In one of Segerstrom’s favourite studies, researchers asked a group of people to use a beautiful piece of classical music to raise their moods, while telling other volunteers simply to listen to the symphony. The result: The concert didn’t help those who were focused on lifting their spirits—but the others wound up feeling much better.
“To truly be happy, you have to stop trying,” says Segerstrom (it’s true; naturally happy people never do these 6 things). Even monitoring yourself—Am I feeling better yet?—gets in the way, studies show.
Instead, aim to be engaged. “Engagement bypasses pessimism,” she says. One reason: When you’re fully involved in something, it can distract you from a pessimist’s favourite pastime—rumination. (That’s what psychologists call the destructive pattern of obsessing endlessly over problems or concerns.) When you’re ruminating, it’s not just a bad day—it’s always a bad day and a bad life, and you’re a bad person. The habit will blow up even a minor problem with billboard size. It takes up so much bandwidth, who has room to focus on a solution? It’s no surprise that optimists accomplish more than pessimists.
Attitude adjustment: Find quick distractions you can use when you realize you’re stuck on the same negative thought, suggests Segerstrom. Try activities that demand your full attention: Go to a yoga class (or a kickboxing or aerobics class, where you have to commit fully to avoid falling on your face). At the office, try calling a friend or switching on some absorbing music. (Distract yourself and get ridiculously toned at the same time with Prevention’s 10-minute Fit in 10 workouts.)