How to stay positive when your world sucks

Updated to Habits on December 27, 2022.

“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)