Positive thinking seems like a scam to many people. It wouldn’t be surprising for someone outside of personal development who hears me bring it up to think it’s just a gimmick since they have no evidence to go off of.
So let me make my case.
Research by Barbara Fredrickson, a positive psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina, found that positive thinking opens you up to the ability to see more possibilities and opportunities in life.
Fredrickson gathered a group of eager research subjects and divided them into five groups. Each group was shown a different film clip to evoke different emotions.
The first two groups were shown clips that were meant to bring forth positive emotions. Group 1 watched a series of images that filled them with pure joy. They saw puppies playing, babies giggling, and the sun shining brightly. Group 2 was shown images of contentment, like a gentle breeze blowing through a field of flowers or a warm cup of tea on a rainy day.
The third group was the control group. They watched a neutral clip with no significant emotions.
The last two groups were shown clips that were designed to elicit negative emotions. Group 4 watched clips that made them feel fear, like a scary movie scene or a news report on a natural disaster. Group 5 watched clips that made them feel anger, like a political debate or an argument between friends.
After each clip, Fredrickson asked each participant to imagine themselves in a similar situation and write down what they would do. Each participant was handed a piece of paper with 20 blank lines that started with the phrase, “I would like to…”
What Fredrickson found was astonishing. The participants who saw images of fear and anger wrote down the fewest responses. It was as if their negative emotions had zapped their ability to think creatively and come up with potential solutions.
Meanwhile, the participants who saw images of joy and contentment wrote down a significantly higher number of actions that they would take, even when compared to the neutral group. They seemed to be bursting with ideas and solutions, ready to take on any challenge that came their way.
When fear or negativity controls your mind, that’s all you can think about. That level of focus blocks out other possibilities around you. When all you care about is not losing your job, you’re not thinking of all the other amazing job opportunities you could apply for that are better.
Strong negative emotions like anger, stress, and guilt can cause the brain to enter into a survival mode, where it becomes difficult to think clearly and make rational decisions. This can happen in various situations, such as during an argument, when feeling overwhelmed with a long to-do list, or when feeling guilty about unhealthy habits.
But wait, there’s more…
Children who engage in physical play and social interaction with friends can learn athletic, social, and creative skills. These skills are long-lasting and can even turn into lifelong pursuits, such as earning a college scholarship or becoming a successful business manager. Although the positive emotions of play and joy may dissipate, the skills that were developed during these experiences continue to thrive and benefit individuals throughout their lives.
Fredrickson’s theory of “broaden and build” posits that positive emotions expand your sense of potentiality and liberate your thinking. This can help you learn new things and be good at different things in your life.
And then, there’s the famous nun journal study. Researchers looked at handwritten life stories from 180 Catholic nuns. The stories were written when the nuns were around 22 years old. They found that nuns who wrote more positive things in their stories had a lower risk of dying when they were between 75 and 95 years old. The more positive things they wrote, the less likely they were to die. Even after 60 years, the positive stories still helped the nuns live longer. The researchers think that feeling balanced emotionally might be the reason why positive stories helped the nuns live longer.
So, that begs the question: how do you actually get yourself to be positive?
You probably know what things make you happy already, like playing an instrument, spending time with someone special, or doing a craft.
Here are five additional ideas:
- Gratitude Journaling – Take a few minutes each day to write down things you are grateful for. This can help shift your focus towards positive things in your life, leading to feelings of contentment and happiness.
- Volunteering – Helping others and contributing to a cause you believe in can provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Volunteering can also help you connect with new people and build meaningful relationships.
- Outdoor Activities – Spending time in nature, such as hiking or gardening, can promote feelings of calmness and relaxation. Being outdoors can also provide a break from technology and allow for a connection with the natural world.
- Creative Expression – Engaging in creative activities, such as painting or writing, can provide a sense of accomplishment and help to express emotions in a positive way. Creative expression can also help to develop new skills and build confidence.
- Mindfulness Practices – Mindfulness practices, such as yoga or meditation, can help to reduce stress and promote feelings of peace and contentment. By focusing on the present moment, mindfulness practices can also help to improve concentration and attention.
Some people make the mistake of believing they have to be rich or successful first to be happy or positive, so they waste decades in misery thinking that the “gold at the end of the rainbow” will make them happy or positive.
Happiness is not just a result of success, but a factor in achieving it. Positivity is different from happiness or feeling content. Positivity is about thinking optimistically about the future, your current life, having a good perspective. Happiness is about how content you feel now. I can create positivity even if my situation looks grim at first.
The “broaden and build” theory by Fredrickson suggests that being positive is key in developing skills that lead to success. Researchers in the book The Happiness Advantage have also noticed that happy people tend to experience an “upward spiral,” where happiness leads to new skills, which lead to more success and happiness. The passage encourages people not to put off happiness until they achieve their goals but to recognize that happiness is both a precursor to and result of success.
When you are feeling happy and free to explore, you start to see how your past experiences can shape your future, and you develop skills that can become talents, like being able to spot more career and business opportunities. This also ignites a desire for more exploration and adventure. In short, prioritize finding joy, playing, and going on adventures.