Shining Happy People, Where Art Thou?
April 9, 2009 3:30 AM   Subscribe

Looking for advice, suggestions and/or resources on being a more positive person.

I'm trying to encourage my gf to be a more positive person. She's always been more of a glass-is-half-empty type, which is fine, but recently her work has had her more stressed than usual, and it's really showing in her outside-work life. I've made the point that work is work, and the worst she can do is let it seep into her free time and ruin that - all of this she agrees with, so I'm wondering what other people do to brighten up their bad days.

So far I've just generally tried to keep her laughing and happy, and offer gentle suggestions such as trying to keep negative words out of her vocabulary and thoughts. What else is out there? Any useful online resources (I'd prefer to avoid cheesy motivational speaker videos but I'll check out anything recommended)? Most importantly, what do you do?

ps - I already read this thread, but it is more from a perspective of how do I deal with being around this negative person, which isn't really my concern here.
posted by mannequito to Human Relations (29 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I'm trying to encourage my gf to be a more positive person.

Just to clarify, if she receptive to all of this, i.e. does she want to become a more positive person or is this more an idea of yours?

If it's the latter, be careful, as attempts to change an SO can produce more stress in the relationship.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:46 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

IMHO you can't change a person's nature. Your girlfriend will always react a certain way, especially when under stress (I'm assuming that she's a mature person, and not - say - a teenager; if that's the case then it's a different story).

All you can do is encourage her to change her situation to one where a better side of her personality comes out. I used to work in an office where, through a combination of circumstances, I reacted in a very negative way. I knew this wasn't me, but everybody there thought it was (and, after some time, I might have started to believe it myself). So I got out. Now I'm simply happier.

You should also look into depression as a cause. Personally I'm not enamoured of psychiatry as a cure-all, but if she is suffering from a definable illness then you can go some way to addressing it. There are herbal cures, for example, and even something as innocuous as Vitamin D can help at this time of the year.
posted by humblepigeon at 3:56 AM on April 9, 2009

The problem (or, at least, a problem) with trying to cheer up someone who's consistently down about a particular problem is that it sends the message that you don't think their feelings are legitimate. This is not the way to go.
posted by jon1270 at 4:14 AM on April 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think this thread about regular things that people look forward to is worth a read. It is nice to plan both big and small things that you enjoy.

Without wanting to hijack your question though, I would be interested in anyone's suggestions for routines they use to shake off work at the end of day. I used to be someone who could easily leave work thoughts at work, but am finding it more difficult to switch off at the end of the day.
posted by AnnaRat at 4:22 AM on April 9, 2009

I've made the point that work is work, and the worst she can do is let it seep into her free time and ruin that - all of this she agrees with, so I'm wondering what other people do to brighten up their bad days.

Whoops, missed that part.

Does she have ways of destressing? I find physical activity can help or even just time spent in the park, with a frisbee or playing bocce under the sun can do wonders. The point in doing these things is that she takes responsibility for her feelings, rather than always having to seek it from others. Just knowing that I have tools for destressing often makes the stressful things less stressful, because hey, I know it's not going to last and I can get outta the mood when I want.

Playing a game or two or a first person shooter doesn't hurt either.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:29 AM on April 9, 2009

Why is askmetafilter becoming more about deconstructing the question than offering answers?

For those of you who missed it: she agrees with me on this. In addition, she asked me if I might look around for advice etc, something she can't do today because she is at work.
posted by mannequito at 4:46 AM on April 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Using some time for the benefit of others can be a good way to improve your outlook.

Sometimes if you feel that work isn't going well, it can make this haze settle on your life, where you feel like you're working hard and getting nowhere, and it extends to more than just your job.

Working towards a voluntary project, helping someone for nothing, or just baking cookies for your neighbours, can be a good reminder about how valuable and important your time can be when used for the right things.

You know the old cliche, the "warm glow" you get from doing nice things? If she does something really nice, it will last for days! i guess you can bask in in then, too ;)
posted by greenish at 4:48 AM on April 9, 2009

She might like to try keeping a gratitude journal. Nothing fancy, unless she's into that (and if so, there's plenty of suggestions online), but starting small with listing 3-5 things she's grateful for each day. Writing them down means that she can look back over them later and remember the nice little things about her life at times when she's feeling down.

