On Being Positive

"Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadows." – Helen Keller

Our popular and religious literature abounds in aphorisms about being positive. And, while the relationship between attitude and success can be more complicated than the adages suggest, there is truth in them. We can choose how we think and feel, and those choices can determine how we live. Research in the field of positive psychology finds a strong relationship between taking a positive approach to life and being successful in relationships, education, business and other facets of life. 

What we know about first-year BYU students closely parallels these findings. Students who thrive in their first year at BYU are…

  • generally happy with themselves and satisfied with life
  • genuinely interested in learning
  • more open to change—for example, adjusting their study habits and approaches to learning when entrenched practices prove to be inadequate
  • more resilient—believing they can succeed and working steadily toward their goals, even when setbacks and difficulties come
  • genuinely excited about being at BYU

On the other hand, students who flounder or have a less satisfying experience at BYU are generally...

  • less happy with life and with themselves
  • less genuinely interested in getting their education at BYU
  • less open to change, less interested in learning, and less resilient when facing challenges

While there are certainly limits to these relationships, they are remarkably consistent. 

We also note that the most positive, optimistic, and resilient students are usually well grounded spiritually. Compared to those who flounder and are unhappy, these students pray more often, study scripture more frequently, and look to God for guidance more earnestly. There is a very real relationship between the depth of a student’s spirituality and his or her resilience, interest in learning, and enthusiasm for being at BYU.   

Cultivating a Positive Attitude

Those who struggle to see the good in life or believe in a positive future can learn to do so more fully. Research and experience suggest many ways for students to develop a more positive perspective in their first year of college. 

  • Getting involved socially in clubs, intramural sports, arts productions, social activities or service opportunities can make a big difference. All students can find something to fit their interests from the many options available at BYU. Service has the added benefit of helping them forget their own problems by focusing on the needs of others.
  • Going with friends to campus devotionals, participating in LDS Young Single Adult wards, and attending athletic and cultural events are all important ways to get involved in the campus community. First-year students report that getting to know others and getting involved early in their first semester is especially helpful.
  • Students can learn to develop greater emotional well-being by looking intentionally for the good in life, expressing gratitude for life’s experiences and blessings, seeking out ways to show kindness to others, and by dealing with challenges using constructive problem-solving strategies instead of hand-wringing and worrying. Many such research-based ideas and techniques are described at authentichappiness.com.
  • Talking with peer-mentors, adult advisors, faculty members, counselors and others at the university who are trained and interested can help. These people can direct students to resources that provide specific assistance, but can also help them see that they are not the only ones dealing with challenges in their first year of college.

Developing a positive outlook on life can be one of the most valuable things your student will learn at BYU. Below is a short list of links to help in that process.

Intramural Sports


First-Year Mentoring


Steve Wygant earned his PhD in Psychology from BYU in 1993. He taught Psychology at Fort Hays State University, Eastern Oregon University and BYU before joining the BYU Office of Institutional Assessment and Analysis in 1998. He enjoys time with his family, photography, and a good jazz band.