Category Archives: Looking for the positive

Could living a life be like driving a car?

When I learned to drive, few cars had automatic gearboxes. Knowing how to use the clutch and gear stick was part and parcel of the process for me.

Of course these days there are many more automatics around, but I still enjoy driving a car that puts me in charge of the gear I drive in. Four (or five) choices when it comes to going forward, and just the one when you need to reverse, which is not a bad analogy for the way we progress through life.


Although it’s usual to move forward, there will always be times when you need to back up a little. When you do so, move slowly: there’s no need to rush. And aim to go no more than a short way in reverse. It’s usually used for parking rather than long-distance motoring, and that’s why there’s just the one backwards gear.

Use your forward gears in succession – both upwards and downwards. Get things started in first gear, which will move you slowly but surely. Change up only when the time’s right. You’ll know when it is. When you need to slow up, change down gradually.

Some may argue that taking a positive approach to life means being bullish and full-on all the time, but maybe it makes more sense to learn from a car’s manual gearbox? There are several forward modes, and the trick, I’m sure, is to know which gear to use when.

In inclement conditions we’re generally advised to drive slowly in a low gear. It gives you more power. Wise advice next time you’re going through a difficult patch yourself, perhaps?

How to avoid thinking in black and white

Infuriating isn’t it? Let’s say you’re feeling decidedly below par. Hopefully it’s not the case right now but it does happen to the best of us now and then.

So you’re going through a rough time, and you know quite incontrovertibly that if you could only just take a positive approach to things, you might be able to edge yourself back on track. You know this. But you know this in theory. The chances of being able to think anything other than negatively at a time like this are, frankly, remote. On a par with winning the lottery.

So what the heck do you do?


Well let’s imagine a scale which has Very Negative on the left and Very Positive on the right, and let’s add a Fairly Negative and Slightly Negative to the right of Very Negative, and a Slightly Positive and Fairly Positive to the left of Very Positive.

Then I think we’re entitled to add one more position on the scale: there’s no reason at all why we shouldn’t place this slap bang in the middle – right there between the Slightly Negative and the Slightly Positive, and we might choose to label this as Neutral.

So where has this piece of mental origami taken us? I reckon it suggests that when taking a positive approach is out of the question, it may be more realistic to see if we can actually adopt a neutral way of viewing things.

An example? Certainly. Let’s imagine you’ve been invited to a party when you’re feeling pretty gloomy. The (most likely) negative viewpoint is to believe you’ll have an awful time if you accept, while the (unlikely) positive is to predict that you’ll really enjoy it. To some extent these are both extreme views, though, and the truth is that you can’t actually know how much or not of a good time you’ll have.

You might still not really want to go to the party, but at least you’ll keep an open mind if you do.

Next time you’re faced with a situation that seems to depend on you either taking the positive road or the negative one, why not add a third direction?

The neutral approach may just be a more realistic one.

You have more control over thoughts than you may think.

Having once ridden my bike down a steep slope straight into a canal lock (don’t ask) I certainly recall the stomach-churning feeling of knowing I was out of control.

Although I trust you’ve never made precisely this foolish mistake, it’s a pretty safe bet that your childhood will have involved at least one occasion on which you careered down a hill without the power to stop yourself.

Of course, you tend to have little or no fear when you’re young, so having no hope of slamming on the brakes doesn’t necessarily bother you: in fact it’s probably quite exhilarating.


As you grow up, however, you tend to develop more worries about being out of control, exercising rather more caution.

But while we recognise the need for control over our physical actions, how often do we stop to think that we generally have the same kind of power over our thoughts?

It’s easy to get swept along on a wave of believing that thoughts show up in your mind unbidden, resulting in feelings over which you have no choice.

It’s certainly true of me at times, when I find myself reacting unhelpfully to some kind of unpleasant situation.

It’s as if my mind hurtles towards the same old conclusions without for once stopping to wonder if it has a choice.

Controlling your thoughts ought to be easy, but when you do actually pull it off it can be a weird feeling – something akin, perhaps, to picking up a trumpet as a total novice and blowing a B flat out of the blue.

Where on earth did that come from?

It could be something you already do on a regular basis, in which case keep it up.

However, if you’re like me, you may need a reminder that you’ve more control over your thoughts than you may sometimes believe.

If you find yourself about to slip into negativity today, see if you can’t apply the brakes.

You might just surprise yourself in being able to take a slightly more positive approach.

Cracking up at the crack of dawn.

One paradox I’ve found about life in America is that (very) late-night TV is still pretty popular here (even though network TV audiences are in decline as viewers watch streaming services like Netflix more and more).


For example, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon doesn’t actually start until 11:35 PM, long after my bedtime, and long after British TV has gone into a less-than-prime-time mode.

