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The Power of Positive Thinking

positive psychology Jun 02, 2024
The Power of Positive Thinking

If you see a glass that is half contained with water, do you view it as “half full” or “half empty”? How you describe the glass uncovers a lot about the way you think 一 whether your thoughts are veering towards the positive or the negative 一 and how you think can have a life-changing impact on your health, from your overall well-being to how satisfied with your life. If you are a “glass half full” kind of person, you have at some point, experienced the power of positive thinking. But if you, like many of us, are a “glass-half-empty” person, your thoughts might have already harmed your life in various ways, without you realizing the influence they’ve had on you. For instance, studies have shown that pessimists tend to have a higher risk of developing mood-related mental health issues.  

Our inner thoughts can be so powerful that they can impact the reality of the outside world. While negativity might contribute to negative results, the same can happen for positive thoughts, by being a catalyst for more positive situations in your life. By simply changing the way you think, you’ll have the ability to transform your life for the better. If you’re a “glass half empty” person, practicing positive thinking can not only pull you out of the spiral of negative thinking, it can also shift your attention and focus towards the beautiful side of life. Read on to learn more about the power of positive thinking, how your thoughts can affect your brain, and how to improve your life by becoming more of a “glass half full” thinker. 

What Is Positive Thinking?

Positive thinking refers to when an individual interprets a situation in a positive and optimistic way. Its opposite is negative thinking, which happens when someone evaluates an event with a negative and pessimistic mindset. It’s in our nature to try and make sense of things happening around us, and to understand the reason behind every single event 一 and as a result, the same situation can be interpreted differently by different people in either a positive or negative way. For instance, when someone fails a job interview, they can either maintain a negative attitude, e.g. “No one will hire me. I’m not valuable,” or think of it positively, e.g. “This was still a chance for me to gain experience. I’ll try my best to use this to better prepare for my next interview.”

The life-changing benefits of positive thinking were discussed by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, an American writer and clergyman, in 1952 in his book The Power of Positive Thinking. Dr. Peale suggested that one’s inner thoughts have the power to transform the outside world, and how we think matters for our feelings as well as our general state of health. He suggested that when one adopts a negative mindset and believes that they will fail at something, they can be more likely to fail. However, when an individual thinks in a more positive manner, they will be more likely to achieve positive results. Simply put, positive thinking is a cycle, and by adding positivity to our thoughts, we can change our beliefs, feelings, and actions.

How Does Positive And Negative Thinking Affect Your Brain?

Dr. Peale illustrated how inner thoughts can powerfully impact the outside world, but what exactly happens in this process on a physical level? It is related to the chemicals released by the brain when we are engaged in these thoughts. The biological processes underlying the positive thinking cycle 一 which are often associated with the release of certain brain chemicals such as hormones and neurotransmitters 一 are highlighted in the book Activate Your Brain by Dr. Scott G. Halford, an expert on achievement psychology and behavioral neuroscience. 

What Negative Thinking Does To Your Brain?

Negative thinking can trigger the brain to signal the bodily systems to release cortisol into the central nervous system and the bloodstream. Cortisol is often called the “stress hormone” since it helps people cope with stress and danger. Among its various functions, it:

  • Prepares the body for the fight-or-flight response
  • Increases blood sugar levels
  • Shuts down the digestive system
  • Deactivates the reproductive system

Cortisol might be helpful in life-threatening situations, but a constant high level of cortisol can be harmful as it can affect normal brain functions 一 skills that the prefrontal cortex is responsible for. The release of cortisol also shuts down certain brain areas to prepare the body to cope with danger 一 areas that are often associated with cognitive functioning, including:

  • The ability to think logically
  • Problem-solving skills 
  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Forgiveness

As negative thinking stimulates the release of cortisol, the brain withdraws energy from the prefrontal cortex to brain regions responsible for survival 一 attention and memory. As a result, other cognitive functions are deactivated, which in turn can reduce brain capacity and inhibit the brain from functioning properly. 

What Does Positive Thinking Do To Your Brain?

Positive thinking can trigger the release of “feel-good chemicals” 一 dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine offers a sense of peace and reward, helping the body to stay calm and motivated. Common functions of dopamine include:

  • Improving memory 
  • Controlling pain
  • Regulating mood 
  • Improving sleep 
  • Redirecting blood flow 

Serotonin, on the other hand, is a chemical that can prevent low mood and depression. Common functions of serotonin include:

  • Stabilizing mood 
  • Regulating circadian rhythm 
  • Improving bone health
  • Being responsible for blood clotting
  • Regulating appetite and digestion

It is believed that positive thinking gives people a little bump of dopamine and serotonin, so that people can experience a greater sense of happiness and well-being. This allows them to feel calmer, less anxious, and more focused. These chemicals can also reduce cortisol levels and consequently, activate more brain areas that are associated with higher cognitive function, enabling the brain to function properly and stay mentally sharp. 

What Are the Health Benefits of Positive Thinking?

