How to stay positive when your world sucks

Updated to Habits on December 27, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

“Twixt the optimist and pessimist

The difference is droll

The optimist sees the doughnut

But the pessimist sees the hole.”

McLandburgh Wilson, 1915

My day was planned.

Every hour so clearly designed it would make a pencil-toting engineer proud. Yessir, today was going to be PRODUCTIVE.

And then the text from one of my tenants (I own a small 1950’s rental that, for the most part, behaves itself): “I just returned from the weekend and my floor is covered in water.”


In an instant, my day flipped from being at my desk conquering the world to schlopping through stagnant water ripping soggy drywall down off the ceiling.

I know you’ve had days like that. It’s like being run over by a truck full of unexpected detours. You’re working hard, but the goal posts have changed and nobody’s keeping score.

At times like this, I don’t need motivational posters (“Attitude is Everything!”) – I need to take action, but in a way that gets me back on the path.

How do you stay positive when your world (appears to) suck?

And then there is optimism, the innate ability to slip on rose-colored glasses and fill any glass to half-full. If you hadn’t guessed, I’m a card-carrying optimist.

I am an optimist

I know at times my take-no-prisoners style optimism irritates the more rational people I work with (or live with)—it can be hubris at its best.

“If you were allowed one wish for your child,” advises Daniel Kahneman in the brilliant Thinking, fast and slow “seriously consider wishing him or her optimism.”

Kahneman goes on to list some of the merits of optimism:

“Optimists are normally cheerful and happy, and therefore polar; they are resilient in adapting to failures and hardships, their chance of clinical depression are reduced, their immune system is stronger, they take better care of their health, they feel healthier than others and are in fact likely to live longer.”

And there are times when optimism is not enough. That’s what happened last week.

I feel like a fool

I’m in the throes of hiring a salesperson. My last 3 attempts (albeit many years ago) failed so miserably I swore I would never follow that trail again.

That is until last week when I nervously hit “submit” on the job posting site.

A good candidate did come through, we agreed to meet at my office in two days time, I put it on my calendar and arranged for another team member to be at the meeting.

No show. I called him up. He was delayed in a meeting and apologized. We make a second appointment.

He shows up. I’m impressed. I make a third appointment.

No show. I phone. He “was about to call” but got caught in the middle of a project. We agree on a fourth appointment.

No show.

At this point, I’m not so much disappointed that this jerk stood me up 3 times. I’m feeling like a fool. How could I be so blindly optimistic to think someone, who has already proven to be utterly unreliable, could change their stripes once they worked for me?

At times like this I just want to pop an optimism pill.

There’s no pill for optimism

You can’t take a pill for optimism but you can damn well do something about what life throws at you. We all can.

“While many believe that optimism is something we’re born with in more or less finite quantities,” writes my friend Harvey Deutschendorf in Fast Company, “we actually have some ability to shape our thoughts and actions–including our outlook on events.”

I like that. Here’s what I do.

  1. Put it in context. Whatever smacked you in the face is not terminal and you’ve experienced much worse. Start by reminding yourself you’ll come through this as well.
  2. Focus on what you have. If you’re reading this you likely have a nice bed to sleep in and 3 meals to sit down to. When put in context, most of life’s headaches are really hiccups.
  3. Do something. Nothing beats taking a step in the right direction – even if you’re not sure what comes next. Make a list, call a friend, send an email—do anything you can to restart the flywheel.
  4. Smile! Smiling is good medicine. In one study, participants who held a pen between their lips (using their smiling muscles) perceived cartoons to be funnier than those without the pen.
  5. Take a walk. There’s no debate: walking boosts stress-reducing endorphins dopamine – for full effect, walk-in green spaces.

We may never know if optimism is hard-wired or if a sunny disposition can be nurtured. That’s not important.

What we do know is suffering is a choice and action gets a reaction. I’ll choose action any day.


Interested in more reading about optimism and success? Here are a few favourites:

5 simple steps to getting an abundance mindset

Look where you’re looking (that’s your future)

You already have what you need (money, time, health and sex)