No doubt about it, these are difficult times for all of us. COVID-19, an uncertain economy, wildfires, polarizing national politics and social issues, and more: The combined weight can take a toll, personally, professionally and organizationally. Where can we find relief?

Last week, I was able to attend a one-hour online session called “Elevating Optimism and Personal Wellbeing,” with Tia Graham, founder and inspirationist at Arrive at Happy, a company with a mission to inspire transformation through the science of happiness. Graham caught me off guard when the first question she asked the assembled group was, “What if 2020 were the very best year of your life?”

Excuse me? What’s that now? This is one optimistic woman.

For the next hour or so, she gave the group insight into the science of happiness, and some concrete strategies to boost our individual optimism and ability to be resilient in difficult times like these.

The secret to being happy in the face of difficulty, she said, is twofold: Acceptance and positivity. We must practice the motivation and intention to accept what is and to notice the positivity in our days, no matter how small or large. Humans, Graham said, have a biological negativity bias. Our ancestors didn’t venture forth from safe caves expecting to find water and food; they expected to find danger and death in the search for water and food. Their survival depended on it. So we must face that bias head on every day, and counteract its hold on us.

The most fascinating fact she passed on (I hope I’m not stealing your thunder, Tia Graham) is that 50% of our happiness is genetic, passed on through generations. Only 10% of our happiness depends on our circumstances, like how much money we make, where we live or what we do for a living. Here is the cool part: The remaining 40% depends on the 3,000 or so choices we make every day. Some of those increase our wellbeing, some of them decrease our wellbeing, and we aren’t always mindful of which is which. But isn’t it empowering to know that you have that much control over your happiness?

With that intention in mind, Graham shared with the group a list of proven optimism boosters, road-tested and certain to, over time, morph the way you see your world and counteract your inherent negativity bias.

  1. Every day, when you get up, think or write down the answer to “What I am excited about today is …”
  2. If you feel anxious, sit still and go through your five senses, identifying what you see, smell, taste, feel and hear at that moment.
  3. At least three times a week, journal three things you are grateful for.
  4. Move! Exercise of any kind acts as a mood-booster and antidepressant.
  5. Practice generosity. Give of yourself, to other people, to animals, to the planet — whatever resonates with you.
  6. Journaling is shown to have profound effects on wellbeing, even if just for 20 minutes, three days in a row. Interestingly, the effects have been shown to be even more pronounced for men.
  7. Sleep at least 7-8 hours each night.
  8. Connect with family and friends. If you can’t do that in person right now, make the effort to do it virtually, on the phone, Zoom, texting, videos. Whatever it takes.
  9. Practice meditation daily. Even one minute a day helps.
  10. Use “primers,” words in your environment that remind you of your intentions, like Calm, Brave, Excited, etc. Keep them front and center in your home, office and car.
  11. Search out and enjoy humor, the emotion of amusement!
  12. Practice good nutrition. Taking in 4 to 7 servings of fruits and vegetables a day is proven to decrease stress.
  13. Read for pleasure.
  14. Keep learning and growing.

There is, of course, a lot more to the pursuit of happiness, but Graham offered the class pithy, actionable ideas that, even in merely contemplating them, left me feeling slightly more optimistic.

I still am doubtful that 2020 will be my best year ever, but there’s no reason it can’t break the Top 20!

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