What’s most strange to me, though, is that many Americans also start their days incredibly early.

For instance, my local Starbucks opens at 5 AM.

So retiring after The Tonight Show and rising at the crack of Starbucks’ espresso machine could leave you enjoying only the briefest of snoozes.

Although I can’t get my head around the late nights, I much better understand (and embrace, actually) the early starts.

I guess I’m a lark at heart.

However, I’m not the only one.

I’m generally at Stanford by 7:30 AM, and most mornings I meet up with four friends for a 30 minute catch up over coffee.

We’re not all there every morning, but when there’s a full quorum it’s notable that the overall sound issuing from the group is laughter.

And it certainly feels fine to start the day with a really healthy chortle.

Sometimes, of course, life is anything but funny.

But I think a chuckle is always possible, even on the darkest of days.

So what makes you laugh?

And who makes you laugh?

And what can you do to bring the what and who into your life today?

What you and I can learn from my huge heap of failure

Stacked in the corner of my office at home is an 18 inch high pile of failures.

They’re prototypes of “Nudge Your Way To Happiness”, which was actually titled “Plot Your Way To Happiness” in its first incarnation.

The early versions just weren’t right.

Someone were too complicated, others too superficial.

But by steadily refining the idea, I ended up with the book that will be on sale at the end of this month.

So although I may refer to them as failures, I’m actually pretty fond of them.


Over the years I’ve learned that planning to fail is a crucial, valuable part of any innovation project.

I think that if you believe you’ll get it right first time every time, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

Ideas evolve.

Even The Beatles’ “Yesterday” was originally called “Scrambled Eggs” when Paul McCartney woke from a dream with its tune in his head.

And it’s said that James Dyson spent five years making 5,126 failed prototypes in order to develop the world’s first bagless vacuum cleaner. Now Dyson is the world’s best selling vacuum brand.

It’s unlikely that you and I will find everything goes our way today.

I think that’s kind of usual.

Perhaps, however, rather than cursing our luck when something doesn’t go right, it may help to reframe this into seeing that we’re now one step closer to the point where everything does actually work out.

As you may now know, “Nudge Your Way To Happiness” rates your wellbeing each day then directs you to a tailored mood nudge, appropriate to your current level of emotional and physical health.

When I trialled the concept with 23 Moodnudges readers last summer, I was encouraged to discover that the basic idea worked well.

That was good.

However, what didn’t work too well was the scoring system. People said it was unwieldy, and I suppose I might have judged this a failure.

But instead I focused 100% on simplifying the mechanics behind the test, making it easier to use.

And that was good too.

So don’t be disheartened by setbacks today.

Why not treat them as progression, not regression?

Are you prepared to win?

Two friends play tennis.

One expects to do well, the other to fail.

Who’s most likely to take the match?


Two applicants go for the same job.

One sets out with high hopes, the other with low expectations.

Who do you imagine will get the job offer?

When we know no more about someone than their level of optimism, it’s often appropriate to use this to judge their potential in any given situation.

A positive approach may even speed up your recovery to physical illness.

Unfortunately it can sometimes seem that your position on the optimism-pessimism spectrum is permanently fixed: also that you tend to adopt this one mind-set for all you do, positioning you somewhere between the extremes of ALOTBSOLs (Always Look On the Bright Side Of Lifers) and curmudgeonly doomsayers.

Maybe this is wrong, though?

Perhaps your outlook can be more (or less) optimistic depending on circumstances?

A pessimistic pauper may be justified in believing he’ll never be a millionaire, but could be right to expect that at least he’ll have a bed to sleep in tonight.

And of course his lack of optimism about unexpected wealth might be completely kicked into touch when his lottery ticket just happens to have all the right numbers.

It’s a trivial example, but I hope it may make you think a little about the wisdom of accepting that a (more) positive approach can often be possible, and is often helpful.

Only 10 hours of recorded music? Seriously, why did The Beatles bother?

How long do you think it would take if you played every song released by The Beatles between 1963 and 1970 back-to-back?

Although it’s not easy to establish an exact or definitive answer, there’s general agreement that it would come to somewhere in the region of ten hours. If you put them on in alphabetical order, this would mean that you’d get from ‘Across The Universe’ to ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ in something considerably shorter than one of your waking days.


This is the band that many would regard as the greatest in history, and they had no less than seven years to do their stuff. In some ways, it doesn’t sound a lot, does it? Around six hundred minutes. Ten hours.

So what do you think? Say you were John Lennon, in the studio in 1963 to record ‘Please Please Me’, and someone said, you know what, I wouldn’t bother if I were you. It’s going to be seven years before you release ‘The Long And Winding Road’ and after all that work, all that graft, it’ll still only amount to ten hours of material. I’d call it a day now if I were you.

