The Power of Positivity
Updated: Apr 6
Staying positive may make a difference in your overall mental health.
When life takes a sharp and unexpected turn, it's easy to allow your thoughts follow suit. Changes outside of your control might engender negative thoughts, which in turn, generate feelings like sadness and even depression. Fortunately, our brains have the ability to change -- it's called neuroplasticity -- and you can teach yourself to be a more positive thinker, even in the face of adversity. As it turns out, shifting the way you think has the potential to truly impact your overall mental health.
What's happening in your brain
Before we describe how to become a more positive thinker, it's helpful to understand why this impacts your overall health and well being.
At the risk of oversimplifying the process, here's a quick overview: All thoughts spur the release of chemicals in our brain, which in turn produce downstream effects throughout the brain and the body. Chemicals released when we entertain negative thoughts have been shown to reduce activity in the cerebellum, the area of the brain in charge of things like coordination and balance, muscular movements of the eyes and speech, and most importantly, receiving signals from other parts of the brain. In contrast, when happy thoughts arise, the brain secretes serotonin, the feel good neurotransmitter that promotes a sense of well-being, reduces stress and anxiety, and increases concentration and focus.(Click here to learn more about this from MeteorEducation.com)
Keeping this in mind, it makes sense to suggest that our thoughts influence our ability to handle difficult situations. The cerebellum needs to function properly in times of stress (caused by anything from being chased by a saber tooth tiger to dealing with invisible problems like viruses and work-related stress) to help our reactions and keep things like language, sight, and emotions in balance. Taking it one step further, the benefits of positivity go beyond just ensuring the cerebellum stays functioning properly. A boost of serotonin would likely help rationally problem solve, deal with stress, and make smart choices.
How to Start Thinking Positively
While easy to talk about in conversation, changing your thought process takes practice. As with other tasks you undertake, having the right tools makes it easier to find success. Fortunately, research offers some proven ways to improve your outlook in difficult situations. Try a few of these on for size and see if they help you turn lemons into lemonade.
Don't Just Ignore the Negative, Process It
To clarify, thinking positively doesn't translate to sticking your head in the sand when something bad occurs. Ignoring or repressing negative thoughts actually causes them to fester and potentially magnify (think of a bad splinter that, when not removed, gets infected and inflamed). Instead, acknowledge them. Stop and ask yourself a few questions, like:
"What is causing me to have these thoughts right now?"
"What information might help me change this thought process?"
"What is this thought doing for me right now?" ("How is this thought helping my situation?")
Then, based on your response, ask yourself a follow up question that helps you take action. For example, if you answer "What is this thought doing for me right now?" with something like, "Not much.", your follow up question might be: "What action or perspective would I suggest someone entertain if they were struggling with this thought?"
Maintain the 3:1 Ratio
Researcher Barbara Fredrickson published a study in 2009 that demonstrated the benefits of positive thinking. Specifically, she showed that maintaining a ratio of at least three positive thoughts to one negative thought improves resilience and adaptability. Putting this into practice, it looks something like this:
Acknowledge that a negative thought came into your mind and make peace with it.
Consider how you might turn the negative thought around to produce a positive thought (for example, if you can't leave your house to run an errand, you might consider the benefits of saving money or having time to do something at home.)
Allow your mind to explore other positive outcomes as a result of the negative thought.
If you're having trouble finding positive thoughts to consider that relate to the negative though, just think of three other [unrelated] positive thoughts. (Note: the key is to be very specific! Instead of thinking "it's nice outside", complete the thought to include specifics, like, "I'm so glad it's nice enough to go for a walk!")
By immediately following the negative thought with a positive one, you help your brain learn in the moment and redirect your initial negativity.
As simple as it sounds, practicing daily gratitude significantly impacts mental health and well-being, both immediately and over time. One study from UC-Berkeley of students with self-reported low mental health showed that writing one letter of gratitude a week for three weeks significantly improved mental health, not only while they wrote letters but for an additional two months afterward.
Why does this work? One theory from the study's authors stems from the fact that expressing gratitude requires commensurate words to match. As you might imagine, when sharing gratitude for something or someone, people tend to use more positive language. As we discussed above, positive thoughts have a strong impact on overall well-being.
Talk to Someone
Putting words to your thoughts also helps people reframe their negative thoughts and interpretations of those thoughts. Many workplaces offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), which (among other things) connect you to mental health professionals trained to help you work through difficult situations through Positive Psychology, a method that helps you use positivity to achieve goals. As part of their benefits, employees have access to these services free of charge. Incredibly, EAP services remain chronically underutilized. According to a 2015 usage study, only about 7% of employees take advantage of the opportunities provided through EAP. This really leaves tremendous services on the table. Without any downsides to using EAP, seeking free assistance to become a more positive thinker is really a no-brainer.
It's been proven more times than we can count -- people who exercise regularly report higher levels of life satisfaction, positivity, and well-being. Exercise releases endorphins, which are known mood enhancers. When you feel better, it's easier to think in a more positive light. Feeling stuck inside without any ideas on what you can do to be active? Check out my blog on Staying Fit While Staying Home.
As I was writing this blog (stuck in my kitchen during the COVID quarantine), I realized that the most powerful part of thinking positive is just trying to be positive. After fully realizing I wouldn't be able to see my family for Easter, I felt frustrated and a little down, and negative thoughts began to creep into my mind. However, I knew that I'd be writing this article and tried to reframe a little: "Everyone's safe and healthy!", "We'll have a relaxing and easy-going Easter!", "We'll use FaceTime to see everyone, so they won't feel so far away."
And you know what? It helped. Did it change the situation? No, but it changed my reaction to it. When you modify your knee-jerk response to a difficult situation, you use "high-road reactions", which halt the release of additional stress hormones and build resilience. In turn, they start to change the way your brain is wired, which leads to greater mental calm, positivity, and ultimately, better mental health.