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How to become more optimistic about money and why it can help you, according to a happiness researcher

Happiness researcher Michelle Gielan shares the steps you can take to feel more optimistic about your finances and set yourself up for long-term success, even amid uncertainty.

Michelle Gielan
Twenty/20

A recent study from the University of Chicago found that happiness in the U.S. has reached its lowest point in 50 years, in large part because our daily routines, relationships, and finances have all understandably been affected by the challenges of 2020. It can be tough to plan for the future when things are uncertain.

I'm a positive psychology researcher, and in my field we have over two decades of data that shows us that:

  1. Optimists are more resilient, adaptive, and recover faster in difficult times
  2. Creating positive behaviors can train your brain to become more optimistic

That means it's possible to become more of an optimist, and doing so is beneficial, too.

Optimists aren't blind to problems. They just believe that positives can exist alongside the negatives. And if we take action and connect with others, we can overcome some of the biggest obstacles. 

Anyone can learn how to shift towards a more optimistic mindset. And using these kind of mental tools can be a big help, particularly when dealing with things that have a big impact on your happiness, like your feelings about money.

Optimists aren't blind to problems. They just believe that positives can exist alongside the negatives.
Michelle Gielan
Author and happiness researcher

As a working parent, like so many millions of Americans right now, I'm juggling my day job and additional responsibilities like teaching my children, all while just being a mom. But implementing the lessons from my own research has helped me navigate what has been a tough few months.

Here are some simple approaches you can take to change your mindset about your financial future and why it's worth your while to make the effort.

Don't fear being open about money 

In a study I conducted with Frost Bank, we identified a key behavior of optimists that differentiates and elevates their response to financial challenges: talking about money. People who talk about money are twice as likely to have better financial health and have a nine-point higher financial well-being score.

While 94% of optimists discuss their finances at some point in their lives, pessimists are three times more likely than optimists to never discuss their finances.

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So what's keeping pessimists from talking?

Pessimists think those conversations are unhelpful. Our research found pessimists are seven times more likely than optimists to believe nothing good comes from talking about money. They're also more likely to associate talking about money with feelings like "upset," "dumb," "ashamed," "judged" and "guilty." 

Pessimists also indicated the conversation doesn't feel natural: They're two and a half times more likely to wait for the other person to start a financial conversation than start it themselves. However, our research identified actions of optimists that anyone can take to overcome these barriers, even if it doesn't come naturally to you. 

Find your people

About two-thirds (67%) of optimists are most comfortable talking to people who are the same age or have the same amount of money as them. You don't have to have conversations with those who are in a better place financially to learn something new or hold a productive conversation. 

Our research shows making the effort to discuss money with anyone is a step in the right direction. So find people you trust and care about and start talking. It's not just for you; others need to be able to share as well. Research from positive psychology shows that challenges look 20% steeper when viewed alone as opposed to with someone else.

Get aspirational

Optimists' financial conversations tend to be more aspirational. Our research shows 58% of optimists typically have financial conversations that are goal related and half believe going into a financial discussion with goals in mind makes them most productive. 

While the road to progress won't be perfect, we found that a forward-thinking approach and focusing on goals is what matters. Small, meaningful goals give the brain an opportunity for a quick win, which spurs more action.

Small, meaningful goals give the brain an opportunity for a quick win, which spurs more action.
Michelle Gielan
Author and happiness researcher

Keep it brief

Most optimists discuss finances more than once a month rather than setting aside long, drawn-out financial conversations. In fact, 69% of optimists would rather have shorter, more regular financial conversations than longer, less frequent ones. 

Find a cadence that works for you. An accountability partner you meet at regular intervals offers you a chance to stay on track with your goals while supporting someone else as he or she achieves theirs.

Focus on what you can control

In a time when much is out of our control, we can control our actions and, to some degree, our thoughts. Optimism, in our research, is defined as the expectation that good things will happen and the belief that our behavior matters, especially in the face of challenges. 

So, in the midst of economic and financial struggle, it's your response that will make all the difference. Train your brain to think like an optimist and begin having productive financial conversations. The conversation can only help to move you forward.

Michelle Gielan has spent the past decade researching the link between happiness and success. She is the bestselling author of "Broadcasting Happiness: The Science of Igniting and Sustaining Positive Change" and was named one of the Top 10 authors on resilience by the Harvard Business Review. Michelle is an executive producer of "The Happiness Advantage" on PBS and a featured professor in Oprah's Happiness course. She formerly served as anchor of "The CBS Morning News," and her research has received attention from dozens of media outlets including The Washington Post, Forbes, and The New York Times.

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