As you probably know firsthand, women — particularly mothers — tend to be especially empathetic to those around us. It’s a wonderful trait that comes in handy when, say, your child’s feelings are hurt or your spouse has to vent about his job. You listen, show your concern and do your best to help cheer them up.
But that sensitivity to others can also make you more susceptible to negativity from, say, a temperamental co-worker or a stranger’s rude remark, explains Barbara Holstein, Ed.D., a psychologist in Long Branch, N.J., and author of The Truth: I’m a Girl, I’m Smart, and I Know Everything!
So, when someone else’s bad mood rubs off on you, it can create a trickle-down effect of negativity. Soon, everyone from your bank teller to your kids could catch the bad-mood bug.
While you may not always be able to control the outcome of situations, you do have a choice about how you react to it, says Dr. Holstein. Focusing on your actions is one of the best ways to fend off a bad mood.
To stay happy and pay your attitude forward in a positive way, put these tricks into practice:
1. Kill them with kindness Remember the lesson you teach your kids about saying something nice or nothing at all? It’s time to turn that concept on its head. Instead of keeping silent the next time you encounter a sourpuss, dish out a compliment. Compliment your boss’s haircut, or acknowledge the hard work of a surly PTA mom. A kind comment could do more to shield you from a dark cloud than zipping your lip. It may even help clear the skies for the other person too.
2. Do unto others It’s easy to sit and stew about the jerk who cut you off on the highway. A stay-happy alternative to fuming: Do what you wish he had done, advises Dr. Holstein. For example, give the next car plenty of room to merge and a friendly wave. Research shows that doing a good deed for others can lift your mood even more than doing something nice for yourself, says Dr. Holstein. Then, you’ll feel better (and feel good about yourself) for taking the high road.
3. Fake it until you make it When you’re cranky, the last thing you want to do is smile. But smiling can actually help cement a sunny outlook. When you pretend to be happy, it crowds out unpleasant thoughts because we can only truly concentrate on one thing at a time, explains Dr. Holstein. In fact, research from Paul Ekman, Ph.D., a psychologist who studies facial expressions and the author of Revealing Emotions, shows that grinning actually activates the happiness region of your brain and can help you perceive things in a better light.
5. Skip the morning news Your sensitivity to others isn’t limited to those around you. Simply reading the day’s depressing headlines can leave you down in the dumps. Solution: If you have a ritual of checking the morning news, replace it with a restorative activity, such as a stretching DVD, walking the dog or reading to your kids. You can still keep up with current events — just wait until the afternoon, when you’re less susceptible to negative reports, recommends Dr. Holstein.
6. Play in the dirt Gardening can be a terrific way to prevent and even shake off a bad mood. Studies show exercise alone helps increase feelings of happiness and well-being, plus working in the soil has also been shown to bolster positivity, says Dr. Holstein. Scientists at the University of Bristol discovered that contact with microorganisms in the soil stimulates production of serotonin, the feel-good chemical in your brain. So, ditch the gloves and get your hands dirty!
7. See the glass as half full In most families, or circle of friends, there’s often one person who can’t see the silver lining in anything. To keep a Debbie Downer from bumming you out, acknowledge her point, then offer an alternative, more positive point of view. For example, if your friend complains of slow service at a restaurant, agree that it could be speedier but also mention how grateful you are to catch up. Forcing yourself to look on the bright side keeps you from focusing on the negative aspects of any situation. Who knows, you may even influence your friend to be more optimistic.
8. Keep things in perspective When life throws you the big curveballs, such as money issues or health concerns, resolve to look at the whole picture and keep things in perspective. When bad thoughts creep in, make an effort to think as rationally about your situation as possible. Ask yourself: Will canceling your yearly vacation scar your kids for life? No, it won’t. (They may even be relieved.) And if negative emotions and thoughts continue to spiral, call an impartial friend. (Family members can be too close for an unbiased perspective.) Ask her to remind you the facts, advises Dr. Holstein.
The most important thing to remember is that it is possible to hold onto a sunny mood no matter what life throws at you. Now that’s something to smile about!