Positive thinking sounds useful on the surface. (Most of us would prefer to be positive rather than negative.) But "positive thinking" is also a soft and fluffy term that is easy to dismiss. In the real world, it rarely carries the same weight as words like "work ethic" or "persistence."
But opinions are changing.
Research is beginning to reveal that positive thinking is about much more than just being happy or displaying an upbeat attitude. Positive thoughts can actually create real value in your life and help you build skills that last much longer than a smile.
The impact of positive thinking on your work, your health, and your life is being studied at the University of North Carolina, and a published a landmark paper provides surprising insights about positive thinking and its impact on your skills.
What Negative Thoughts Do to Your Brain
Imagine you're walking through the forest and suddenly a tiger steps onto the path ahead of you. When this happens, your brain registers a negative emotion - in this case, fear.
Researchers have long known that negative emotions program your brain to do a specific action.
When that tiger crosses your path, for example, you run. The rest of the world doesn't matter. You are focused entirely on the tiger, the fear it creates, and how you can get away from it.
In other words, negative emotions narrow your mind and focus your thoughts. At that same moment, you might have the option to climb a tree, pick up a leaf, or grab a stick - but your brain ignores all of those options because they seem irrelevant when a tiger is standing in front of you.
This is a useful instinct if you're trying to save life and limb, but in our modern society we don't have to worry about stumbling across tigers in the wilderness. The problem is that your brain is still programmed to respond to negative emotions in the same way - by shutting off the outside world and limiting the options you see around you.
For example, when you're in a fight with someone, your anger and emotion might consume you to the point where you can't think about anything else. Or, when you are stressed out about everything you have to get done today, you may find it hard to actually start anything because you're paralyzed by how long your to-do list has become. Or, if you feel bad about not exercising or not eating healthy, all you think about is how little willpower you have, how you're lazy, and how you don't have any motivation.
In each case, your brain closes off from the outside world and focuses on the negative emotions of fear, anger, and stress -just like it did with the tiger. Negative emotions prevent your brain from seeing the other options and choices that surround you. It's your survival instinct.
Now, let's compare this to what positive emotions do to your brain.
What Positive Thoughts Do to Your Brain
Barbara Fredrickson (a positive psychology researcher) tested the impact of positive emotions on the brain by setting up a little experiment. During this experiment, she divided her research subjects into five groups and showed each group different film clips.
The first two groups were shown clips that created positive emotions. Group 1 saw images that created feelings of joy. Group 2 saw images that created feelings of contentment.
Group 3 was the control group. They saw images that were neutral and produced no significant emotion.
The last two groups were shown clips that created negative emotions. Group 4 saw images that created feelings of fear. Group 5 saw images that created feelings of anger.
Afterward, each participant was asked to imagine themselves in a situation where similar feelings would arise and to 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..."
Participants who saw images of fear and anger wrote down the fewest responses. 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.
In other words, when you are experiencing positive emotions like joy, contentment, and love, you will see more possibilities in your life. These findings were among the first that suggested positive emotions broaden your sense of possibility and open your mind up to more options.
But that was just the beginning. The really interesting impact of positive thinking happens later...
How Positive Thinking Builds Your Skill Set
The benefits of positive emotions last longer than the few minutes after good feelings subside. In fact, the biggest benefit that positive emotions provide is an enhanced ability to build skills and develop resources for use later in life.
Let's consider a real-world example.
A child who runs around outside, swinging on branches and playing with friends, develops the ability to move athletically (physical skills), the ability to play with others and communicate with a team (social skills), and the ability to explore and examine the world around them (creative skills). In this way, the positive emotions of play and joy prompt the child to build skills that are useful and valuable in everyday life.
These skills last much longer than the emotions that initiated them. Years later, that foundation of athletic movement might develop into ability as an athlete, or the communication skills may blossom into future employment. The happiness that promoted the exploration and creation of new skills has long since ended, but the skills themselves live on.
Fredrickson refers to this as the "broaden and build" theory because positive emotions broaden your sense of possibilities and open your mind, which in turn allows you to build new skills and resources that can provide value in other areas of your life.
As highlighted earlier, negative emotions do the opposite, because building skills for future use is irrelevant when there is immediate threat or danger.
