How staying positive helps
It's likely our species survived because of our knack for detecting danger. But our worry-filled thoughts can present dangers of their own: Thinking negatively can drag down our moods, our actions and even our health.
Experts say it's worthwhile—and possible—to learn how to think more positively.
Consider what researchers found about the benefits of staying positive
- People who were pessimistic had a nearly 20 percent higher risk of dying over a 30-year period than those who were optimistic
- People who kept track of their gratitude once a week were more upbeat and had fewer physical complaints than others
- People who obsessively repeated negative thoughts and behaviors were able to change their unhealthy patterns—and their brain activity actually changed too.
Ways to stay positive
Trying to be optimistic doesn't mean ignoring the uglier sides of life. It just means focusing on the positive as much as possible-and it gets easier with practice.
If you want to pump up your optimism, you might:
- Write about a positive future. The idea is to envision your goals and dreams come true. Tips include:
- Write about your great future life. Writing helps you absorb ideas better than just thinking.
- Set aside time so you can go into detail. Researcher Laura King, PhD, who proved this exercise a great mood booster, assigned 20 minutes on four consecutive days.
A variation on this exercise is to imagine positive outcomes in a particularly challenging situation.
- Search for the silver lining. Looking for the positive in a negative situation may sound sappy, but it can actually show great strength. To find your silver lining, ask yourself:
- How have I grown from this situation?
- Are my relationships stronger now?
- Have I developed new skills?
- What am I proud of about the way I handled this situation?
Noticing and appreciating the positives in our lives offers a great mood boost.
To increase your gratefulness, you can:
- Write a gratitude letter. Researcher Martin Seligman, PhD, asked subjects to write a letter thanking someone who had been particularly kind to them and then deliver it in person. The letter-writers enjoyed impressive positive effects even a month later.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Write down anything large or small that makes you smile, including terrific achievements, touching moments and great relationships.
- Remind yourself to savor. Yes, stop and smell the roses-and look at them and touch them. Do whatever you can to really soak in the lovelier aspects of your life.
- Share your good news. Studies of people's reactions to positive developments suggest that those who tell a friend about a happy event enjoy it even more.
Avoid Negative Thinking
If you want to feel positive, it pays to decrease the downers in your life. With practice, you can resist worrisome thoughts and perhaps even transform your internal critic into more of a cheering squad.
- Avoid dwelling on downers. Focusing on negatives isn't just unpleasant, it also can make you less effective in tackling tasks you face. In a study of test-takers, those who fixated on worrisome thoughts performed worse than those who were distracted from their worries. To stifle your obsessing:
- Ask yourself if the issue is really worth your energy. Will this issue matter in a year, for example?
- Tell yourself you'll worry about it at a specific time later. Chances are you'll feel better by the appointed time.
- Instead of just spinning your worry wheels, try a concrete problem-solving exercise.
Distract yourself: Go to a movie, pump up some music, find something fun to do.
- Change unhealthy self-talk. You may have been running negative messages in your head for a long time. But research shows that you can learn to shift your thoughts and that, over time, you can literally change your brain. Consider trying some techniques from cognitive-behavioral therapy, which works in part by looking at how changing your thoughts can change your life. Some tips include:
- Ask yourself if your negative thought is really true. Are you really a terrible mother if you didn't make it to the class play? You're probably involved in innumerable other ways.
- Remember any achievements that disprove your insecurity. If you think you'll flop at the office party, remember other social occasions when you were outgoing and confident.
- Imagine what you'd tell a friend if he was worrying in ways that you are. You'd likely convince him to wait a bit before assuming the worst.
- Beware of all-or-nothing thinking. Disappointing your girlfriend once doesn't mean you're doomed to disappoint her all the time.
- Consider alternative explanations. If your boss hasn't responded to your proposal it could be because he's busy and not because he doesn't like it.
Reviewed by Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, a University of California, Riverside professor and author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want(Penguin Press).