By keeping it to a straightforward list, it relieves the pressure to explain why she's grateful for whatever it is, or to come up with something deep and meaningful. But it's practice for thinking about things that are pleasant. She could maybe do it as she goes home, sort of as a teeny little "putting the work day away" ritual.
posted by harriet vane at 5:26 AM on April 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Look for the book Happier, by Tal Ben Shahar. He taught a very popular class at Harvard on how to be Positive Psychology. Featured on the Blue here. That FPP contains links to his Harvard lectures. Well worth your time.
posted by RussHy at 5:31 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Argh! Ben-Shahar taught a course on how to be Positive Psychology.
posted by RussHy at 5:34 AM on April 9, 2009

Perspective would help.

I've always been a naturally happy person, but I spent a lot of time living in working in The Developing World, mostly (but not limited to) Sub Saharan Africa.

Folks in the G7 or indeed the entire G20 have NOTHING to complain about, when compared to how 99% or so of the remainder of the planet must live their lives. Absolutely nothing.

I've become far more thankful for and appreciative of the little things - running water, trash pickup, dependable electricity - than almost 100% of the people around me, simply because I've gone without, and sometimes for long periods. Having the little things working, and working well naturally cheers one up.

So I'd try to find a way to broaden her perspective, to make her more appeciative of the little things.

You should be able to get a cheap flight to Cairo (my favourite city on the planet). On the whole its fairly safe, and a few days spent there, walking about The Islamic Quarter or even getting out of the city to some of the smaller villages, will most certainly make her far more appreciate of what she's got.
posted by Mutant at 5:39 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm both a very negative person, and someone who needs to vent to people I trust. I know that my family hates it when I come home in a rage from some bullshit at work, but they've also figured out to let the storm pass. I know your girlfriend says she wants to change, but a coping mechanism is a coping mechanism. She probably cannot safely vent this stuff at work, if she can get rid of it at home, then where's the harm? I kick walls, I do primal screaming in the car, I slam the door, I tell everyone to leave me the fuck alone (which they do, valuing their lives) I take a big glass of sherry and a bad novel to a hot bath, and then I feel much better.

I don't know how old you guys are, but the bad news is that I've gotten better able to deal with both bullshit and my own negative personality as I've gotten older. I've learned, somewhat, to let it go. But I don't think I did anything to get me there, I just grew up.

You could try some active listening (just a google page, I have no specific recommendations)-- she comes in raging, you say, "you are really upset" she screams "yeah, no shit" you say "you need to vent this on someone who loves you, like me" etc. This really really really works. Try it. It will force her to think through her anger, and to help both her and you to understand where her anger is directed. You might even come up with constructive steps to take with whatever the problem is, although the point is to diffuse and direct the emotion, not to come up with solutions.

But I think trying to be a better, calmer person would make it worse. The ability to recognize crap when you see it, and to CALL it is not a problem, it is a blessing. (She should go into politics we could use a little more of that) You can help her best by understanding that it isn't you that she hates (and btw, god bless mr. nax. He puts up with a lot)
posted by nax at 5:55 AM on April 9, 2009

A trick an old therapist of mine taught me was (her words!) to learn to say "fuck it" more often. I tend to take things really seriously and get stressed out about them, especially work. So she would have me try and pick up on when I was getting worked up about something (that didn't necessarily deserve getting worked up over) and say "oh well, fuck it!" It actually takes some practice but I have to say, it worked astonishingly well in terms of getting me able to let go of work stresses. Also, it's fun and your friends will join in with you, which sort of adds to the blowing-off-steam effect. I find that once I go "fuck it!" I can laugh things off more easily and go back to being cheerful and pleased with the things that don't suck. It sounds silly but I think it does help.
posted by sldownard at 6:06 AM on April 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

2nd perspective - I think I got a great deal happier when I realised just how much I had to be grateful for just to have all my basic needs (food, safety, companionship etc) taken care of. But it's not just the developing world where you get that, it's everywhere ... the bum on the street, the old lady sweeping floors at McDonalds for a living ... they all have it worse than you.

