You have probably had someone tell you to "look on the bright side" or to "see the cup as half full." Chances are good that the people who make these comments are positive thinkers. Researchers are finding more and more evidence pointing to the many benefits of optimism and positive thinking.
Such findings suggest that not only are positive thinkers healthier and less stressed, they also have greater overall well-being. According to positive psychology researcher Suzanne Segerstrom, "Setbacks are inherent to almost every worthwhile human activity, and a number of studies show that optimists are in general both psychologically and physiologically healthier."
Even if positive thinking does not come naturally to you, there are plenty of great reasons to start cultivating affirmative thoughts and minimizing negative self-talk.
Positive Thinkers Cope Better With Stress
When faced with stressful situations, positive thinkers cope more effectively than pessimists. In one study, researchers found that when optimists encounter a disappointment (such as not getting a job or promotion) they are more likely to focus on things they can do to resolve the situation. Rather than dwelling on their frustrations or things that they cannot change, they will devise a plan of action and ask others for assistance and advice. Pessimists, on the other hand, simply assume that the situation is out of their control and there is nothing they can do to change it.
Optimism Can Improve Your Immunity
In recent years, researchers have found that your mind can have a powerful effect on your body. Immunity is one area where your thoughts and attitudes can have a particularly powerful influence. In one study, researchers found that activation in brain areas associated with negative emotions led to a weaker immune response to a flu vaccine. Researchers Segerstrom and Sephton found that people who were optimistic about a specific and important part of their lives, such as how well they were doing in school, exhibited a stronger immune response than those who had a more negative view of the situation.
Positive Thinking Is Good for Your Health
Not only can positive thinking impact your ability to cope with stress and your immunity, it also has an impact on your overall well-being. The Mayo Clinic reports a number of health benefits associated with optimism, including a reduced risk of death from cardiovascular problems, less depression, and an increased lifespan. While researchers are not entirely clear on why positive thinking benefits health, some suggest that positive people might lead healthier lifestyles. By coping better with stress and avoiding unhealthy behaviors, they are able to improve their health and well-being.
It Can Make You More Resilient
Resilience refers to our ability to cope with problems. Resilient people are able to face a crisis or trauma with strength and resolve. Rather than falling apart in the face of such stress, they have the ability to carry on and eventually overcome such adversity. It may come as no surprise to learn that positive thinking can play a major role in resilience. When dealing with a challenge, optimists typically look at what they can do to fix the problem. Instead of giving up hope, they marshal their resources and are willing to ask others for help.
Researchers have also found that in the wake of a crisis, such as a terrorist attack or natural disaster, positive thoughts and emotions encourage thriving and provide a sort of buffer against depression among resilient people. Fortunately experts also believe that such positivism and resilience can be cultivated. By nurturing positive emotions, even in the face of terrible events, people can reap both short-term and long-term rewards, including managing stress levels, lessening depression, and building coping skills that will serve them well in the future.
Before you put on those rose-colored glasses, it is important to note that positive thinking is not about taking a "Pollyanna" approach to life. In fact, researchers have found that in some instances, optimism might not serve you well. For example, people who are excessively optimistic might overestimate their own abilities and take on more than they can handle, ultimately leading to more stress and anxiety.
Instead of ignoring reality in favor of the silver lining, psychologists suggest that positive thinking centers on such things as a belief in your abilities, a positive approach to challenges, and trying to make the most of bad situations. Bad things will happen. Sometimes you will be disappointed or hurt by the actions of others. This does not mean that the world is out to get you or that all people will let you down. Instead, positive thinkers will look at the situation realistically, search for ways that they can improve the situation, and try to learn from their experiences.
Fredrickson, B. L., Tugade, M. M., Waugh, C. E., & Larkin, G. R. (2003). What good are positive emotions in crises? A prospective study of resilience and emotions following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 365-376.
Goleman, D. (1987). Research affirms power of positive thinking. The New York Times. Found online at http://www.nytimes.com/1987/02/03/science/research-affirms-power-of-positive-thinking.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
Goode, E. (2003). Power of Positive Thinking May Have a Health Benefit, Study Says. The New York Times. Found online at http://psyphz.psych.wisc.edu/web/News/Positive_thinking_NYT_9-03.html
Mayo Clinic. (2011). Positive thinking: Reduce stress by eliminating negative self-talk. Found online at http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/positive-thinking/SR00009
Schwartz, T. Psychologist and scientist Suzanne Segerstrom ’90 studies optimism and the immune system. Chronicle. Found online at http://legacy.lclark.edu/dept/chron/positives03.html
Segerstrom, S. & Sephton, S. (2010). Optimistic expectancies and cell-mediated immunity: The role of positive affect. Psychological Science, 21(3), 448-55.