We often feel we have to change the world for good things to happen. Maybe we just need to adjust our thinking.
You’re up for a job you really want. You give your absolute best effort during the interview — but you don’t get it. You feel like a failure. No, you think, you are a failure.
But what if you reflected on the experience instead of sinking into self-doubt? What would you do differently next time? Where do you know you performed well? You recognize that not getting hired doesn’t make you a failure — after all, you made it to the final round of interviews. Buoyed by these insights, you find yourself confidently preparing for your next interview, armed with what you learned this time around.
The only real difference between these two scenarios is mindset.
Mindset influences everything: self-esteem, health, relationships, and careers. It’s often just as powerful as circumstances in determining the course of your life. Unlike random situations, however, mindset is something you can learn to control.
The three theories that follow can help radically reprogram your reactions to common experiences. While they may seem counterintuitive (Don’t try to overhaul your life? Embrace failure? Love a stranger?), these tweaks to your usual ways of thinking can help you become wiser, more competent, and more fulfilled.
What’s more, shifting your perspective is not all that difficult. And it can improve your life in profound ways, starting now.
Climb Mountains One Step at a Time
Consider the New Year’s resolution. You’ve probably never resolved to wake up five minutes earlier each day, because that would appear to lack ambition. A real resolution, many of us believe, means becoming a lark who gets up at 5 a.m., even if you’ve always been a night owl. It means quitting all sugar, including fruit, instead of simply cutting out soda. We often think there’s no point in change unless we’re going to change big.
But aiming for radical change practically guarantees our efforts will fall flat.
“Change doesn’t happen until people alter their behavior, and they don’t alter their behavior unless they start with the small,” explains Harvard philosophy professor Michael Puett, PhD, in his book The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, which he cowrote with journalist Christine Gross-Loh.
Puett’s students often tell him they’ve changed their lives as a result of taking his course, which explores key principles of the Chinese philosophers Confucius, Mencius, and others. But rather than focusing on abstract philosophical queries, like What is the meaning of life? or Do we have free will?, the class ponders questions like this one, from Confucius: How are you living your life on a daily basis?
His students’ “changed lives” are less dramatic, but more sustainable than you might think, says Puett. “Their changes are not of the ‘big’ sort — like suddenly deciding to run off and do something radically different,” he says. “Something like that would probably not actually affect how they live their everyday lives. After the so-called big change, they would probably just revert to their usual ruts.”
Instead, a student who seldom left her desk adjusts her daily routine by taking a walk each morning and notices how this improves her depression symptoms. Another begins to consciously thank people during routine interactions and finds herself breaking the bad habits she has fallen into in her relationships with others. Or a talented basketball player takes up yoga to improve his game and discovers that it shifts his patterns on the basketball court and in other areas of his life, too.
“It’s these seemingly small changes in their daily lives that add up to significant changes down the road,” Puett explains.
Similarly, if we want to make changes in specific relationships, it helps to start small. For example, instead of diving in to a big heart-to-heart with a difficult coworker and expecting this to resolve issues (and giving up on the situation if it doesn’t), just start saying hello to him in the morning. Or offer to get him a cup of coffee on the next caffeine run. These small acts of kindness ease tension and build trust — so if and when you do have that heart-to-heart, it’s much more likely to create positive change.
Little efforts like this are so important because we can control them. The world is changing constantly. Our best plans are often laid to waste simply because circumstances shift: We get jobs. We lose them. We get sick. We get well. We don’t strictly control these events, but we can influence how we experience them by attending to the details that move us forward.
“Just as the world is not stable, [our] interactions are not fixed,” Puett writes.
We don’t need to move mountains to change our lives or heal our relationships. We just need to climb them, one step at a time.
Try It at Home: Start Small
- Want to learn to cook? Start by focusing on three basic foods. If you can develop enough confidence to make eggs, a soup, and a salad, other things will feel less intimidating.
- Want to start exercising? Begin with a short walk each morning. You’ll get used to having a physical routine, which makes it more likely you’ll stay committed when you buy a gym membership.
- Want to fix a problem with your spouse? Before you sit down for that big heart-to-heart, restore your connection and build trust with some kind gestures. You’ll have fewer walls to break down when you do talk.
Failure Is an Option
“I’m just not good at languages,” the young woman says, blushing, as feelings of ineptitude wash over her. “I’m hopeless.”
“There’s no such thing,” her Italian teacher encourages. “Try again.”
Nearby, another student raises his hand. When the teacher nods, he launches into his own shaky Italian. Truthfully, the young woman realizes, it doesn’t sound much better than hers. Yet, rather than blush and stammer, he smiles throughout, then listens without any trace of embarrassment as the teacher makes corrections.
The first student felt like a failure, while the other enjoyed the challenge and didn’t take his mistakes personally — or even think of them as mistakes. He saw them as learning opportunities. Again, the only difference is mindset.
