselves, so take this opportunity to call a friend or read a good book.
  • Passed over for a promotion? Now’s the perfect time to polish your résumé or explore other—perhaps even more fulfilling— career options.
  • No plans on New Year’s Eve? Don’t get depressed—it’s not even a safe night on the road. You’re not the only one at home. Cozy up in front of the TV and watch the festivities in comfort, or start early on that New Year’s resolution to get organized and clean out that overflowing closet.

About the Book

By Caroline Hanna

The Positive Shift examines the body of research on well-being and offers scientifically proven tips for finding happiness.

When Catherine A. Sanderson received tenure at Amherst, in 2003, her life was “pretty much perfect.”

Three months later, her 57-year-old mother was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer and then died within the year.

That loss prompted Sanderson to reprioritize how she wanted to spend her time, and compelled her to, among other activities, serve as the faculty adviser for the College’s cancer support group for students. To this day, Sanderson hosts the group’s meetings at her house, “so these kids can share difficult experiences with others who understand.”

When students tell her the gatherings are valuable to them, Sanderson responds that they are equally meaningful to her. “Even though we are having intense emotional discussions, when the kids leave, I feel really happy,” she says. “Being the adviser of the group is an incredibly rewarding part of my role at Amherst as a faculty member.”

Sanderson offers many similarly personal anecdotes—celebratory, self-deprecating, humorous and otherwise—in The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity. The book explores and summarizes the research available today on well-being, and offers scientifically proven tips.

It is a deeper dive into “Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness,” a popular lecture she delivers across the country as part of the One Day University program.

Part 1 of the book defines “mindset” and examines how it affects memory, health and longevity. Part 2 delves into the factors 

that influence mindset, such as environment, genetics and personality. Part 3 exhorts readers to take action to change their own thinking and behavior, and offers some concrete ideas.

Her suggestions range from the difficult but rewarding (try to find the positive in devastating circumstances; quit social media) to the seemingly mundane (tip well; donate blood; let another driver merge in front of you in traffic).

In large part, “our happiness in daily life, the state of our physi- cal health, and even how long we live are largely determined not by external events, but rather by the way we think about ourselves and the world around us,” she writes.

Happiness requires action. Hosting the cancer support group, for example, checks two boxes in the list of activities that promote hap- piness. By inviting students to her home, Sanderson facilitates (1) rewarding social relationships while (2) doing a good deed. “Both of these things absolutely make me feel happy,” she says.

But perhaps most important, she says, is to remember that hap- piness is contagious. Smile at a stranger and that stranger is likely to smile back. “Happiness works in precisely the same way,” she explains. Happy people help others around them “see the world in a more positive light” and “take small daily stresses in stride.”

“Work as hard as you can to take steps to live a happier, healthier life,” she advises, “and to pass on that happiness to those around you,” so that those people, in turn, can share their happiness with others.