The Benefits of Positive Thinking—and How You Can Do More of It
Looking on the bright side doesn't always come naturally, but you can train your mind to seek it out—and that will do wonders for your health.
No doubt you've heard it before, or some version of it: “Turn that frown upside down!” “Smile, you’ll feel better!” “Stop focusing on how stressed you are and think about how #blessed you are.” These little positive-thinking prods might be enough to make you want to punch a wall—look, no one wants to be told to smile, ever—but you might consider repeating the general message to yourself. Positivity has benefits that extend far beyond any Instagram meme. And even if you were born the polar opposite of Pollyanna (your outlook may in fact be influenced by your genes), you can make positivity work for you.
So what is it, exactly? “Positive thinking is all about having an open, optimistic viewpoint. It’s the idea of seeing the silver lining on a bad day,” says Paraskevi Noulas, PsyD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health in New York City. That doesn’t mean you sweep your actual thoughts under the rug to make room for unicorns and rainbows. Instead, it’s about viewing situations from a more well-rounded perspective. For example, when you’re stressed out over your workload, take a deep breath, consider what you’ve already accomplished, and tell yourself you’ll get the job done in the best way you can.
Shifting your mind-set can make you feel better and also lead to real health benefits. “Research shows that positive thinking is an incredibly important and efficacious way to improve your mood, physical health, energy level, concentration, productivity, and more,” says Noulas. People who are positive have been found to be better at problem-solving and dealing with setbacks. They’re more resilient. And positive thinking can open up creativity, help you connect better with others, and boost your overall well-being, too. Here, experts share a few simple ways to start seeing things in a sunnier light.
Build the Skill
“You can’t just pick up a violin and play,” points out Richard J. Davidson, PhD, director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Similarly, you can’t just wake up and decide you’re going to be positive. You need to practice summoning those feelings— and rehearsing works. When Davidson and his research team did MRI scans of the brains of people who’d been practicing compassion meditation for two weeks, for just 30 minutes a day, they noticed stronger connections in a key brain circuit that regulates positive emotion.
Even short bursts done regularly—like appreciating a nice view or a lovely piece of art—can help retrain your mind to notice the good stuff all around you. Some other positivity-boosting tactics: List things you’re grateful for at the end of each day. Or engage in simple meditation exercises. For example, you might envision a crowd of people and acknowledge that we all share the same wish to be happy and free of suffering. Then mentally extend that wish to others.
Spread Some Kindness
One of the most powerful strategies to promote your own positivity, it turns out, is to be generous toward other people: Hold the elevator door for someone, send a handwritten note, pay for the person in line behind you at the coffee shop. A 2016 study found that performing acts of kindness was even more effective at boosting happiness than simply treating oneself. So instead of booking that spa day, try volunteering…or better yet, do both. The more we are helpful to others, the better we feel about ourselves, says Noulas. “Rather than waiting for good or positivity to come to you, take the initiative and create it for those around you. Then enjoy the ripple effect that unfurls as a result.”
Flash a Grin
For a quick dose of positivity, try cracking a smile. A 2012 study conducted at the University of Kansas found that smiling reduced stress. And other research has shown that smiling is contagious. Noulas explains: “If you’re in a horrid mood, but you go to work and put that smile on and treat your colleagues well, their positive response has the ability to slowly shift your mood so that you’re genuinely in a better place.”
Nurture Your Relationships
Here’s one more reason to prioritize quality time with your family and friends: Your social ties can color how you experience life, says Vivian Zayas, PhD, an associate psychology professor at Cornell University. Zayas’ work includes a study in which people received a supportive text message from their partner right before a stressful event. “Just getting a text increases positivity in the moment,” she says. She’s also done lab studies in which the researchers showed a photo of a loved one to participants who were recalling an upsetting memory. “Seeing an image of a support figure helped them recover,” says Zayas.
Take Care of You
“You can’t be positive without also understanding how to deal with the negative—and self-compassion is the secret sauce,” says Kristin Neff, PhD, an associate psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and coauthor of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. Selfcompassion helps you navigate the parts of life that aren’t so positive, like health problems and professional failures. To start, imagine how you’d treat a friend if she was in your situation, Neff suggests: “What would I say? What would my tone of voice be? Then try it on yourself.”
It's Ok to Get Mad, Too
Feeling angry on occasion can actually be cathartic and helpful. “Sometimes you need to be angry because you see injustice, and it makes you take action,” explains Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, a professor and vice chair of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. The key is knowing the difference between functional emotions—which help you improve your situation—and unproductive reactions, like road rage. In the case of the latter, “you have to be aware of the trigger and distract yourself from it,” she says. This is where your positivity practice comes in. Say you’re stuck in gridlock. Test out one of your tools: Think of a dear friend or a stellar memory. “The world is both a wonderful and terrible place,” Lyubomirsky notes. “There are good and bad things. It’s what you choose to put in front of you.”
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