The benefits of positive thinking are plentiful—as long as you don’t take it too far
Finding the silver lining in tough situations and expecting good outcomes in the future might help increase your lifespan, decrease depressive symptoms and give you a healthier heart. But, that all comes with a caveat. Below, we’ll go over the many science-backed benefits of positive thinking—and how to avoid taking it too far.
Throughout this article and in other sources on the benefits of positive thinking, you’ll often see the word “optimism” used. The American Psychological Association defines optimism as:
“hopefulness: the attitude that good things will happen and that people’s wishes or aims will ultimately be fulfilled. Optimists are people who anticipate positive outcomes, whether serendipitously or through perseverance and effort, and who are confident of attaining desired goals.”
Optimism and positive thinking are important parts of psychological well-being, but they are not the same thing. Optimism is future-oriented, whereas positive thinking can be about the past, present or future. So while optimism is a form of positive thinking, not all positive thinking is optimism.
Several studies have looked at the link between optimism and cardiovascular health.
A 2019 meta-analysis published in JAMA Network Open reviewed 15 studies involving more than 229,000 people and concluded that thinking positively about the future was associated with a lower risk of negative cardiovascular events such as stroke and coronary heart disease mortality—while the inverse was true of pessimism.
And for people who have heart disease, a positive attitude can lead to behaviors that help them live longer in spite of their diagnosis. Research published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes studied 600 heart disease patients in a Denmark hospital. After five years, patients who were the most positive ended up exercising more and had a 42% lower risk of dying than patients with less positive attitudes.
Staying optimistic can also improve overall heart health in people with heart disease. How? In a 2018 review published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers found that a sunny disposition made patients more likely to follow through on behaviors that helped manage their heart condition. Optimistic patients were less likely to smoke, more likely to exercise regularly and stuck to healthier diets.
"Optimists persevere by using problem-solving and planning strategies to manage stressors," explained Darwin R. Labarthe, MD, the review's lead author. "If others are faced with factors out of their control, they begin to shift their goals and use potentially maladaptive coping strategies, which would ultimately result in raising inflammation levels and less favorable overall heart health."
In a study published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine, researchers found that dispositional optimism was associated with decreased pain sensitivity when compared with pessimism. They defined dispositional optimism as a tendency to “believe future outcomes will be positive.”
The study involved 72 university students who were tasked with placing one of their hands in a container of ice-cold water for up to two minutes. Those participants who rated high in dispositional optimism in the prescreening questionnaire ended up reporting lower pain during the task (unless they were primed to think about health and well-being before the task began).
Researchers concluded that optimists, in general, tend to cope with distressing situations by mentally disengaging from the pain.
Stanford University researchers found that elementary school students with a positive outlook on math showed improved functioning of the hippocampus, which in turn, improved performance in solving arithmetic problems. These findings were published in 2018 in Psychological Science.
A 2017 study published in the International Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences found that positive thinking and self-efficacy were significant predictors for college students' academic achievement.
A study published in Behavior Research and Therapy recruited volunteers who had General Anxiety Disorder and placed them randomly into one of three groups: generate mental images of positive outcomes to things they were worried about, generate verbal descriptions of positive outcomes of things they were worried about, or generate positive images unrelated to their worries. Researchers found that, regardless of the intervention, all three groups showed a decrease in worry and anxiety.
The study authors concluded, “The replacement of worry with different forms of positive ideation, even when unrelated to the content of worry itself, seems to have similar beneficial effects, suggesting that any form of positive ideation can be used to effectively counter worry.”
A 2016 study published in Psychological Science found that people who fantasized about positive things had a decrease in depressive symptoms in the short term (but showed an increase in the long run).
In research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Erik J. Giltay, M.D., and colleagues found that optimism was linked to a lower risk of dying early from any cause. Analyzing data from nearly 1,000 men and women aged 65 to 85, the researchers found that participants who reported a high level of optimism had a 55% lower risk of early death than those who were pessimistic.
Judith A. Okely and colleagues found a connection between higher positive affect and lower early mortality risk. The study, published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, involved 8,542 participants ages 32 to 86.
Researchers found that stroke patients with high levels of optimism showed lower stroke severity, less physical disability and a better recovery three months post-stroke than those with lower levels of optimism. The study authors believe this is because post-stroke inflammation is harmful to the brain and hinders recovery, and optimism is linked to lower levels of inflammation. These findings were presented at the International Stroke Conference 2020.
