Thinking Positively Is Not Just Wishful Thinking
The concrete effects of a positive mindset
Would you consider your glass to be half-empty or half-full?
As it turns out, your answer to this question can tell someone how you tend to deal with adversity, how you think about yourself, and whether you are generally optimistic or pessimistic. Interestingly, there is evidence that having a positive mindset is actually beneficial to your overall health.
So, what does it mean to have a positive mindset and how can it benefit me?
To have a positive mindset doesn’t mean you are happy-go-lucky all the time but rather, someone who carries a positive mindset (i.e., optimistic personality) and tends to expect that the future will be filled with pleasant, enjoyable, and overall good events1.
Let’s put this into perspective. Have you ever felt stressed, yet motivated, when you were promoted or took on a new project? If you tend to think of these situations as challenges that present opportunity, you’re thinking with a glass half-full—scientifically, you tend to lean into the eustress associated with the situation and are generally optimistic.
On the other hand, if you were promoted and immediately begin to feel overwhelmed by the increase in responsibility, you are likely becoming distressed by the situation and tend to be more pessimistic.
It is no doubt then, that perceiving these kinds of stressors as opportunistic rather than problematic can significantly improve your ability to overcome many types of stress.
The impact of a positive mindset on health
Studies suggest that actively perceiving stressors as less threatening yet challenging, may be one way we can positively cope with stressful events2. And that, reducing the perceived threat of a stimulus can actually activate genes associated with a healthy immune system3.
In other words, rather than thinking about the increased responsibility and demand associated with a work promotion, think of the situation as a complement to your ability to succeed in a challenging environment and your ability to handle work efficiently through stressful situations. In turn, your body may thank you by increasing your bodily defenses against viral infections such as the common cold!
Interestingly, the benefits of positive thinking may not be limited to the common cold as studies also suggest that optimistic personalities tend to be associated with a reduction in a variety of other health complications like cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness, and age-related diseases1. This also goes for mental health as pessimistic personalities were more likely to be associated with increased anxiety and depression in women who survived breast cancer4.
Importantly, the benefits of a positive mindset may not be specific to future-oriented thinking. As it turns out, negative self-talk and regret about past events, otherwise known as “upward counterfactual thinking” is related to higher rates of depression5.
So, how do I know if I have a positive or negative mindset?
First off, it is important to identify whether your mindset is biased towards a positive or negative outlook in the first place.
Typically, there are four common behaviors exhibited by people who are slightly more pessimistic than optimistic: filtering, personalizing, catastrophizing, and polarizing.
Filtering occurs when you magnify negative aspects of a situation and filter out all positive ones. So, even if you were incredibly successful in completing tasks throughout the day, you continue to focus on the mountain of tasks to complete throughout the rest of the week.
Personalizing tends to happen when something negative occurs and you immediately put yourself to blame—even if it was clearly someone else’s fault.
Catastrophizing is the process of always anticipating the worst. For example, your morning coffee only had one milk when you asked for two, so you think the rest of your day is going to spiral downward.
Finally, polarizing is simply always seeing things as good or bad and you can never reason anywhere in between. This is often seen in typical “perfectionists”.
Targeting these behaviors and mental perspectives will allow you to begin your transition to a positive, optimistic lifestyle6.
Promoting resilience through positive thinking
Luckily, there are ways to encourage the transition from a negative to a positive mindset, thereby boosting your resilience in the face of adversity7.
The first approach is to decrease the negatives. Simply, re-assess how you think about stressful situations by engaging in techniques like cognitive re-appraisal to reduce the impact of negative distress on the mind and body.
Second, increase the positives by focusing on favorable outcomes and checking in with yourself to reflect on things that make you feel positive and happy. In fact, simply taking time to briefly think about your best possible self has been shown to increase optimism and resilience8.
Finally, by becoming more mindful and in-tune with your emotions, you may be better able to cope with stressors9 and reduce the risk of developing stress-related health conditions like depression and anxiety10.
Of course, these are only a few of the ways to transition yourself to a more positive mindset. Other things to consider in your transition include being open to humor, engaging in a healthy lifestyle (dieting and exercising), practicing positive self-talk, and identifying areas of change.
Incorporating a variety of these strategies into your everyday life can help shift your cognitive mindset to one that tends to fall in line with someone who considers their glass to be half-full.
Author: Brett Melanson is a PhD Candidate in Behavioral Neuroscience. His interests primarily reside within the life sciences with an emphasis on stress-based psychopathologies.
Avvenuti, G., Baiardini, I. & Giardini, A. Optimism’s explicative role for chronic diseases. Frontiers in Psychology (2016) doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00295.
Kerr, J. I. et al. The effects of acute work stress and appraisal on psychobiological stress responses in a group office environment. Psychoneuroendocrinology (2020) doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2020.104837.
Uchida, Y., Kitayama, S., Akutsu, S., Park, J. & Cole, S. W. Optimism and the conserved transcriptional response to adversity. Heal. Psychol. (2018) doi:10.1037/hea0000675.
Faye-Schjøll, H. H. & Schou-Bredal, I. Pessimism predicts anxiety and depression in breast cancer survivors: A 5-year follow-up study. Psychooncology. (2019) doi:10.1002/pon.5084.
Broomhall, A. G., Phillips, W. J., Hine, D. W. & Loi, N. M. Upward counterfactual thinking and depression: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review (2017) doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2017.04.010.
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Tabibnia, G. An affective neuroscience model of boosting resilience in adults. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews (2020) doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2020.05.005.
Meevissen, Y. M. C., Peters, M. L. & Alberts, H. J. E. M. Become more optimistic by imagining a best possible self: Effects of a two week intervention. J. Behav. Ther. Exp. Psychiatry (2011) doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2011.02.012.
Basso, J. C., McHale, A., Ende, V., Oberlin, D. J. & Suzuki, W. A. Brief, daily meditation enhances attention, memory, mood, and emotional regulation in non-experienced meditators. Behav. Brain Res. (2019) doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2018.08.023.
Creswell, J. D. & Lindsay, E. K. How Does Mindfulness Training Affect Health? A Mindfulness Stress Buffering Account. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. (2014) doi:10.1177/0963721414547415.