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The power of a positive outlook

How developing ‘happiness skills’ can help you cope with a crisis like COVID-19

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Is happiness something we can learn? Health science researcher Gillian Mandich says yes—and by adopting a positive outlook, entrepreneurs can better face difficult times such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People tend to think happiness just happens,” says Mandich, “but it’s actually something you can develop with practice, and the benefits touch pretty much every part of your life.”

Research shows those benefits can range from lower rates of cardiovascular disease to better-quality sleep and less anxiety, she says, and that higher reported happiness levels correspond to stronger measures of cooperativeness, problem-solving, altruism, listening and likability, all of which are key for effective teamwork in business.

For any entrepreneur who wants to sharpen their happiness skills, Mandich has three tips:

1. Control what you can

The loss of control that comes with a crisis like COVID-19 can cause stress and anxiety, Mandich says.

“While there’s big stuff you can’t do anything about, there are lots of little ways you can exercise control and feel like you’re doing your part. Following physical distancing rules, wearing a mask when you go out—those are positive actions that are easy to take.”

She also advises striking a healthy balance when it comes to staying informed. Knowing what’s going on in the world can foster a feeling of being on top of things, but too much information—especially if it’s fraught with worry and fear—can have the opposite effect, she says.

“Check the news just once or twice a day and stick to reliable sources, such as government and public health agencies.”

While there’s big stuff you can’t do anything about, there are lots of little ways you can exercise control and feel like you’re doing your part.

2. Stay connected to others

The Harvard Study of Adult Development has been measuring factors that contribute to happy, healthy lives for more than 80 years. It has found the quality of people’s relationships directly impacts their long-term wellbeing.

“As an entrepreneur, you have lots of people looking to you for answers and support,” Mandich says. “Make sure you also have a network of people you can turn to and rely on in tough times. With the coronavirus specifically, just because we can’t be physically close doesn’t mean we can’t still be there for each other.”

3. Cut yourself some slack

While the COVID-19 crisis has required entrepreneurs to make several day-to-day decisions—as they set up remote teams and manage unpredictable finances—Mandich recommends setting aside the urge to make big, long-term ones.

“Fear, anxiety and stress all affect our ability to think clearly,” she says. “So take the pressure off and defer making big plans or changes if you can.”

She suggests focusing on personal health and wellbeing by eating well, staying physically active, getting enough sleep and allowing yourself to feel whatever you feel.

“This helps us overcome the negativity bias that exists in each of us,” she says. “Our minds are inclined to pick out the negative aspects of a situation because that behaviour was key to our survival when humans lived in the wild and watched for danger to stay alive. But we can train ourselves to actively look for the positive instead—things as small as a great cup of coffee on a rainy day.”

The cumulative effect of these little things is significant, Mandich adds. “The happiness they bring lasts longer than big moments of joy like winning a contract or going on a trip.”

And it has a ripple effect, she says.

“Positivity extends by three degrees to the people around us. When you’re happy, that sets the tone for those around you.”

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