I don’t like to deal with absolutes… always, never, everything, nothing. After all, I’m a research scientist. For people like me, I prefer statements like “it depends”. I try to avoid being too certain.
When I’m dealing with people, it’s hard to say something always happens or never happens. People are complicated. Does everything always work out just right? Does nothing ever work out at all? Absolutes and statements about them make me uncomfortable. They don’t seem true.
So when I come across an idea like “Attitude is Everything”, I shudder. I grimace. I pause and think, “Well, gee, I know plenty of people who had a great attitude and they still had their struggles.”
Attitude isn’t everything. There are systems that work against people. There are biases and prejudices that stymie growth, development, and excellence. There are diseases and diagnoses that obfuscate opportunity.
In short, there are all kinds of things that are external to a person and his or her attitude that affect the life outcomes of that person.
And yet… there’s something about that saying – attitude is everything – that tells me that it’s useful; that it might help lift someone to a higher level; that there is enough truth in it to keep pushing it forward as a mantra in spite of the systems, the biases, the prejudices, the diseases, the diagnoses, and all of the other externalities. In fact it’s precisely what I’ve seen.
It’s not that attitude will solve all problems, rescue people from prejudice or racism, or exorcise people from circumstances and systems that hold them down. That’s a preposterous claim. But what it is… is a way to make the most of a situation, whether positive or negative. And what I’ve seen is that people who have a great attitude tend to do better than those with a less-than-great attitude, regardless of their station or circumstances in life.
One last point: I’m not the fist-pumping guy who says we have to have a positive mental attitude about everything. That seems inauthentic and perhaps even counterproductive. So that’s not what this is about either. Sometimes life stinks. Let’s not try to pretend otherwise. But again, even when life stinks, attitude is everything.
So with all of the caveats acknowledged, let’s consider 3 simple strategies to supercharge your attitude.
The ability to take a lousy situation and shift the way we see it (knowns as positive reappraisal) has been shown to boost mental health, and life outcomes. The ability to reframe through noticing positive events, savouring, gratitude, mindful awareness, acting in service to others, or finding meaning and purpose have all been shown to improve wellbeing and reduce depression. Here’s how to do it:
When something happens that is rotten (such as a child behaving in a challenging way, a student being obnoxious, or a client, boss, or colleague making life ‘tricky’), find the good, derive a life lesson and positive meaning from it, find a way to breathe through it, or look for someone you can help.
After a particularly trying situation with one of my children a couple of years ago, I spoke to my wife through tears and said, “Now I know what it’s like for parents who are struggling with this. I feel like I can be so much more compassionate to others. This has been painful, but it’s been so valuable.”
Reframes and other forms of cognitive reappraisal change our approach to adversity and strengthen and bolster us during difficulty.
One of my daughters has a saying that kind of drives me a bit mad. It’s one of the statements that is senseless, meaningless, and frustrating in its banality. And yet… in the right context, it says so much.
When hard times strike and things go against her, my daughter shrugs her shoulders and, with a funny voice and accent, states: “It is what it is.”
Actually, she lengthens the “i” in “is” so it sounds like “It eeeeees what it eeeeees.”
It’s a comedy routine that alleviates the struggle a bit. But it’s so much more. It’s a lesson in acceptance. It doesn’t mean she gives up. It just means that she recognises the issue or trial, pauses to acknowledge it, and then gets on with her life.
“It is what it is” may be a useful reframe, or perhaps just a reset. It’s an acknowledgement that things aren’t ideal, but they just “are”. And once we acknowledge that they just “are”, we can then get about finding ways forward again.
Force creates resistance. Acceptance allows us the space we need to see things for what they are and reorient ourselves towards what we want.
You’ve got to love the hills
Perhaps my favourite way to supercharge your attitude comes from my love of cycling. As a former competitive cyclist I learned that to be stronger, riding down hills was no help. It was more fun than riding up hill, but it did nothing for my endurance. For me to be a stronger cyclist I had to learn to love the hills because the hills make me strong.
I use this phrase daily in family life. When my children whine and complain about how ‘hard’ their lives are I gently remind them that “you’ve got to love the hills because the hills make you strong.” The metaphor doesn’t do much for their attitude in the moment, but over time it has compounded. They approach the metaphorical hills of life with more resolve than they used to. Their attitude has improved. And they achieve more because of it.
Stress has a definition. It’s when the demands we experience (internal or external) exceed our resources. These three strategies can supercharge your resources and boost your attitude, helping you to do better, regardless of what you’re facing.
But more than that, these three strategies build other resources in life that help change those biases, prejudices, systems, and even diagnoses. When you reframe, accept, and take on challenges, people like you more. You build social resources. You also discover just how much you can do and your competence builds. These tiny wins build your physical and cognitive resources. You become more resilient. This builds your emotional resources.