It’s been estimated that humans have anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day. With that amount of information running through your brain, it’s only natural that the emotions assigned to each thought will vary from wildly positive to strikingly negative. For some of us, unfortunately, those negative thoughts are altogether far too frequent. While some people seem like natural optimists and are always looking on the bright side, many of us struggle to find the good in difficult situations — or even natural situations.
But while we all have our “Debbie Downer” moments, there is actually a way to train your brain so that those moments are fewer and farther between. Here are four ways to start flexing that positive-thinking muscle.
On some level, you know the importance of positivity: it affects nearly every facet of your life, if you're a generally down-in-the-dumps kind of person, you'll like suffered consequences from it in many areas of your life, too. But beyond just generally making you feel better, there are some concrete reasons why a positive outlook can really, truly improve your life — many of which are backed by research. From your physical health to your ability to cope with setbacks, being positive can truly change your life for the better. Below are just a few of the most important reasons why it pays to be positive.
1. You'll be happier overall.
Of course, the most obvious benefit of a positive outlook is that you'll simply be happier. Positivity is not the same thing as being happy, but it can lead to it. Negativity correlates with unhappiness, but believing in best-case scenarios, viewing the glass as half-full and overall maintaining positivity can mean a much happier existence overall.
Many people believe external factors make them happy. While it's true that some things can bring you joy, you won't achieve it long-term without a positive mentality to begin with.
2. You'll be physically healthier.
According to the Mayo Clinic, positive thinking has a number of benefits for your physical health, including improved cardiovascular health, higher resistance to the common cold and even increased life span — not to mention the psychological benefits, such as lower rates of depression.
Other research supports this as well. For example, Johns Hopkins expert Lisa R. Yanek, M.P.H., and her colleagues found that people who had a family history of heart disease but also had a positive outlook were a third less likely to suffer from a cardiovascular-related event, such as a heart attack, with a 5-25 year window than those with the family history and a negative outlook, according to their study.
Numerous studies have found other links between positivity and overall health, and all come to the same conclusion: when it comes to physical well-being, a positive outlook can play a crucial role.
3. You'll be able to cope with setbacks.
Positivity doesn't mean believing that nothing bad with ever happen to you. Bad things will happen to you, as they do to everyone. But if you have a positive mindset, then you'll be better equipped to cope with negative circumstances. In other words, you'll achieve resiliency — the capacity to deal with problems include crises and loss.
You can't fix every problem, but you can see it through a more positive lens. Of course, you will encounter tragedy and will likely experience grief and pain. But while a pessimist will probably fall apart at the first sign of distress, an optimist or positive thinker will know how to pick up the pieces and move on or ask for help when she knows she needs support.
Looking for ways to become a more positive person? Here are some strategies.
Oftentimes, simply becoming aware of a problem is the biggest step you can take to solve it. This goes for negative thinking, too. When an unfavorable thought arises, make a point to note it--and then let it go. Yes, this is easier said than done, but remember that letting negative thoughts build and fester does you absolutely no good.
World-renowned researcher Dr. Barbara Fredrickson suggests making lists of healthy ways you can distract yourself from negative thinking, as well as unhealthy methods. These distraction tools will differ from person to person, but identifying your go-to healthy methods will help to stop you from spiraling into a pattern of negative thinking and pinpointing the unhealthy distractions will enable you to avoid doing something that will inevitably make you feel even worse.
According to Loretta Breuning, PhD, the brain is hardwired to focus on negative moments, while positive moments are rather fleeting. Therefore, we need to be incredibly intentional about identifying and appreciating when those happy thoughts arise. Breuning advises spending one minute looking for positives three times a day and repeating that process for 45 days.
Through Dr. Fredrickson’s extensive research on the power of positivity, she found that humans must maintain a ratio of 3 to 1 positive to negative thoughts to truly flourish. She created an online test that enables people to measure and track their own positivity ratios in just two minutes. Here’s how it works:
Instructions: How have you felt in the past day? Look back over the past day (i.e., from this time yesterday up to right now). Using the 0-4 scale below, indicate the greatest degree that you've experienced each of the following feelings.
0 = Not at all
1 = A little bit
2 = Moderately
3 = Quite a bit
4 = Extremely
What is the most amused, fun-loving or silly you felt?
What is the most angry, irritated or annoyed you felt?
What is the most ashamed, humiliated or disgraced you felt?
What is the most awe, wonder or amazement you felt?
What is the most contemptuous, scornful or disdainful you felt?
What is the most disgust, distaste, or revulsion you felt?
What is the most embarrassed, self-conscious or blushing you felt?
What is the most grateful, appreciative,or thankful you felt?
What is the most guilty, repentant or blameworthy you felt?
What is the most hate, distrust or suspicion you felt?
What is the most hopeful, optimistic or encouraged you felt?
What is the most inspired, uplifted or elevated you felt?
What is the most interested, alert or curious you felt?
What is the most joyful, glad or happy you felt?
What is the most love, closeness or trust you felt?
What is the most proud, confident or self-assured you felt?
What is the most sad, downhearted, or unhappy you felt?
What is the most scared, fearful, or afraid you felt?
What is the most serene, content, or peaceful you felt?
What is the most stressed, nervous or overwhelmed you felt?
By regularly performing this exercise and seeing how your positivity ratio changes over time, you can broaden your mind and improve your life (NBD).
Retraining your brain to think positively is similar to working out to build and strengthen muscle. It may not come naturally at first, but with time and practice the skill of positive thinking will become stronger and stronger — and you'll become a happier, more fulfilled person in the process.
Kaitlin Bitting is a vice president of public relations at Allen & Gerritsen and a certified health & wellness coach. She's passionate about helping people find the motivation to create lasting, positive change in their lives, whether personal or professional. Learn more at kaitlinbitting.com.