Well thank goodness this didn’t happen. In my humble opinion our world would have been all the poorer without the music of The Beatles, who started their careers with the most positive of attitudes – perhaps this is what got them through their estimated 10,000 hours of playing live in Hamburg before they even started proper recording, in fact.

When you see early press conferences given by Messrs Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr, you see confidence, and you get the feeling that these four twenty-somethings knew they’d got what it would take.

Just imagine what would have happened if they hadn’t taken a positive approach, however. Things would have been very different.

So how about you, today, then? Positive or negative outlook? It’s fairly easy to predict how things will pan out if you opt for the latter, but choose the former and who knows where things could go? I’ve got a feeling.

When a positive approach is impossible, there’s always a neutral one

When you see a ‘Wet Paint’ sign, why is it so difficult to avoid reaching out to touch whatever it is you’re not supposed to? And why does a ‘Keep Off The Grass’ notice make you want to do the exact opposite? There’s something about rules such as these which seem to make us want to break them.


I mention this because I think something similar can happen if you’re feeling down in the dumps and someone suggests that you should ‘take a positive approach’. Yes, yes, yes… You know it would make sense, but following such advice probably feels like the last thing you’d be able to do.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Rather than approaching your day with a negative mindset, simply decide to put a smile on your face and go about things without a care in the world.

Although this makes a degree of sense, it’s likely to feel utterly impossible. I’d be inclined to tell whoever suggested it: ‘Do you honestly think I’d actively choose to feel like this if it was even remotely possible that I could snap out of it? Do you seriously believe that I could simply decide to feel differently, and do it?’. I suspect I might then go on to tell this do-gooder where to stick their positive approach.

And yet, and yet, I would of course know that if only I could just change my attitude the teeniest amount, it could just make a difference.

The trick? If there is one, perhaps it’s to twist the admonition around, treating it like the ‘Keep off the grass’ notice, and turning it into a self-suggestion that it would be sensible to ‘keep off the negative outlook’, or at least to avoid making it a permanent part of your day.

On days when adopting a positive approach seems impossible, you may be able to aim for a neutral one, and this will almost certainly make things a little better.

Why it’s always helpful to look for chances to see things positively

Is your glass half empty, or half full?

Although psychologists are divided on how much your answer to this question is down to inherited traits, and how much depends on environmental factors, it’s safe to assume that we do all have a reasonable degree of freedom to choose the degree of optimism with which we approach our day-to-day living.


To some extent, people get stuck in their ways when it comes to taking either a positive or negative view of things, but this is an at least somewhat simple habit, and like all habits, the more you practice them, the ‘better’ you get: even if the skill you’re developing is a harmful one.

I think bad habits become unconscious actions: we’re generally not aware we’re exhibiting them.

Perhaps it doesn’t really matter, though?

Maybe it’s not that important whether others see us as grumpy or chirpy?

Actually, there are good reasons to aim for Van Morrison’s bright side of the road.

For a start, those with an optimistic approach to life are less likely to suffer from depression, and less vulnerable to some other physical health conditions too.

Of course, if you may be inclined to take a gloomy view of things at times (I’ve been there) you’re unlikely to change overnight, but you can at least set out to be aware of your attitude as the day progresses.

If you find yourself moaning and groaning rather too much, see whether you can turn down the volume a bit.

It doesn’t mean you’ve suddenly got to become all sweetness and light, but it’ll help a lot if you’re not constantly telling yourself that all is overwhelmingly gloomy.

I reckon you’ll have at least one opportunity to think more optimistically today.

In fact I’m positive.

Keeping an open mind to the possibility of being happy

When President Kennedy proposed in 1961 that by the end of that decade the United States should set as a goal landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth, nobody could deny he was taking a positive approach.

He and his advisers knew that the challenge to achieve a moon mission was immense – dangerous and expensive, too – but it was the right message at the right time, and in six short years the impossible was achieved (unless you’re a committed conspiracy theorist, that is).

However, although the project was driven by positivity, I’m sure it succeeded in part because there were those who took the trouble to think through what could happen were things to go wrong.

That wasn’t pessimism, it was realism.

It’s also important to recognise that JFK allowed that the whole thing was going to take time.

Note that it was ‘by the end of the decade’ rather than ‘by this time next week’.

Of course, when life seems to have dumped you into the abyss, it’s not terribly easy to take a positive approach, is it?

In fact, if someone suggested that I should do so, on one of my shabbier days, I’d probably tell them where to stick their approach.

However, deep down I think even I’d acknowledge the merit of keeping a small part of my mind open to better times.

Perhaps it would be reasonable, for instance, to accept that things could just get better, even if it might take months?

After all, they put a man on the moon. You could feel better.