There’s a lot of confusion around positive thinking, despite its straightforward name. People often recoil from the term, believing that it means ignoring life’s challenges. Others equate it with toxic positivity, an outlook that tries to avoid anything negative.
Not everyone can snap their fingers and transform into an optimist overnight. However, if you’re a victim of negative self-talk, positive thinking offers many health benefits that can truly transform your life.
What It Is
Positive thinking encourages us to expect good outcomes as opposed to bad outcomes 1, but this can be a scary undertaking. Humans evolved with a negativity bias – negative events impact us harder, and for longer periods of time, than positive events. 2
Unfortunately, this tendency informs a lot of our decision-making. For example, if there are five good reasons to attend an event, but one foreseeable downside, we can rationalize not attending. This way of thinking limits our potential.
Expecting good scenarios can feel like we’re setting ourselves up for failure, but if we have faith in a positive outcome, we can spot opportunities that negative people miss.
Reframing Negative Thoughts
We have to identify negative thoughts when they arise and challenge them with probing questions, such as:
- Is it true?
- Is it helpful?
- Is it kind? 3
These questions can help us claw our way back from pessimistic or catastrophic thinking. By interrogating the negative stories we’d otherwise let run rampant in our minds, we can gradually rebalance our cognitive bias.
With practice, we can actually rewire the neural pathways in our brains so that our automatic thinking becomes more positive. The field of neuroplasticity has proven that humans frequently do this, whether they are training on a music instrument, learning a new language, or even playing video games! 4
Gratitude is an essential part of any positive thinking approach. Annoyances and injustices happen, but it’s how we react to them that can either salvage your day or ruin it.
Let’s say you’re late for work. You’re sitting in traffic and there’s nothing you can do about it. While you could stew over all the ways being late is going to disrupt your day, you could also take the opportunity to appreciate that you have a car, a job – plus, a pretty iron-clad excuse for being late.
A gratitude journal trains your eyes to acknowledge all of the blessings in your life. Simply keeping one by your bedside will remind you to jot things down in the evening. (And yes, if you think the idea of a gratitude journal is cringey, you really need one!)
The more promise and positivity you see in your surroundings, the better you’ll be able to approach challenges. Research indicates that positive thinking leads to improved problem-solving, better adaptability and stronger creative thinking. 5
Not only can these qualities lead to improved confidence and better leadership skills, but you’ll also encounter fewer mood swings when your brain is freed from constant dread. Imagine that!
Get Happier, Get Healthier
Studies on positive thinking have revealed a multitude of health benefits. Since the practice diminishes stress and anxiety, positive mindsets lead to lower blood pressure, decreased risk of heart attack and heart disease, plus a stronger immune system.
A positive disposition can not only extend your life, but quite literally save it! A John Hopkins study found that people who are at a high risk for heart problems are 33 percent less likely to have a cardiovascular event if they have a positive outlook. 6
Fake It Till You Make It
Don’t worry if your natural disposition leans toward the negative – there is still hope! You can bolster your mindset in a variety of other ways. Getting a good night’s sleep is a great way to balance your attitude. Likewise, finding reasons to laugh and practicing acceptance will prepare your brain to seek more good outcomes out of life.
Positive thinking is an attribute that anyone can foster. Smiling – even if it’s a fake smile – has been proven to boost your mood 7, because your facial muscles manage to trick your brain. So take small steps and remind yourself to smile. With time, even hardened pessimists can realize that positive thinking is much more than a bumper sticker slogan.