Positive words come from positive thoughts, negative words from negative thoughts. It is really that simple. Watch the words that come out of your mouth and you will have a good idea of the direction your thoughts are facing, and as a result, your life.
The Science of Positive Words: How Build Your Skills, Boost Your Health, and Improve Your Work
Positive words seems useful on the surface. (Most of us would prefer to be positive rather than negative.) But “positive thinking” is a soft and fluffy term that is easy to dismiss. In the real world, it rarely carries the same weight as words like “work ethic” or “persistence.”
Is your glass half-empty or half-full? The way you answer this age-old question about positive thinking may reflect your outlook on life, your attitude toward yourself, and whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic — and it may even affect your well-being.
Indeed, some studies show that characteristics like optimism and pessimism can make difference many areas of your health and well-being. The positive thinking that typically comes with optimism is a key part of effective stress management. And effective stress management is associated with many health benefits. When you tend to be pessimistic, don’t despair — you can learn positive thinking skills.
Understanding positive thinking and self-talk
Positive thinking doesn’t imply that you keep your head in the sand and ignore life’s less pleasant situations. Positive thinking just means that you way to deal unpleasantness in a more positive and productive way. You think the best is going to happen, not the worst.
Positive thinking often begins with self-talk. Self-talk is the endless stream of unspoken thoughts that run through your head. These automatic thoughts can be positive or negative. Some of your self-talk comes from logic and reason. Other self-talk may arise from misconceptions that you create because of insufficient information.
If the thoughts that run through your head are mostly negative, your outlook on life is more likely pessimistic. If your thoughts are mostly positive, you’re likely an optimist — someone who practices positive thinking.
Research is starting to show that positive thinking is about much more than just being happy or displaying an upbeat attitude. Positive thoughts can actually create real value in your life and help you build skills that last much longer than a smile.
Barbara Fredrickson is a positive psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina, and she published a landmark paper that provides surprising insights about positive thinking and its impact on your skills. Her work is among the most referenced and cited in her field, and it is surprisingly useful in everyday life.
Let’s talk about Fredrickson’s discovery and what it means for you…
What Positive Thoughts Do to Your Brain
Fredrickson tested the impact of positive emotions on the brain by setting up a little experiment. During this experiment, she divided her research subjects into five groups and showed each group different film clips.
The first two groups were shown clips that created positive emotions. Group 1 saw images that created feelings of joy. Group 2 saw images that created feelings of contentment.
Group 3 was the control group. They saw images that were neutral and produced no significant emotion.
The last two groups were shown clips that created negative emotions. Group 4 saw images that created feelings of fear. Group 5 saw images that created feelings of anger.
Afterward, each participant was asked to imagine themselves in a situation where similar feelings would arise and to write down what they would do. Each participant was handed a piece of paper with 20 blank lines that started with the phrase, “I would like to…”
Participants who saw images of fear and anger wrote down the fewest responses. Meanwhile, the participants who saw images of joy and contentment, wrote down a significantly higher number of actions that they would take, even when compared to the neutral group.
In other words, when you are experiencing positive emotions like joy, contentment, and love, you will see more possibilities in your life. These findings were among the first that suggested positive emotions broaden your sense of possibility and open your mind up to more options.
But that was just the beginning. The really interesting impact of positive thinking happens later…
How Positive Thinking Builds Your Skill Set
The benefits of positive words don’t stop after a few minutes of good feelings subside. In fact, the most important benefit that positive emotions provide is an enhanced ability to build skills and develop resources for use later in life.
Let’s consider a real-world example.
A child who runs around outside, swinging on branches and playing with friends, develops the ability to move athletically (physical skills), the ability to play with others and communicate with a team (social skills), and the ability to explore and examine the world around them (creative skills). In this way, the positive emotions of play and joy prompt the child to build skills that are useful and valuable in everyday life.
These skills last much longer than the emotions that initiated them. Years later, that foundation of athletic movement might develop into a scholarship as a college athlete or the communication skills may blossom into a job offer as a business manager. The happiness that promoted the exploration and creation of new skills has long since ended, but the skills themselves live on.
Fredrickson refers to this as the “broaden and build” theory because positive emotions broaden your sense of possibilities and open your mind, which in turn allows you to build new skills and resources that can provide value in other areas of your life.
