I used to be a non-believer in positive thinking. I guess I thought it was pollyannish or unrealistic. But I’ve since learned that positive thinking doesn’t mean we keep our head in the sand or gloss over negative situations. It just means we explore and approach life in a more productive way to enhance our wellbeing. But whether you’re a person whose “glass is half full” or “half-empty,” it might surprise you to learn the benefits of positive thinking might be greater than you think.
Positive thinking is a newer field being studied in the realm of positive psychology, which literally studies happy people, and what makes them happy. Like previous topics I’ve written about, such as social connection, humor, and forgiveness therapy, the benefits are similar; lowering of stress, improved mental health, and increased neuroplasticity in the brain are some examples. Others include:
Greater Physical Health: When we have a positive thought, the “happy” hormone, serotonin, is released, which makes us feel good. Optimism is linked to better heart health, a more robust immune system provides protection against diseases such as the common cold or the flu, and may promote longevity.
Improved Social Life: It’s truly hard to be around a negative person who complains all the time. People naturally gravitate to positive people who are more cheerful and see life in an upbeat way. Positive social connections are a defense against disease.
Better Brain Health: In an article by Dawson Church, Ph.D., he discusses the research by scientists at the University of London who studied cognitive function in people aged 55 and older looking for markers for Alzheimer’s disease. Amazingly, they found that lifestyle factors didn’t matter as much as attitudinal thinking. In other words, the build-up of plaque found in Alzheimer’s patients was greater in those people who were negative thinkers and who had regrets about the past and fear about the future. The way we use our minds literally determines our brain health.
Positive thinking often starts with self-talk. I think one of the main reasons I decided to specialize in the area of Health and Wellness was so that it would make me practice what I preach. One area I needed to work on was my self-talk. Negative self-talk usually arises from thoughts or misperceptions due to lack of information and can be very painful, especially if those thoughts keep us awake at night and cause us undue stress.
Here are a few examples to help change negative thinking through a process called reframing. Reframing is the cognitive process by which situations or thoughts are challenged and then changed. For example, try changing the first sentence below to the following sentence instead.
- “It’s too hard” > “Help me see this differently.”
- “I’m not able to change” > “Maybe I’ll learn something new.”
- “It won’t work” > “I’ll try it.”
- “He never talks to me” > “I’ll make the first approach.”
- “This traffic is driving me nuts” > “There is absolutely nothing I can do about the traffic.”
- “I failed” > “I did the best I could and that is enough.”
What are other ways one can change the inner critic to one of an advocate? First, identify those areas that cause you concern. Ask yourself what you can realistically do to change the situation. Challenge your pessimistic thoughts. Have zero tolerance for the critical inner voice. Talk with a trusted advisor or friend. Journal. Highlight the positive aspects of the situation. Gratitude journaling literally changes our brain chemicals (it boosts the “happy” hormone) and our perspective.
Practice smiling more. Even fake smiling reduces blood pressure and generally makes us feel better. Or get physical or playful. Just taking a time out from a negative situation can turn the negative brain off for a while. Lastly, focus on your strengths, like creativity, resiliency, or kindness. We very seldom do this, and it helps by boosting positive brain chemicals.
You might not be a positive thinker overnight but start cultivating an attitude of positivity by noticing your self-talk and take compassionate action that moves you more towards your authentic self. Start the New Year off right. Be relentlessly positive.
Cindy Maynard PhD, RD, is a health psychologist, registered dietitian and a health and fitness writer. Dr. Maynard is passionate about the topic of health and wellness and motivating people towards better health. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org