Numerous studies have shown that thoughts can affect cognitive function. Individuals who think more negatively tend to be more likely to develop health issues like dementia, cognitive decline, and memory impairment. Negative thinking can damage the immune system and sleep, which can increase one’s chances of getting sick. Not only can our thoughts affect our physical health, they can also take a toll on our mental health. For instance, high cortisol levels can make a person struggle with a range of negative effects, from a low mood state to an increased possibility of developing mood-related mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. It is believed that negative thinking can hugely affect interpersonal relationships, since those who think negatively often complain more 一 this can make people around them focus on the negatives too, eventually leading to reduced interactions with them. 

While negative thinking has been linked to poorer health, positive thinking has been found to protect us against potential health issues, physically, mentally, and emotionally. For example, recent studies have found that positive thinking is related to a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease 一 health issues relevant to the heart and blood vessels 一 and lower blood pressure. Positivity can also help one to enhance their sense of social connection, since people who think positively tend to attract more people into their social circles as they lift up others’ moods. This optimistic way of thinking can also boost creative problem-solving and stress management skills, which are particularly valuable at work. Overall, positivity can improve various aspects of life, ranging from increased life satisfaction and an improved state of health to better performance and greater self-confidence

Discover practical positive psychology tools in Dr. Dan Tomasulo's short course: How to Thrive 

How Do I Practice More Positive Thinking?

The power of positive thinking centers around the idea that by changing the way you think, you can activate your brain to stimulate the body to release more “feel-good chemicals” 一 and in doing so, you can start to view the world through a more positive lens. It might be easier said than done, but it’s important to understand that your thoughts do matter. The same concept can be illustrated by the law of attraction 一 wherein thoughts can manifest events in one’s life 一 such that more positive thoughts bring more positive results. The same happens the other way around 一 more negative thoughts lead to more negative results. If you’re looking for ways to help cultivate a little more positivity in your thoughts and mindset, below are some tips to help get you started 一 and that might just help you transform your life for the better:

  • Practice Gratitude: Reminding yourself to think about things you’re grateful for can help you to practice thinking more positively. Before you go to sleep each night, try to list at least three things you’re thankful for. They can be simple: the delicious coffee you had in the morning, friends you spent time with during the day, the beautiful sky you saw on your way home from work, the conversation you had with your family over dinner. You can write them down 一 even putting your thoughts down in a gratitude journal 一 or just shift your attention towards these good things, in an effort to rewire your brain to be more positive. 
  • Create Distance From Negative People: You may think that what happens in the mind of a negative person won’t bother you 一 after all, that’s their mind and not yours, right? 一 but negativity can be surprisingly contagious. Thankfully, so can positivity. When you spend a lot of time with someone who is very negative, you could be putting yourself at risk of their negativity rubbing off on you and affecting your moods too. As a famous quote by American entrepreneur Jim Rohn goes: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with” 一 so spend your time wisely with positive people, and maintain healthy boundaries with negative people. 
  • Identify Negative Thought Patterns: Always be conscious of how you think, since your own thoughts or negative self-talk may be trying to convince you to believe something that might not be true. Have you ever felt like it would be the end of the world when you failed a test? Did you ever assume that your friend hated you when they did not respond to your message promptly? These are known as cognitive distortions 一 an exaggerated and irrational way of thinking 一 and it is best to be aware of these negative thoughts, as a first step to getting rid of them. 
  • Use Your Imagination: Visualizing success can help to aid performance, as the brain does not have the ability to differentiate what is real from what is imaginary. For instance, when you picture yourself delivering a speech like a pro TED speaker in a way that keeps your audiences engaged and inspired, you’ll be more likely to nail even a simple presentation. Never underestimate the power of positive thinking, and how positive thoughts can ultimately guide you onto the path for more positivity and happiness. 

Discover practical positive psychology tools in Dr. Dan Tomasulo's short course: How to Thrive 

All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: Norman Vincent Peale; The Power of Positive Thinking - Goodreads; Activate Your Brain: How Understanding Your Brain Can Improve Your Work - and Your Life - Goodreads; About Scott Halford; What Is Cortisol?; Stress Signalling Pathways That Impair Prefrontal Cortex Structure and Function; Dopamine | Psychology Today; Serotonin: What You Need to Know; Cortisol Decreases and Serotonin and Dopamine Increase Following Massage Therapy; Negative Thinking Can Harm Your Brain and Increase Your Dementia Risk; Brain Study Links Negative Emotions and Lowered Immunity; How Negative Thinking Can Disrupt Your Sleep; Prolonged Secretion of Cortisol as a Possible Mechanism Underlying Stress and Depressive Behaviour; A Positive Mindset Can Help Your Heart; Statistical Analysis for Effect of Positive Thinking on Stress Management and Creative Problem Solving for Adolescent; Positive Thinking: Toward a Conceptual Model and Organizational Implications; You're The Average Of The Five People You Spend The Most Time With; What Are Cognitive Distortions and How Can You Change These Thinking Patterns?; Seeing Is Believing: The Power of Visualization.

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