Positive thinking, or an optimistic attitude, is the practice of focusing on the good in any given situation. It can have a big impact on your physical and mental health. That doesn't mean you ignore reality or make light of problems. It simply means you approach the good and the bad in life with the expectation that things will go well.
The Benefits of Positive Thinking
Many studies have looked at the role of optimism and positive thinking in mental and physical health. It’s not always clear which comes first: the mindset or these benefits. But there is no downside to staying upbeat.
Some physical benefits may include:
- Longer life span
- Lower chance of having a heart attack
- Better physical health
- Greater resistance to illness such as the common cold
- Lower blood pressure
- Better stress management
- Better pain tolerance
The mental benefits may include:
- More creativity
- Greater problem-solving skill
- Clearer thinking
- Better mood
- Better coping skills
- Less depression
When people in one study were exposed to the flu and common cold, those with a positive outlook were less likely to get sick and reported fewer symptoms.
During another study, women who were more optimistic were less likely to die from cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, and infection.
And in a study of people over the age of 50, those who had more positive thoughts about aging lived longer. They also had less stress-related inflammation, which shows one possible link between their thoughts and health.
People with a positive outlook may be more likely to live a healthy lifestyle since they have a more hopeful view of the future. But researchers took that into account, and the results still held.
What Pessimists Should Know
That all sounds great, right? But what if you’re naturally more pessimistic, meaning that you tend to expect the worst? No worries. It may help to see this positive thinking as a skill you can learn and benefit from, rather than a personality trait you either have or you don’t.
There’s research on this, too. In one experiment, adults who meditated daily on positive thoughts started feeling more upbeat emotions each day.
Other studies have shown that positive thinking helps people manage illness and eases depression, regardless of whether they are naturally optimistic or pessimistic.
First, Nix the Negative
Before you put positive thinking into practice, look for any negative thoughts that may be running through your mind. These include:
A bad filter. Do you overlook the good things about a situation and get wrapped up in the negatives? For example, you enjoy a fun dinner out with friends, but the restaurant gets your bill wrong at the end of the night. You leave feeling annoyed and frustrated, forgetting about the good time you had.
Taking the blame. Do you tend to take on the blame for something bad or disappointing that happens? For example, a friend declines an invitation from you, so you assume it’s because they don’t want to spend time with you.
Predicting disaster. This means you have one setback and then expect the worst to happen. For example, your car won’t start in the morning, so you think the rest of your day is destined to be doomed.
Black-and-white thinking. Do you see things as either good or bad, with no middle ground? In this mindset, if things aren’t perfect, they’re automatically bad.
When you notice a negative thought, try to stop it and shift your focus to the positive. Think rationally about the situation. If it helps you to let go, you can give yourself and those around you grace. (You can still hold them accountable for their actions.)
Your negative thoughts won’t go away overnight. But with practice, you can train yourself to have a more positive outlook. Remember, you aren’t overlooking the facts. You’re just including those that are good.
How to Practice Positive Thinking
Once you have a handle on negative thinking, it’s time to play up the positive. Try these ways to do that:
Smile more. In a study, people who smiled (or even fake-smiled) while doing a stressful task felt more positive afterward than those who wore a neutral expression. You’ll benefit more if the smile is genuine, though. So look for humor and spend time with people or things that make you laugh.
Reframe your situation. When something bad happens that’s out of your control, instead of getting upset, try to appreciate the good parts of the situation. For example, instead of stressing about a traffic jam, recall how convenient it is to have a car. Use the time that you’re stuck behind the wheel to listen to music or a program you enjoy.
Keep a gratitude journal. This may sound cheesy, but when you sit down each day or week to write down the things you’re thankful for, you’re forced to pay attention to the good in your life. A study found that people who kept gratitude journals felt more thankful, positive, and optimistic about the future. They also slept better.
Picture your best possible future. Think in detail about a bright vision for your future -- career, relationships, health, hobbies -- and write it down. When you imagine your life going well, research suggests, you’ll be happier in the present.
Focus on your strengths. Each day for a week, think about one of your personal strengths, like kindness, organization, discipline, or creativity. Write down how you plan to use that strength in new ways that day. Then, act on it. People in a study who did that boosted their happiness and lowered their symptoms of depression at the end of the week. Six months later, those benefits were still going strong.
With practice, you can add more positive thoughts to your life and enjoy the benefits that come with optimism.