A similar scenario inspired Carol Dweck, PhD, a psychology professor at Stanford University, to investigate the virtues of failure. Conducting a test with a group of children, she noticed that some actually seemed thrilled by their mistakes. “I love a challenge!” one boy said. Another, Dweck notes in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, was toiling away on some puzzles when he “looked up with a pleased expression and said with authority, ‘You know, I was hoping this would be informative!’”
At first, Dweck wondered what was wrong with them; she’d always thought of failure as something you just coped with. Then she became intrigued, which led her to explore the theory of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets.
Those with fixed mindsets believe their abilities are static traits — they have a certain capacity for something and that’s that. They’re good at languages, or they’re not. They’re great athletes, or they’re not. A fixed mindset makes it difficult to leave our comfort zones or take risks; we’re afraid setbacks will reflect poorly on us. In this state of mind, we take failures personally.
By contrast, people with a growth mindset perceive talents and abilities as something they can develop over time, through effort and instruction. They actively seek challenges, learn from mistakes, and persevere. They ask for help. They don’t worry about appearing smart or talented, because they’re more interested in learning and developing new skills.
These mindsets don’t just affect us. They can have a profound influence on those around us — a fact that’s especially relevant for managers, mentors, and teachers. A 2012 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that a “fixed theory of math intelligence” can lead to a teacher diagnosing a student from just one test score. A low math-ability assessment often means teachers will offer less encouragement and assign less homework to the student, locking him or her into a cycle of low achievement.
Fortunately, and not surprisingly, a growth mindset is something we can develop.
Shifting toward a growth mindset begins with changing how we speak to ourselves. “If you hear that fixed-mindset voice in your head telling you not to take a risk, to pull out when you make a mistake — start noticing that,” Dweck advises.
“And then tell yourself, It’s just the fixed-mindset voice in your head. And start answer-ing back with a growth-mindset voice: You won’t learn if you don’t take the risk, and mistakes are OK.”
Try It at Home: Stretch Yourself
- The next time you miss the mark (the presentation bombs, the cake burns, you lose the game), instead of using all your mental energy to berate yourself, examine what happened. Try to identify three things you can do differently in the future.
- Learn a completely new skill, one that you’re not sure you can master. Focus on the learning process rather than the outcome. Even if you can’t excel at this skill, what else can you gain from the experience?
- Whenever you’re afraid to ask for help because you feel like you should know something already, ask anyway.
Love Is Everywhere
The search for true love can, for some, be a never-ending quest. But what if someone told you that you’ve already found it — and it’s available all the time? With anyone you happen to encounter?
“Love is not a category of relationships. Nor is it something ‘out there’ that you can fall into, or — years later — out of,” explains Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, in her book Love 2.0. “Love blossoms virtually anytime two or more people — even strangers — connect over a shared positive emotion.”
Fredrickson, who teaches in the psychology department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, calls these moments of connection “positivity resonance.” This expansive, science-based approach to love offers us many chances to experience it in the course of a single day. While it’s not easy to set aside the Western idea that true love must be exclusive, lasting, and intimate, we have a lot to gain by letting it go.
That 90-second conversation you had with the stranger this morning while walking your dog? If there was eye contact, a sense of connection, and mutual respect — that’s love. Whenever we exchange smiles or friendly gestures with strangers, or take a little extra time to have warm exchanges with people we see every day, those “micro-moments of positivity” change us at the biological level.
Princeton University neuroscientist Uri Hasson, PhD, a pioneer in neural mirroring (also known as “brain coupling”), examined brain scans of subjects in conversation. What he found was surprising, Fredrickson writes.
“Far from being isolated to one or two brain areas, really clicking with someone else appears to be a whole brain dance in a fully mirrored room.” In good communication, she continues, “two individuals come to feel a single, shared emotion . . . distributed across their two brains.”
The vagus nerve is also involved in forging personal connections. It stimulates the facial muscles necessary for making eye contact and synchronizing our expressions with others; it even helps the tiny muscles in the inner ear better track another voice amid background noise. We appear to be programmed to harmonize with fellow humans.
Micro-moments of positivity resonance also improve our health, she notes. “People who experience more caring connections with others have fewer colds and lower blood pressure, and they less often succumb to heart disease and stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and some cancers.”
Much of Fredrickson’s positivity research grew out of her study of loving-kindness meditation. (For more on this practice, see bit.ly/2c4rv5E.) It involves focusing on feelings of love, compassion, and goodwill toward yourself and others. It “condition[s] your heart to be more open,” she writes.
And when our hearts are open, love happens. All day.
Try It at Home: Find Love
- Make it a habit to look at people’s faces — at the coffee shop, the dog park, the department store. You’ll be more available to exchange a smile or a few friendly words.
- Hold doors open for others when you get the chance.
- Search for micro-moments with your family. Sit on the porch for a few minutes before bed; get up a little earlier so you can have breakfast together; call your sweetheart at lunch. It all adds up.