Sometimes it can be hard to look on the bright side of life - and those are the times when it might be most important to do so.
A recent research paper published in a journal of the American Heart Association shows that even for people dealing with heart disease - the number one killer of adults in the USA - a positive outlook means living longer and stronger.
The study, which looked at 607 patients in a hospital in Denmark, found that patients whose moods were overall more positive were 58 percent more likely to live at least another five years. These people exercised more, too. The scientists can’t say prove whether the positivity led to exercise or if exercise improved mood, but the message is important either way: Positive thinking and regular physical activity are really important for life.
Having the right attitude is even more important for your body than sun cream in the summer or a weekend spa getaway - it is that important. Humour improves immune cell function, helps you ward off illness and decreases your chances of cancer - and can apparently also increase your chance of living if you develop heart disease. Obviously it would be better to change your exercise, food and stress management programs now so you are less likely to develop heart disease.
It also renders the chicken and egg theory unimportant in this case - if physical activity improves mood, and mood is improved by physical activity, it's a win-win situation. In addition, feeling happier and more optimistic helps motivate you to engage in healthier habits.
All of this research begs the most important question of all: If positive thinking is so useful for developing valuable skills and appreciating the big picture of life, how do you actually get yourself to be positive?
How to Increase Positive Thinking in Your Life
So what can we do to increase positive emotions and take advantage of the "broaden and build" theory in our life's?
Anything that sparks feelings of joy, contentment, or love will be successful. You're probably already aware of the things that will have an impact; playing an instrument, spending time with certain people or cooking for example.
Other ways you may consider are:
Meditation - The research undertaken by Fredrickson and her colleagues has revealed that people who meditate daily display more positive emotions than those who do not. As expected, people who meditated also built valuable long-term skills. For example, three months after the experiment was over, the people who meditated daily continued to display increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms.
Play - Schedule time to add some play into your life. As a society we are used to scheduling meetings, conference calls, weekly events, and other responsibilities into daily calendars, but rarely include time to play or have fun.
Most of us would struggle to remember the last time we put aside an hour to explore, experiment or experience playful interaction. Surely being happy and healthy is more important than a meeting on a dreary Wednesday afternoon, and yet we never give it freedom or time to breathe.
Allowing ourselves to smile and enjoy the benefits of positive emotion can lead to fulfilment, creativity, adventure, joy and contentment, plus the opportunity to build new skills.
Happiness vs. Success
There can be little doubt that achievement can bring happiness. Buying a bigger house, getting a faster car, gaining promotion, falling in love; these things will bring you joy and contentment.
We are almost programmed to think that the extra bit of income will bring more happiness or opportunities, but when does that amount become enough? When can you stop and say that you have reached you goal - when do you allow yourself the time to appreciate what you have achieved?
We frequently sabotage our immediate pleasure for the dream of that distance goal; but these goals are merely transient emotions and feelings which are similar to the spike in sugar levels gained by drinking sugary soft drinks. In reality it has more of an effect akin to the one you get from drinking a diet soda - the brain is programed to think that sweet items contain calories and when the body receives the message that there are no calories, becomes hungry for what was required in the first place - a more long lasting and fulfilling result. Achieving daily positivity to increase your levels of health and well-being are therefore a long term investment with immediate results.
In truth, researchers have noticed results in happy people whereby they develop new skills which lead to open new opportunities, these in turn provide new success, which consequently bring about happiness, with a cyclical conclusion.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Positive thinking isn't just a new catchphrase intended on manipulating you into spending money on a fly-by-night 'miracle solution' or diet pill. Of course it's easy to say we'll be happier and more positive, but in reality the stresses and strains of everyday life can be a challenge for even the most upbeat character.
To encourage our positive thinking, the moments of happiness - regardless of how brief - are critical for opening up our minds to exploration and buildings skills that can become so valuable in the other areas of your life.
Finding ways to build happiness and positive emotions into your life provides more than just a momentary decrease in stress and a few smiles.
Periods of positive emotion and unhindered exploration are when you see the possibilities for how your past experiences fit into your future life, when you begin to develop skills that blossom into useful talents later on, and when you spark the urge for further exploration and adventure.
The more we seek joy, encourage playful behaviour, and pursue adventure; the more we allow our brains to the rest - and people really should smile more.