Thinking positive isn’t just good for you; it’s good for your relationships too.
It pays to be optimistic about love. Being pessimistic about romance doesn’t shield you from heartache; in fact, it can make it worse. Research by Harvard assistant professor Tiona Zuzul suggests that people who are defensively pessimistic about romantic relationships (meaning they lower their expectations in anticipation of failure) suffer just as much after a breakup as those who are optimistic; and one month post-breakup, pessimists are more disappointed than optimists. Even worse, defensive pessimists experience breakups at a higher rate and are less satisfied during their relationships than optimists.
When it comes to marriage, having positive beliefs about it may improve its quality. Brigham Young University professor Brian Willoughby and colleagues examined 1,755 newlywed couples in the U.S. and found that when spouses saw their marital role in a more positive light, they were more committed to their partner, which then improved relationship satisfaction.
Your positive outlook can actually be beneficial for your partner too. Research from Michigan State University found that optimistic people tend to inspire their partners to be healthier. For example, they might influence them to eat healthier or work out together. The findings were published in the Journal of Personality in November 2019.
Findings from a 2010 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology confirmed previous research that people see optimists as more socially attractive than pessimists.
As we saw above, there is scientific evidence backing the many health benefits of positive thinking, such as decreasing your sensitivity to pain and extending your lifespan.
But, positive thinking is not a cure-all and can even be harmful in some situations. For example, the Psychological Science study mentioned above found that, though fantasizing about good outcomes can help you feel good immediately, in the long-term, it might actually make depressive symptoms worse.
Further, research has shown that suppressing your thoughts and emotions can be unhealthy. One study from the University of Groningen found that participants who were told to hide a negative emotion (in this case, disgust) actually experienced more negative emotions because they didn’t have an outlet for their feelings.
So while positive thinking may help reduce symptoms of depression, it cannot cure depression. And while it may decrease your risk of dying from heart disease, it cannot cure heart disease.
Believing that positive thinking will solve life’s problems can lead one down the slippery slope of believing that problems are caused by one’s negative thoughts. They’re not. Telling someone to “think positive” when they really need to process and grieve a situation is harmful and is an example of toxic positivity.
In short, positive thinking can prove useful in some situations, as long as it’s not taken too far and as long as it doesn’t deny the reality of pain and suffering.
Based on the above research, positive thinking can have many purposes, including:
As we saw in the scientific studies, positive thinking can benefit your physical and mental health, including contributing to:
If optimism is all about being more positive about the future, then this Best Possible Self exercise might help train your brain to imagine good outcomes.
To do this exercise, which is detailed on UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center website, spend 15 minutes thinking and writing about the best version of yourself in the future. Imagine everything has gone your way, whether that’s in your love life, career or health. Include as much detail as possible. Resist the temptation to think about how difficult it will be to achieve those goals or to compare your present situation to your future Best Possible Self. Simply relish in the possibility of positive outcomes.
Deceptively simple, the “three good things” exercise has you do this: Before bed, write down three things that went well that day and think about why they went well. Do this for at least one week.
This exercise was developed by renowned positive psychology researcher Martin Seligman, Ph.D. In a YouTube video, Seligman explains why this gratitude exercise works: “It works because it changes your focus from the things that go wrong in life to things that you might take for granted that go well.” Doing so, he says, “breaks up depression and increases happiness.”
Seligman adds, “We ask people to write down the causes because we want people to reflect on and immerse themselves in the good events.”
This exercise has you choose a specific (mildly) negative event that happened and then reframe your thinking so you can find the bright side of it.
Please use caution with this exercise because, once again, it’s a prime opportunity for toxic positivity to rear its ugly head. You need to make sure that you’ve processed all the feelings and grief that may have come from a negative event before trying to find the “bright side” of it. Avoid using a truly traumatic or significant event here, too, because for things of that gravity, you never need to feel obligated to find a silver lining (a popular facet of toxic positivity). Sometimes bad things happen, and you don’t need to go fishing for “good” things that came out of it.
Examples of mildly negative events that might be appropriate to use for this exercise:
Here’s how to do it, according to the Greater Good Science Center.
As you can see from the research, there are many benefits of positive thinking, and it’s a key skill that can help you stay resilient through life’s ups and downs. So how can you make sure you embrace the benefits of positive thinking, without slipping into the pitfalls of toxic positivity? Consider working with a life coach who can check in with you and help you strike the right balance. They’ll work with you on a plan to reach your goals, providing insights and accountability along the way.
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