Many self-improvement guides suggest positive thinking as a means of cultivating personal growth. But, recommending having positive thoughts and changing your thoughts to be positive are two different things. Below are examples of what positive thinking looks like, why positive thinking is helpful, and how you can practice this philosophy in your own life.
What Should Positive Thinking Look Like?
The hard part of decreasing negative thoughts is to not overdo it. Many sources of information make it seem as if you have to avoid every negative thought, no matter what context. However, this kind of thinking can be just as harmful as having too much negativity in your thoughts. Positive thinking, if done properly, involves looking at all aspects of a situation, including acknowledging shortcomings and possible negative outcomes. The main difference is positive thinking avoids jumping directly to the worst possible outcome and instead acknowledges that a situation might have many outcomes.
What makes negative thoughts harmful is the act of ruminating. This is when you think about the same thing or event repeatedly. Ruminating can make the event or idea seem bigger and worse than it actually is, which increases feelings of hopelessness and dread. What positive thinking aims to do is interrupt those thoughts with a line of thinking that allows for getting “unstuck” from negative patterns.
Benefits to Thinking Positively
- Thinking positively offers you a chance for new opportunities, adventures, and learning that you might not get otherwise.
- Research shows that people who have positive outlooks tend to have longer lifespans and lower rates of depression, cardiovascular disease, and other health conditions.
- A positive outlook can increase your chances of following healthier habits, such as increasing healthy food choices and exercise, or avoiding smoking and drinking to excess.
- Positive thinking allows for you to see the bigger picture of a situation instead of being focused on a single event.
- Having a positive outlook gives you more chances to practice useful skills, such as communication and learning.
How to Think Differently
- Avoid thinking in extremes. There isn’t an event that will be all negative or all positive. For example, winning a large amount of money can have negative consequences, such as tax concerns and people asking for handouts. Getting laid off can present to chance to follow a new career you are more passionate about or return to school. Remind yourself to think about all of the possible facets of a situation.
- Avoid assuming one failure means many failures. The end of a romantic relationship is no fun, but that doesn’t mean you are unlovable or you will never find another relationship again. Likewise, forgetting to call a client doesn’t mean you’ve done an awful job at work. Remember that while a specific thing might be negative, it might not apply to other areas of your life.
- Give positive and negative results the same emphasis. By ignoring or downplaying positive events, you lessen the chance of seeing the full picture and all of the responsible players. Consider countering a negative thought with a positive thought — that person who’s late with a project might have provided an outstanding product in the past.
- Remember that your rules don’t always apply to everything. Just because you think “people” should or should not do something (“A good mother wouldn’t yell”, “If she’s working late, that means she doesn’t love me”, etc) doesn’t mean they will. Think about what you are asking of people or yourself — are your rules too narrow or inflexible?
- Think about who/what is responsible. When you attribute circumstances to “luck”, you lose your part in creating a positive environment for yourself. When you assume you are the only one responsible for a negative event, you ignore the other factors. Sure, luck matters in many situations, but it’s far from the only influence. Consider how much you, other people, and other factors influence a situation before assuming responsibility.
- Embrace the negative if it leads to action. If you are worried about your house catching on fire, this fear can be useful if you take fire safety steps such as installing smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. Using negative thoughts to drive action is one of the best ways to use that energy in a positive and proactive way.
- Remember that you don’t know everything. Consider coming up with alternative reasons for something. The person who hasn’t called you back might be in a meeting or their phone’s battery could have died, instead of them deliberately ignoring you.
- Be careful with your imagination. Like ruminating, it can be easy to imagine an awful event that can lead to other awful events. Make sure to interrupt these thoughts by asking yourself how likely something is to actually happen.
Positive thinking brings about a number of emotional, physical, and professional benefits. It can be tricky to change some of your immediate thoughts, but positive thoughts can become more natural with practice. Creating a more realistic outlook allows for a happier and more complete life.