“Don’t give in to negativity.”
“Think happy thoughts.”
Such phrases are often used to encourage you when you’re feeling frustrated or challenged. After a while, however, these words may feel empty and unachievable.
But what if you could use the power of positive thinking to improve your life—genuinely believing in the power it has on your well-being? What if you allowed positivity to shape your thoughts, moods, and behaviors—replacing tired platitudes with the genuine belief that you can combat the negativity that resides in your minds?
Fortunately, research indicates reducing negative self-talk and adopting more positive thinking has numerous health benefits, both physical and psychological.
Harmful Effects of Negativity
A 2013 study conducted by researchers at the University of Western Australia compared two forms of repetitive negative thinking, worry and ruminating, in participants with anxiety and/or depression. Of the patients examined, 212 had either an anxiety or depressive disorder while 301 had comorbid diagnoses, or a diagnosis of both disorders. The study found that participants with more than one disorder rated higher in repetitive negative thinking patterns. Researchers concluded that worry and ruminating, or repetitively going over the same thought, should specifically be treated regardless of one’s diagnosis.
A 2006 article by the American Psychological Association examined the research behind psychoneuroimmunology, which is the study of the mind-body connection. Researchers in this field study how the mind can affect one’s health and treat disease. The article points to psychological stress and its impact on the body’s immune response. The article cites one study, for example, in which older people with chronic, mild depression were found to have a weakened immune response.
Fortunately, positive thinking can have just as great an influence on your physical and mental health from lowering your risk of developing depression to the common cold, according to a 2017 article by the Mayo Clinic. The benefits of positive thinking are plentiful and impact your health in a wide variety of ways.
Enhances Brain Power
In 2018, researchers at Stanford University examined how a positive attitude toward math might improve academic success in young learners. They found an association between positive attitude and increased usage of areas of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Positive thinking may encourage greater usage of these brain regions, benefiting your ability to retain information.
A separate study published in 2016 found that cancer survivors who reported high in using self-affirmations (i.e., they focused on personal strengths and values in anxiety-provoking situations), had a lower likelihood of cognitive impairment in addition to greater happiness and hopefulness. The study also found an association between being optimistic and overall better health in cancer survivors.
Self-talk can either be positive or negative. Negative self-talk can lead to increased stress levels while positively thinking allows for kinder self-talk and reduced stress, according to an article by the Mayo Clinic.
A 2015 literature review published in Journal of Research and Reflections in Education indicates that when you think more positively, your perceptions of stress are less threatening, allowing you to use healthier strategies for coping with it.
The researchers also point to the association between positive thinking and enhanced immune function. Those who approached stressful situations with optimism and a sense of humor were shown to have a stronger immune system than those who didn’t.
Positive Affect, Happiness, and Success
When you think more positively, you inevitably feel better. One study took this a step further, arguing that happiness can actually give rise to success. In other words, not only can success lead to feelings of happiness but the reverse may be true as well.
Researchers behind the 2005 study proposed that individuals exercising positive mood or emotions (i.e., positive affect) such as confidence, likability, and optimism, are likely to pursue higher goals while in these positive states. Moreover, these individuals have skills and resources to draw from that were previously developed, likely resulting from exerting positive affect.
Drawing from evidence of previous studies, the researchers concluded that positive affect fosters a number of characteristics, skills, and behaviors—such as sociability, liking of self, and physical health—that may contribute to successful outcomes.
Tips for Thinking More Positively
It doesn’t matter if you’ve been a “glass half empty” type of person for most of your life. Perhaps you’re naturally inclined to think of worst-case scenarios or maybe it’s a habit you developed over time. Regardless of how negative thoughts snuck their way in, it’s possible to replace them, little by little, with more positive ones.
It will take practice and patience, as these things often do. Just as you can’t transform your physical body with a single trip to the gym, you can’t expect to replace negative thinking patterns altogether with the mere decision to do so. But with time, just as in the gym, strength will build, and you’ll find it takes less cognitive effort to produce a positive thought than it once did.
Here are a few tips on how to be more positive.
1. Try the Rubber Band Method
This works as a helpful aid for breaking bad habits such as consistently engaging in negative thoughts. Wear a rubber band around your wrist and give it a light snap each time you find yourself attaching to a negative thought. You can even have a mantra in mind to replace it with such as, “Today I choose peace” or “I will search for the good in everyone and everything.”
2. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a state of being consciously aware of your thoughts. Simply practicing for a few minutes a day will allow you to become more aware of how you think and in turn, more equipped to catch yourself when your thoughts turn to the negative. Mindfulness can be practiced in a variety of ways, such as meditating, concentrating on your senses or breath, walking in nature, or mindfully doing an activity you genuinely enjoy.
3. Practice Gratitude Daily
Plenty of research exists to back this one up. In a 2018 Berkeley study, participants struggling with anxiety and depression who wrote a letter of gratitude to someone reported significant improvements in mental health. Give this a try or keep it simple by jotting down three things you’re grateful for in the morning or before you go to bed.
4. Surround Yourself with Positive People
It will make thinking positively much easier than spending time with people that deplete your energy or are quick to focus on the negative.
5. Pay Attention to What You Focus on
If you see a pattern of negativity in the things you watch, read, listen to, etc., reconsider what you pay attention to.
6. Search for One Positive Characteristic or Feature in Whoever or Whatever You Can Come in Contact With
Whether it’s chatting with a stranger at the grocery store or catching the sun setting outside your window, try to take the time to observe all the beauty around you.
7. Think of Activities or Hobbies that Ignite Positivity and Do Them Often
An organic way to begin thinking more positively is to do activities that naturally evoke positivity within you. This will look different for everyone but think of something that leaves you feeling a little lighter and more blissful.
Remember that it’s impossible to only think positive thoughts or to only feel positive emotion so keep your expectations realistic. You may be stuck in a pattern of negativity and could use a shake-up. Use the suggestions above, a little at a time, to slowly begin to rewire your brain. As you focus more on the positivity around you and within you, your thoughts and behaviors will naturally follow suit—the benefits of positive thinking go a long way.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.