“Think positive” has become a cliché, but Scott Glassman, PsyD, learned first-hand that it takes real work — and yields real results.
Glassman was bullied in middle school, and spent a long time in his youth feeling depressed. As an adult at the University of Pennsylvania, he worked with Martin Seligman, the leading figure in positive psychology. He then went on to study health psychology, and holistic approaches to physical, spiritual and emotional health.
Initially, Glassman worked with patients seeking mental healthcare, who used the seven-session program to improve their coping techniques and well-being. The college was so impressed that A Happier You has now been made available to staff, faculty and students.
Glassman has also turned the program into a book, A Happier You: A Seven-Week Program to Transform Negative Thinking into Positivity and Resilience. As with the original program, it’s designed to be followed over seven weeks, so readers can make manageable changes that have a long term positive impact.
Glassman practices what he preaches, including gratitude, self compassion, and small acts that build up to a life of positivity.
Making some time every day to take stock of the things in your life that you are grateful for is a small but meaningful way to steer your mental compass in a positive direction.
Scott likes to do his gratitude practice in the morning. “Think of the morning as a launchpad to the rest of the day: it sets the tone,” he says. Specifically, he makes his list while putting in his contact lenses. It’s become a daily ritual that helps him quietly prepare to take on the day with a positive attitude.
Your list of what you’re grateful for can range from the small — sunshine, the sensation of your breath — to the profound: the people who support you.
One of the most powerful qualities of gratitude is that it makes us feel more connected to the world around us. When you share it with the people you love, and make sure they know that you appreciate everything they do for you, it brings you closer.
“Gratitude bonds us with others,” Scott says. “It’s a way to feel interconnected in our lives, that we’re not islands floating in the sea.”
Even if you’re alone when you’re making your gratitude list, taking the time to acknowledge and value the beautiful things in your life can help you develop a sense of belonging. You’re reminding yourself that the world has given you things to love, and that the world in turn is worth loving.
“When we get into that state of being, it makes us feel like our world is more of a home,” Scott says. “It’s a warm home, where others care for us and we care for others. Nature cares for us, we care for nature. Being filled with those connections leads to a greater sense of hope.”
How to Create an Upward Spiral
Humans have a tendency to quickly get wrapped up in the stresses happening in our lives. Blame our ancient selves: When you’re living in the wilderness, it’s important to always be looking out for danger — or a saber-tooth tiger — coming around the next corner.
Unfortunately, the same instincts that once protected us today encourage our brains to hone in on perceived threats, in a way that leads to ruminating and depression.
The good news is that there are ways to reverse the flow of your thoughts, from a negative spiral to an upward spiral. By intentionally focusing on positive actions and thoughts, you can retune your brain to prioritize happiness, instead of stress or sadness.
You can start by taking your happiness temperature. Ask yourself, on a scale of one to 10, how happy am I today? How hopeful am I today? How much control do I have over my happiness and my hopefulness?
Once you have your number, think about how you came to it, from a positive perspective. For example, why have you rated your happiness at three and not two? Your hope was at four yesterday: why are you at six today?
This creates an opportunity to take an optimistic outlook, rather than sinking into negativity: “A fullness mindset versus a deficit mindset, versus a negativity-oriented ruminative approach,” Scott says.
It can jolt you into realizing that something that was bothering you yesterday has now been resolved, or to see that despite certain stressors, you still have many things in your life that are increasing your happiness.
As you get better at seeking silver linings, you also improve your coping capabilities. Scott points to the “broaden-and-build” theory established by Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, which holds that actively engaging in a positive outlook makes us better problem-solvers. In this mindset, we become better at finding resources and support. This in turn leads us to solutions, which decreases our stress and helps us become happier.
Another useful tool for kickstarting that upward spiral is a lightness list. Write down things that make you laugh — which give you that walking-on-air feeling. Silly and fun things are welcome: Your list may include cat videos, a certain comedian, or your kid’s nonsensical jokes.
Laughter is one of your body’s best antidotes to the mental and physical impacts of stress. Purposefully identifying the things that bring humor and playfulness to your life can help make them more accessible in your low moments. It can help you recalibrate your thinking away from stress, and back to the positivity that leads you into an upward spiral.
How Small Steps can Lead to Big Changes
Deciding to change your whole mindset from negative to positive sounds like an overwhelming challenge. Especially if you’re feeling depressed. “Sometimes we don’t make changes in our lives because it seems too daunting,” Scott acknowledges.
Instead of treating this journey as one big task, break it down into smaller steps. You might even be doing some of them, without realizing that they are achievements in themselves.
“We often ignore the little steps that we take in life,” Scott says. “We didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning, but we did. We didn’t want to eat a healthy lunch, but we decided to add one vegetable.”
Recognizing those small positive steps as accomplishments can help us feel ready to take on the next one, and the next. Eventually these add up into that upward spiral. “It makes the change so much more manageable,” Scott says.
Starting out with these small ways of caring for yourself can help you slowly move towards a more deeply felt self love. “It’s asking what I can do to make myself more comfortable, or to put myself in a better frame of mind in this moment, versus how can I love myself holistically at a great depth,” Scott explains.
You can’t rewire your brain overnight. But you can make one small change — and celebrate your first step to a happier you.
The conversation with Scott Glassman continues on the Leading With Genuine Care podcast. We also talk about finding awe in everyday moments, how to develop self compassion, finding your meaning in life, and more. Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website or some of my other work here.