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When a loved one dies or you lose your job, for example, it's normal and healthy to mourn. You're supposed to feel sad and even depressed. But you can't cocoon yourself in sadness for too long. A study by UCSF researchers of HIV-positive men whose partners had died found that the men who allowed themselves to grieve while also seeking to accept the death were better able to bounce back from the tragedy. Men who focused only on the loss as opposed to, say, viewing the death as a relief of their partner's suffering, tended to grieve longer, presumably because they couldn't find a way out of their sadness.
Smile in Your Profile Picture
If all else fails, try "catching" happiness from your friends. We are social beings, of course, and our outlook is influenced to no small degree by that of our friends and family. Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a professor at Harvard Medical School, documented in a 2008 study just how extensive and powerful this network effect is. Compared with glum people, those who were happy were more likely to be surrounded by other happy people even the friends of happy people's friends' friends (who might be complete strangers) tended to be happy.
Christakis and his colleague James Fowler at the University of California, San Diego, are now studying happiness contagion in perhaps the largest social network of all, Facebook. They noticed that people who smiled in their Facebook profile pictures tended to have other friends who smiled. This might simply be peer pressure at work, with members feeling obliged to flash a smile to fit in with the rest of the group, but Christakis and Fowler are investigating whether there isn't a more infectious phenomenon at work.
If you still aren't convinced that your doomsaying ways can ever be changed, consider this: only about 25% of a person's optimism may be hardwired in his genes, according to some studies. That's in contrast to the 40% to 60% heritability of most other personality traits, like agreeableness and conscientiousness. Science suggests that the greater part of an optimistic outlook can be acquired with the right instruction a theory borne out in a study of college freshmen by Seligman. Pessimistic students who took a 12-week optimism-training course devised by Seligman which included exercises like writing a letter of gratitude then reading it aloud to someone were less likely to visit the student health center for illnesses during the next four years than their similarly pessimistic peers who weren't tutored in positive thinking. And a larger study of more than 3,000 middle-school students who are being taught resilience techniques is under way in England. "It's the largest-scale validation that optimism can be taught," says Seligman, who developed the techniques used in the study.
The thing about being optimistic, though, is that it takes hard work and that's a drag. It's an active process, say psychologists, through which you force yourself to see your life a certain way. Indeed, the leading optimism and happiness experts consider themselves born pessimists. But if they have learned over time and with lots of practice to become more hopeful, take heart. So can you.