To state the obvious: It’s easier to be happy when things are going well. Positive outcomes are known to lift people’s moods, while negative emotions (like anxiety) generally reflect concerns about negative outcomes.
But, happy people are also good at dealing with problems in ways that help them to maintain their mood, while still dealing with issues effectively. Here are three common things that happy people tend to do to deal with speed bumps in life.
Focus on the future
It is important to understand the problem you’re facing, and so happy people certainly analyze the situation. But, they don’t remain focused on the problem for long. That is, they avoid rumination—which is a set of repeated thoughts about something that has gone wrong.
Instead, they look to the future. There are two benefits to this: One is that the future is not determined yet, and so happy people can be optimistic about things to come. The other is that happy people are looking to make the future better than the past, which creates a hopeful outlook—no matter what the present circumstances look like.
At any given moment, the situation you are in exerts some amount of control over your options. When you’re sitting in traffic, for example, there isn’t much you can do but wait for the cars around you to start moving. The amount of control you have to take action in a situation is your degree of agency.
Happy people seek out their sources of agency when problems arise. They are most interested in what they can do to influence the situation, rather than focusing on all of the options that have been closed off by what has happened. The focus on agency is important, because it provides the basis for creating a plan to solve the problem. And the sooner a problem is addressed, the less time it has to cause stress.
Know when to fold
There are always going to be big problems that you can’t solve. Perhaps there is a client who is never satisfied with the work you do. Maybe there is a process you’re trying to implement that never seems to have the desired outcome. You might even have been working on the problem for a long time.
Despite all the discussions about the importance of grit, effective (and happy) problem solvers are good at knowing when to walk away from a problem that can’t be fixed. Each of us has a limited amount of time and energy that we can devote to the work we are doing. Spending time on problems that cannot be solved has an opportunity cost. There are other things you could be doing with your time that might yield better outcomes. It is important to learn when it is time to give up on a problem rather than continuing to try to solve it.
This is particularly true when you have been working on that problem for a long time. There is a tendency for people to pay attention to sunk costs—the time, money, and energy they have already devoted to working on something. But, those resources are gone, and you can’t get them back. If it isn’t likely that additional effort is going to help you solve a problem, then you should walk away, no matter how hard you have worked on it already. Happy people are good at ignoring those sunk costs both when making the decision to walk away from a project and after making the decision to walk away. They don’t spend time regretting the “wasted” resources.