Anyway, I think one of the keys to being a happy person is self-confidence, and how you develop that is realising you're actually good at what you do. Maybe her job is stressful, but she's got a job! where people believe in her enough to pile stuff on her! etc. (Okay: that's a pretty terrible sort of way to put it, but you get the idea... for me it was when I realised I was actually good at what I studied at uni, and from there I approached everything with a much more positive attitude, whether or not it was in a related field.) If she's already realised this in an intellectual-but-not-emotional way, look up Imposter Syndrome on wikipedia.

Learn to let the little things slide. The girl behind the counter screws up your order: it's not the end of the world. Step on gum on the way home: it's not the end of the world. The restaurant lost your reservation: well that sucks but it's not the end of the world either.

Stress relief is good but not if you're secretly getting guilty while destressing, which adds to the stress.

Eat chocolate. If you like dark chocolate, that 'lasts' longer because you can eat less of it in one sitting, or at least that's how it works for me.

And remember it's all in your head*. 'Fake it till you make it' is actually a possible strategy when it comes to developing a positive outlook on life.

*except clinical depression
posted by Xany at 6:17 AM on April 9, 2009

Exercise works for me. There is nothing like a slightly tired body to help me keep the mind from fixating on negatives.

Also, we all control how much emotional energy we spend on aspects of our life. I see it this way: The amount of emotional energy we have is constant. It is like a pie of a certain size. We devote a slice to work a slice to family, a slice to friends and we determine the size of that slice. It sounds like work is taking more emotional energy than it deserves and she needs to choose to devote less energy to that and devote more energy to positive things. Mine is exercise or spending time with my wife or planning my weekend plans. She might want to recognize when she is having these pervasive negative emotions and then make a conscious effort to refocus on something she would like to positively impact.
posted by battlecj at 6:26 AM on April 9, 2009

I think that being a glass-half-empty person is a deap-seated personality trait, and is really not something you or she can change (want to guess that I'm also a glass-half-empty person?). I can't tell from your question whether it's typically Eeyore "Oh, everything sucks" behavior or more serious depression, but it actually IS possible to be both glass-half-empty and perfectly happy.

You say work has begun stressing her out recently--does she like her job AT ALL? Yes, work is work, but for most of us that's where we spend most of our waking hours, so if she's not happy there at all, I would start looking for a new job. Even in this economy. Maybe just the act of looking will make it easier to deal with.

Also, does she do any physical activity? Some type of exercise--I choose belly dance--could make a world of difference.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:34 AM on April 9, 2009

Exercise works for me, too. In fact, I exercise before work and that allows me to better float through the day, feeling physically good and with all those good endorphins still pumping. That way, I'm keeping positive while I'm there and not trying to just release when I leave.
posted by Pax at 6:37 AM on April 9, 2009

(but I'm a pretty positive person)
posted by Pax at 6:37 AM on April 9, 2009

I sing in a choir — a community choir, no background or sight-reading necessary, folk songs from around the world — and it has rewritten my body chemistry. It's just an ecstatic experience, singing among 30 other people. It feels better than anything else I can think of.

More generally, playing music and really working at it has kept me on an even track for many years. Playing with other people is a dozen times more powerful than playing alone, but the solo practice time is very important. Perhaps dancing works identically to music; I suspect it does.

My wife an I banter a lot. Everything is funny, or potentially funny. We've had a few really terrible events we can't joke about, and those we feel sad about. Everything else is funny, including ourselves. It's a good strategy, I think.
posted by argybarg at 7:30 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Work stress -- if that's the the main issue, I'd address helping her cope with that first (rather than her whole outlook). First, if you're able to help her out with a small errand (or cook her dinner) that may be helpful. Second, I'd talk it through with her -- so is it the amount of work that's been so hard lately? is work politics getting to you? etc. When I stress out I sometimes forget to figure out what it is that is stressing me out. And that stress is not something I just have to live with.
posted by ejaned8 at 7:34 AM on April 9, 2009

I used to be like your GF and my husband still is. For me, I started seeing enraging things as funny. Dr. God became David Brent from The Office. That patient who is always yelling at me for no apparent reason became George Costanza from Seinfeld. I don't know what happened to make me see things this way, it just sort of gradually happened. But changing my attitude about people I have to work with has spilled over into my personal life too. I find I'm a lot more optimistic, and I don't worry as much.

