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Accentuate the Positive

Her glass was half empty. Despite good health, great looks and a successful career, Ellen religiously found something to stew about. Meanwhile, Melanie was wrestling with round two of a life-threatening illness. Even while in dire straits, Melanie rarely gave in to a bad mood. She tenaciously hung on to her positive attitude, and found humor even in the worst situations.

What makes these two women so different? Why is Ellen often miserable, while Melanie remains upbeat, even in the face of illness? Melanie has learned something that composer and lyricist Johnny Mercer said best: “You’ve got to … accentuate the positive … eliminate the negative!”

The tendency toward pessimism or optimism is partly genetic. Everyone is born with a kind of attitudinal “wiring.” Regardless of biology, you can influence your outlook. And there are compelling reasons to make a positive attitude adjustment. Research indicates that optimists are happier, healthier and more successful than pessimists. Are these reasons convincing enough for you?

It is only human to think negatively sometimes. In fact, pessimism can be a useful tool when it comes to evaluating risky situations, such as starting your own business. In this case it is wise to consider worst-case scenarios so you can be prepared for them. But if your thinking typically fits into one or more of the categories below, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work on that attitude!

  • Awfulizing. Regularly assuming the worst about life’s unknowns, such as times when your partner doesn’t return home from work at the expected time. You call the police, immediately assuming he or she has had a fatal car crash.
  • Personalizing. If a colleague or friend is abrupt or isn’t available to get together, you automatically assume she is angry with you, and never consider that her reactions may have nothing to do with you at all.
  • Perfectionism. You are highly impatient with yourself and with others when inconveniences and mistakes occur.
  • Obsessing about past and future. Beating yourself up about past mistakes or worrying about the future.
  • Focusing on the negative. Searching for what is wrong instead of noticing what is right about a given situation.

Do any of these tendencies sound familiar? If so, here are some perpetual pessimism antidotes:

  • Make a list. Note past experiences that seemed overwhelming at the time. Recall how you resolved them. Most important, remember that you survived them and probably learned a great deal in the process. Review your list when troubles arise in the future.
  • Find joy in small things. Take time to notice the small wonders that occur each day, like the African violet that finally bloomed, or the friend who happened to call when you were down and out. Finding a moment to notice these things will help keep problems in perspective.
  • Use thought-stopping techniques. Obsessing about the past or future is merely a bad habit. When you find yourself wallowing in negativity, visualize a red stop sign, or simply say the word “stop.” Then refuse to entertain the thought any further. Instead, call a friend, go for a walk or work on a project that is absorbing and enjoyable. With practice, your bad habit will eventually diminish.
  • Ask yourself an important question. Will the negative situation you are dwelling on make a difference in a year? Next month? Tomorrow? Asking this question will help to cut your problem down to size.
  • Avoid toxic situations. Whenever possible, enter uplifting situations with positive people. Negative experiences are toxic for all of us, and it is better to steer clear of them whenever possible.

Put these antidotes to work in your life. Most important, remember that it is not circumstances that create your happiness, it is how you look at them. Even in the worst of times there is good to be found if you seek it.

Accentuate the Positive

Maud Purcell, LCSW, CEAP

APA Reference
Purcell, M. (2020). Accentuate the Positive. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.