As we discussed earlier, negative emotions do the opposite. Why? Because building skills for future use is irrelevant when there is immediate threat or danger (like the tiger on the path).
All of this research begs the most important question of all: If positive thinking is so useful for developing valuable skills and appreciating the big picture of life, how do you actually get yourself to be positive?
How to Increase Positive Thinking in Your Life
What you can do to increase positive emotions and take advantage of the “broaden and build” theory in your life?
Well, anything that sparks feelings of joy, contentment, and love will do the trick. You probably know what things work well for you. Maybe it’s playing the guitar. Maybe it’s spending time with a certain person. Maybe it’s carving tiny wooden lawn gnomes.
That said, here are three ideas for you to consider…
- Meditation—Recent research by Fredrickson and her colleagues has revealed that people who meditate daily display more positive emotions that those who do not. As expected, people who meditated also built valuable long-term skills. For example, three months after the experiment was over, the people who meditated daily continued to display increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms.
Note: If you’re looking for an easy way to start meditation, here is a TinyRelax that was recently sent to me. Just close your eyes, breathe, and follow along.
- Writing— This study, published in theJournal of Research in Personality,examined a group of 90 undergraduate students who were split into two groups. The first group wrote about an intensely positive experience each day for three consecutive days. The second group wrote about a control topic.
Three months later, the students who wrote about positive experiences had better mood levels, fewer visits to the health center, and experienced fewer illnesses. (This blew me away. Better health after just three days of writing about positive things!)
- Play— Schedule time to play into your life. We schedule meetings, conference calls, weekly events, and other responsibilities into our daily calendars… why not schedule time to play?
When was the last time you blocked out an hour on your calendar just to explore and experiment? When was the last time you intentionally carved out time to have fun? You can’t tell me that being happy is less important than your Wednesday meeting, and yet, we act like it is because we never give it a time and space to live on our calendars.
Give yourself permission to smile and enjoy the benefits of positive emotion. Schedule time for play and adventure so that you can experience contentment and joy, and explore and build new skills.
Identifying negative thinking
Not sure if your self-talk is positive or negative? Here are some common forms of negative self-talk:
- Filtering. You magnify the negative aspects of a situation and filter out all of the positive ones. For example, you had a great day at work. You completed your tasks ahead of time and were complimented for doing a speedy and thorough job. That evening, you focus only on your plan to do even more tasks and forget about the compliments you received.
- Personalizing. When something bad occurs, you automatically blame yourself. For example, you hear that an evening out with friends is canceled, and you assume that the change in plans is because no one wanted to be around you.
- Catastrophizing. You automatically anticipate the worst. The drive-through coffee shop gets your order wrong and you automatically think that the rest of your day will be a disaster.
- Polarizing. You see things only as either good or bad. There is no middle ground. You feel that you have to be perfect or you’re a total failure.
Focusing on positive thinking
You can learn to turn negative thinking into positive thinking. The process is simple, but it does take time and practice — you’re creating a new habit, after all. Here are some ways to think and behave in a more positive and optimistic way:
- Identify areas to change. If you want to become more optimistic and engage in more positive thinking, first identify areas of your life that you typically think negatively about, whether it’s work, your daily commute or a relationship. You can start small by focusing on one area to approach in a more positive way.
- Check yourself. Periodically during the day, stop and evaluate what you’re thinking. If you find that your thoughts are mainly negative, try to find a way to put a positive spin on them.
- Be open to humor. Give yourself permission to smile or laugh, especially during difficult times. Seek humor in everyday happenings. When you can laugh at life, you feel less stressed.
- Follow a healthy lifestyle. Exercise at least three times a week to positively affect mood and reduce stress. Follow a healthy diet to fuel your mind and body. And learn techniques to manage stress.
- Surround yourself with positive people. Make sure those in your life are positive, supportive people you can depend on to give helpful advice and feedback. Negative people may increase your stress level and make you doubt your ability to manage stress in healthy ways.
- Practice positive self-talk. Start by following one simple rule: Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to anyone else. Be gentle and encouraging with yourself. If a negative thought enters your mind, evaluate it rationally and respond with affirmations of what is good about you.
To put it simply: Seek joy, play often, and pursue adventure. Your brain will do the rest.
Get free app TinyRelax: Free your mind, forget your negative thoughts with happy thoughts and guided imagery.