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Illustration of a  woman standing before a circular maze with a happy face in its center

In a world where media headlines are dominated by mass shootings, COVID variants and war in Ukraine, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by anger and anxiety. But maintaining an optimistic outlook isn’t impossible, says James “Pouli” Pouliopoulos: “Just because the world’s gone crazy doesn’t mean YOU have to.”  

Headshot of Professor James "Pouli" Pouliopoulos
       Professor Pouli

A senior lecturer in Marketing and director of Bentley’s Professional Sales program, Pouli is also a self-proclaimed “happiness engineer.” A proponent of positive psychology — a field of study focusing on the characteristics and behaviors that enable individuals to build lives of purpose and meaning — he wholeheartedly believes we can “rewire our brains” to prioritize joy. 

“Human beings are naturally programmed for negativity,” Pouli explains. “Our ancestors survived by paying attention to the bad things around them like predators, poison berries and other dangerous situations. This predisposition to identifying and reacting to negative events is actually a defense mechanism to keep us safe.” But he’s adamant that we can overcome this innate adversity bias: “You can control your own happiness if you put your mind to it.” 

It takes no effort whatsoever for your head to be filled with self-doubt and needless worry. But you CAN program your brain to conduct its own daily scavenger hunt for positivity.

Pouli speaks from personal experience. Before embarking on a career in academia, he struggled with depression. “I was in a corporate job that didn’t reward me for using my natural skills and abilities,” he says, “and I prioritized everyone else’s needs and desires over my own.” Although he put on a brave face, concealing his unhappiness from others, Pouli admits it was a “devastating” time for himself and his family. Thankfully, he sought out experts who helped him successfully navigate through his negative feelings. 

His experience with depression made Pouli realize two important things: First, that “happiness precedes success in all facets of life” and second, that achieving and maintaining happiness “takes commitment and effort.” It was while seeking out resources to help with the latter that he discovered Art of Brilliance, a U.K.-based nonprofit devoted to the pursuit of personal positivity. After befriending its founder, Andy Cope, via Twitter, Pouli signed on to support its mission; today, as an Art of Brilliance trainer, he delivers keynotes and workshops focused on wellbeing, happiness and career satisfaction to businesses, schools and organizations in the U.S. and around the world. 

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In 2020, Pouli and Cope brought their power-of-positivity platform to a larger stage with “How to Be a Well Being: Unofficial Rules to Live Every Day.” Co-authored with Sanjeev Sandhu, the book — which was named a 2021 Business Book Awards finalist — provides 22 rules readers can follow to cultivate happiness and achieve their full potential.   

Key among the book’s insights is the power of gratitude. “In its most simple form,” Pouli explains, “gratitude is about being thankful for something or someone,” and when our brain is busy being thankful, it can’t focus on negative emotions like anger and fear. Making a conscious effort each day to find things to be grateful for, he says, forces us to “slow down, look around and notice what’s good” — and primes our brain to not only appreciate but anticipate joyful moments.   

To “exercise your gratitude muscles,” Pouli recommends incorporating one (or more) of the following into your daily routine: 

Give Three Cheers

“Before going to bed each night, write down three things you’re grateful for from the previous 24 hours. To start, it can be something as simple as not hitting any red lights during your morning commute. Later, challenge yourself to find new things to celebrate by not listing the same things on consecutive days.” 

Take a Trip Down Memory Lane

“Sit down and devote 5-10 minutes to writing about a memorable event from your past. Be as descriptive as possible about how you felt in the moment. This is a form of time travel that takes you back to that happy moment in life and helps you relive the emotions you felt.” 

Make Your Own Highlight Reel

“Capture a photo or video of something that made you smile today. You can use an app to stitch these moments together and create a mashup video. For the past few years, I’ve captured one second of video each day. I use an app called 1SE (1 Second Everyday) to splice these ultra-short videos into a 6--minute ‘documentary’ of my year.” 

“It takes no effort whatsoever for your head to be filled with self-doubt and needless worry,” Pouli notes. “But if you can stick with these daily rituals long enough, you can program your brain to conduct its own daily scavenger hunt for positivity.”  

In addition to boosting your own happiness, this shift in perspective will have a ripple effect on the people around you. “Your relationships with family, friends and co-workers will also improve as your brain begins seeking the good versus the bad in people,” he says. “Because humans are hardwired to catch each other’s feelings, happiness is contagious.”  

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More from Pouli: The value of ‘strategic selfishness’