How to achieve a positive attitude

Learning to think positively may extend your life

Mounting evidence from medical studies has indicated that people who think positively have a lower risk of dying of all causes compared with others their own age who have a gloomier view of life. Over the last decade, researchers have identified practices that can help you achieve and sustain a positive attitude toward your future. Many of them are explained in the Harvard Special Health Report Positive Psychology. Here are a few suggestions:

Savor pleasure. Feeling pleasure helps sustain a positive attitude. Focus your attention on something pleasing as it occurs, consciously enjoying the experience as it unfolds. Most people are primed to experience pleasure in special moments, such as a wedding day or a vacation. Everyday pleasures, on the other hand, can slip by without much notice unless they disappear or seem threatened. Slow down and focus. You will enjoy things more, whether a meal or a visit with a friend.

Practice gratitude. Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what you receive, whether tangible or intangible. Try keeping a gratitude journal, in which you regularly write down things for which you are grateful. Doing so will help you go through your days with greater appreciation, taking fewer blessings for granted. As you write, be specific and try to relive the sensations you felt as you remember what each thing means to you.

Cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness is generally acquired by training the mind to focus its attention on the present moment in a systematic way, accepting whatever arises. While savoring involves appreciating pleasurable sensations, mindfulness involves opening fully to both pleasant and unpleasant experiences. Being mindful helps you become fully engaged in activities and creates a greater capacity to deal with adverse events. By focusing on the here and now, many people who practice mindfulness find that they are less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past, are less preoccupied with concerns about success and self-esteem, and are better able to form deep connections with others.

Retain a sense of purpose. It's normal to experience a sense of loss and even grief if a relationship fractures, your children leave home, or you lose a job or retire. It's important at trying times to keep your life as normal as possible and to focus on what you can control. Follow a regular sleep schedule, get enough exercise, eat healthy meals, and stay in touch with friends and family. View an important life change, no matter how painful, as a new challenge or opportunity. If you're between jobs or retired, look for volunteer opportunities that would benefit from your professional skills. If you miss having children in your life, consider coaching or tutoring. If you've lost a parent or spouse, supporting others who are grieving can be helpful. Appreciating your ability to weather the storm will help you maintain a positive attitude.

Emphasize the positive. Winnowing out and focusing on the positive aspects of a situation are key factors in acquiring resilience—the ability to bounce back from bad times—that will help you weather the losses that may occur in the years ahead.

Finally, on survey after survey, older people report that they have become more satisfied with their lives as they have aged, despite the losses that accumulate with passing years. This is most likely because they tend to minimize the negative, accept their limitations and use their experience to compensate for them, and set reasonable goals for the future. The earlier in life you adopt these practices—all of which help to sustain a positive attitude—the greater the potential impact on the quality, and possibly length, of your life.

By Beverly Merz
Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch