If you’ve ever spent a day striving to be optimistic—to see your glass as half-full instead of half-empty—you may have noticed your mood lift and your body relax. Those feel-good sensations are not just in your head. In fact, practicing positive thought can improve your health—and research proves it.
What is positive thought?
Before we dive into the benefits of positive thinking, let’s first define it. Positive thinking is an honest outlook on life that cultivates hope and helps you see the upside of circumstances. It nurtures emotional adaptability, allowing you to observe the good in others and let go of situations that you can’t control.
Practicing positive thinking, however, does not mean that you brush your struggles under a rug. After all, silencing your negative emotions usually just makes them louder. Instead, positive thinking helps you validate and proactively confront the hard parts of life.
If you’re new to the approach, it may seem foreign, or even hokey. But, when you break it down, positive thinking may be more straightforward than you imagine. Here are a few direct questions, for example, that you could ask yourself to see a stressful situation from a positive point of view:
- What is the feeling I’m having and where is it coming from?
- Is this a problem that has a solution or should I learn a healthy way to sit through the discomfort until it passes?
- Should I talk to someone about the feelings I’m having?
- How can I move through this situation in a productive way (exercise, journaling, etc.)?
While positive thinking may take some time to perfect, the good news is you can reap the benefits while you practice.
Improved mental and physical health
Right off the bat, positive thinking can lift your spirits and help you manifest feelings of joy, resilience, and contentment. Research shows these uplifting emotions trickle down to provide long-term benefits to your mind and body, too.
For one, positive people are statistically happier in work and relationships. Positive thinkers are also less likely to engage in risk behaviors like smoking, drug abuse, and eating disorders (Lyubomirsky, 2005).
Researchers also report optimistic people exhibit lower stress levels. The lower your stress, the better your body usually feels—especially your muscles and joints. You may notice when you’re calm, for example, your neck and shoulders relax, too. You may experience less back pain, jaw pain, and/or headaches, as a result.
From the opposite perspective, a chronic state of “fight or flight” associated with stress and anxiety can cause tight muscles and joint pain. Indeed, high stress is a risk factor for low back pain and lumbar disc herniations (Seidler, 2003). Chronic stress can also cause inflammation in your body and increase your chance for significant illnesses like high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune syndromes, and depression (Mariotti, 2015).
5 ways to be a positive thinker
Our verdict? Positive thinking is a powerful way to feel better—no prescription needed. If you are not sure where to start, here are a few ways to begin a personal practice in positivity:
1. Practice gratitude.
Gratitude and optimism go hand-in-hand. Being grateful is scientifically proven to make you happier, more fulfilled, and healthier. One study showed people who practiced gratitude were not only more optimistic, but also had fewer doctor’s visits than their burden-focused peers (Emmons, 2003).
To cultivate a positive mindset, take a few minutes each day to consider what you’re grateful for. Think about what makes you happy. Is it the roof over your head, the food in your kitchen, or the relationships in your life? Speak it out loud or write it in a journal.
If you’re grateful for friends or loved ones, share your thoughts with them. Your words of gratitude will not only transform you, but also lift and empower those around you who receive them.
2. Study your habits.
Sometimes, we unknowingly sabotage our ability to think positively with long-standing thought patterns and habits. For one week, track your habits. Be mindful of your routines and write them down. Make sure to include:
- When and what you eat
- When you move your body and for how long
- When you wind down for bedtime and how you do it
- How long you sleep and how you feel when you wake up
- What you do when you wake up in the morning
- How much screen time you log during your day and how you feel after
At the end of the week, study your log and look for patterns that either support or prevent you from thinking positively. Many routines, like those of basic self-care, help us feel refreshed. Perhaps you take your dog for a walk each morning or settle down with a good book each night. If these patterns create positive thinking, keep them. Give yourself credit for these daily healthy choices.
If your habits aren’t serving you, change them. Start small, one by one. If waking up to a messy kitchen triggers you first thing in the morning, make it a habit to load the dishwasher each night before bed. If you notice you’re too tired to work out as the evening draws near, start with just 10 minutes of exercise each morning.
Research shows new habits may take more than two months to stick (Lally, 2009). Until then, don’t give up. You’ll be surprised how much shifting habits can help open a rosier outlook on life.
3. Fuel your body with nutrition and exercise.
It’s hard to stay positive if you don’t feel well.
To support your positive outlook, become intentional about moving your body and fueling it with nutritious foods. You don’t have to forego every favorite food but be mindful about practicing moderation in your diet and staying active.
If this sounds overwhelming, start small. Make it simple by promising yourself to consume a lean protein, complex carbohydrate, and fruit or veggie with each meal. Keep quick, fiber-rich snacks like apples, cut vegetables, or low-sugar granola bars on hand to snack on when you feel hungry in between meals.
Find exercise you enjoy—whether it’s walking, yoga, strength training, or swimming. Mix it up and move daily. If you have pain that’s preventing you from exercise, work with a physical therapist to heal your injury and find alternate ways to move in the meantime.
Instead of making drastic lifestyle changes in one week, make small choices you can sustain to support a lifelong path of positivity.
4. Speak kindly to yourself.
When it comes to enhancing your outlook on life, start with your number-one critic: You.
Speak to yourself as you would a dear friend or loved one. If you find yourself filled with self-doubt or insecurity, examine those feelings and observe them. Or, talk it through with a friend or therapist, and learn how to reframe the narrative.
If you’re filled with negative thoughts about your body, for example, make a list of all the things your body has done for you. Do your legs allow you to chase your children, grandchildren, or pets during playtime? How many loved ones have your arms enabled you to embrace? Is your job a source of strife or sadness? Consider how far you’ve come and the opportunities that await you in the future.
Being kind to yourself is a critical but often overlooked part of seeing the bright side.
Positivity can be hard to master if you’re worried about the future or stuck in the past. Meditation can help you live in the present and unlock an optimistic outlook.
Meditation teaches you to be present by letting your thoughts come and go peacefully. Instead of reacting to thoughts (like ‘Why did I say that to my co-worker?’ or ‘I’m going to fail my exam tomorrow’), learn to explore and become a student of them. Meditation teaches you that you are not your thoughts, and they do not have to control over your feelings or behavior.
To give meditation a try, start with five or ten minutes each day. Find a place you can get comfortable, whether that’s in bed or a warm bath. Inhale and exhale deeply, allowing your lungs to fill and deflate slowly. When you feel relaxed and clear-headed, simply observe what thoughts arise and pass without judgement. If meditating on your own feels challenging, there are many accessible, guided options online. Or, if you need more support, reach out to a health coach or therapist who can help talk you through it.
Embrace your positive power
Positive thinking—and the many health benefits tied to it—is within your grasp. If you find yourself stuck in negative thinking and want to embrace the power of positive thought, start with these modest interventions. If you would like personalized support on managing stress and reducing your pain, reach out to schedule a call with one of our providers.