Question: What Is Positive Thinking?
"I always hear people talk about the benefits of positive thinking. What exactly is positive thinking and how can it be used to improve health and wellness?"
Do you tend to see the glass as half empty or half full? You have probably heard that question plenty of times. Your answer relates directly to the concept of positive thinking and whether you have a positive or negative outlook on life. Positive thinking plays an important role in positive psychology, a subfield devoted to the study of what makes people happy and fulfilled.
Research has found that positive thinking can aid in stress management and even plays an important role in your overall health and well-being.
What Is Positive Thinking?
"Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be." - Abraham Lincoln
So what exactly is positive thinking? You might be tempted to assume that it implies seeing the world through rose-colored lenses by ignoring or glossing over the negative aspects of life. However, positive thinking actually means approaching life's challenges with a positive outlook. It does not necessarily mean avoiding or ignoring the bad things; instead, it involves making the most of potentially bad situations, trying to see the best in other people, and viewing yourself and your abilities in a positive light.
Some researchers, including positive psychologist Martin Seligman, often frame positive thinking in terms of explanatory style. Your explanatory style is how you explain why events happened. People with an optimistic explanatory style tend to give themselves credit when good things happen, but typically blame outside forces for bad outcomes. They also tend to see negative events as temporary and atypical.
On the other hand, individuals with a pessimistic explanatory style often blame themselves when bad things happen, but fail to give themselves adequate credit for successful outcomes. They also have a tendency to view negative events as expected and lasting. As you can imagine, blaming yourself for events outside of your control or viewing these unfortunate events as a persistent part of your life can have a detrimental impact on your state of mind.
Positive thinkers are more apt to use an optimistic explanatory style, but the way in which people attribute events can also vary depending upon the exact situation. For example, a person who is generally a positive thinker might use a more pessimistic explanatory style in particularly challenging situations, such as at work or at school.
The Health Benefits of Positive Thinking
In recent years, the so-called "power of positive thinking" has gained a great deal of attention thanks to self-help books such as The Secret. While these pop-psychology books often tout positive thinking as a sort of psychological panacea, empirical research has found that there are many very real health benefits linked to positive thinking and optimistic attitudes.
According to the Mayo Clinic, positive thinking is linked to a wide range of health benefits including:
- Longer life span
- Less stress
- Lower rates of depression
- Increased resistance to the common cold
- Better stress management and coping skills
- Lower risk of cardiovascular disease-related death
- Increased physical well-being
- Better psychological health
One study of 1,558 older adults found that positive thinking could also reduce frailty during old age.
Clearly, there are many benefits of positive thinking, but why exactly does positive thinking have such a strong impact on physical and mental health. One theory is that people who think positively tend to be less affected by stress. Another possibility is that people who think positively tend to live healthier lives in general; they may exercise more, follow a more nutritious diet and avoid unhealthy behaviors.
Positive Thinking Versus Positive Psychology
While the terms positive thinking and positive psychology are sometimes used interchangeably, it is important to understand that they are not the same thing. First, positive thinking is about looking at things from a positive point of view. Positive psychology certainly tends to focus on optimism, but it also notes that while there are many benefits to thinking positively, there are actually times when more realistic thinking is more advantageous.
For example, in some situations negative thinking can actually lead to more accurate decisions and outcomes (Alloy, Abramson, & Chiara, 2000). Researchers Peterson & Vaidya also found that in some cases, optimistic thinking can lead to underestimating the actual risks involved in a particular decision (2003).
Positive Thinking Tips
Even if you are not a natural-born optimist, there are things you can do to learn how to think positive. One of the first steps is to focus on your own inner monologue and to pay attention to your self-talk. Click the following links to learn more about how to become a positive thinker and to share your own positive thinking tips.
Alloy, L., Abramson, L., & Chiara, A. (2000). On the mechanisms by which optimism promotes positive mental and physical health. In J. Gillham (ed.) The science of optimism and hope: Research essays in honor of Martin E.P. Seligman (pp. 201-212). Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press.
Peterson, C. & Vaidya, R.S. (2003). Optimism as virtue and vice. In E.C. Chang & L.J. Sanna (Eds.), Virtue, vice, and personality: The complexity of behavior (pp. 23-37). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Ostir, G.V., Ottenbacher, K.J. and Markides, K.S. (2004). Onset of Frailty in Older Adults and the Protective Role of Positive Affect. Psychology and Aging, 19(3).
Seligman, M. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York City: Random House.