It's harder for my husband to see the funny, and it's hard for me to help him see it without sounding like I'm trivialising (sp?) his bad day. If he's telling me about his supervisor having a fit over nothing I'll say something like "He sounds like Walter in Lebowski". If he says something like "yeah, but much worse" then I let it go, because I know he's not in the mood to laugh. If he says "yeah- exactly" then I run with it. I'll ask him if boss-man was talking about lines in the sand and so forth. If I can get him laughing about his crappy day, he gets in a much better mood, and makes it easier for him to go to work the next day.

I would also talk to her, when she's in a good mood, about the big picture. What are her short and long term goals? Does she want a promotion? A big house in the country? To retire in Tahiti? Keep these in mind, and when she's had a bad day, remind her that dealing with this horrendous project (or whatever she does) will look great on her resume and that's one step closer to the big house in the country. (Caveat- this does not work with my husband- he finds it too hard to see the big picture when he's upset now, but YMMV)
posted by dogmom at 7:36 AM on April 9, 2009

Sometimes we hold negativity and stress in our bodies. A physical release, such as a massage, could be a direct way of getting her to release the work stress she is carrying with her, and give her more access to her power to choose being happy. That could get her back to her 'old self', which sounds less negative, and will be easier for her to work from as a starting point.
posted by Vaike at 7:36 AM on April 9, 2009

This blog, The Happiness Project, has a lot of stuff she may find helpful. I'd recommend starting with Ten Myths About Happiness and also giving the Ten Tips a gander.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:37 AM on April 9, 2009

She might want to start including a few sources of more positive news into her daily news diet.
posted by WCityMike at 7:51 AM on April 9, 2009

Volunteering to help the less fortunate is a great way for me to see the glass as more full than empty, and is a wonderful activity that you can partake in together, too.

I like working with children, so I've worked previously at a Chicago foster care center, and now spend my Saturdays at an inner city school in New York. There's something about seeing children thrive under the most challenging of circumstances (put there at no fault of their own) that pushes me to work harder at my own obstacles.
posted by gushn at 8:18 AM on April 9, 2009

Well, let me caution you about something. I am by nature somewhat like your girlfriend, and my husband is Mr. Positivity. In fact, he is so relentlessly optimistic and cheerful that it is frequently completely irrational, and it sets up a dynamic where all the responsibility for being realistic, and therefore "negative," falls to me. I notice that on the rare occasion when he is down or being negative, I miraculously become more positive, trying to get him to see the bright side, and it feels like such a relief.

There's a real back-and-forth to these things, and you can do as much harm by being too positive as you can by being too negative. The best thing for me is if the other person acknowledges that a given situation is not so great, but in a lighthearted, jokey kind of way. The worst thing is if they are constantly denying that anything is bad, because then all you can think about is how wrong they are.
posted by HotToddy at 9:11 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

If I were her, I'd feel better if I started looking for a new job. Even if it took awhile, at least I could find solace in the idea I was being proactive. Change what you can and let the rest go.

the Roman philosopher Epictetus said it best:

"Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, "You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be." And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you. "
posted by aquafortis at 12:46 PM on April 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

Wow thanks everyone, this got more attention (and favorites!) than expected.

hehe WCityMike, shilling your own product! But thanks, I'll pass some of those on.

Also, interesting, the combination of comments from gushn and aquafortis, as she will soon be starting a job teaching young children and is really pinning a lot of her hopes on that.

In the meantime, she really liked the journal idea, and will see how the happy news goes over. Again, thanks!
posted by mannequito at 6:09 AM on April 10, 2009

I would say I'm generally a very positive person, and this is what I do.

I daydream. Constantly. I think about things that have happened that made me happy - when my dad surprised my with flowers one year on my birthday, when someone told me I had done a good job - and just remember them. Or I think about things that I would like to happen. What would happen if two of my good friends met each other? I bet they'd really enjoy each others' company! etc. etc.

It makes me smile.

And smiling, or so I've heard, tends to make someone happier in general.
posted by lunit at 10:14 AM on April 10, 2009

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