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Positive Thinking: A Comprehensive and Practical Guide
positive thoughts

Positive Thinking: A Comprehensive and Practical Guide

We’ve likely all heard the advice to search for silver linings and look on the sunny or bright side. These directives may seem a bit clique, dismissive, simplistic, and easier said than done. 

However, the underlying sentiments are spot on. Embracing a positive mindset has the power to transform your life for the better. Moreover, the power of positive thinking is free and accessible to all. 

This doesn’t mean that it’s easy to achieve, just that it’s possible and worth the effort. It's a tried and true approach that's been preached by celebrities like Jim Carrey and Denzel Washington.

In fact, research tells us that there are overwhelming benefits to limiting negative self-talk and prioritizing positive emotions and thinking. It has been proven to help not only your outlook on life but your actual lived experiences, personal relationships, mental health, and physical health.

In this guide, we’ll explore what positive thinking really means, how optimists think, and the benefits of having positive thoughts. Then, we’ll provide practical expert strategies you can use to tip your mindset toward positivity. 

What is positive thinking?

Positive thinking or optimism is the tendency to focus on the positive. It is seeing the good in things, people, and circumstances, in the past, present, and future. It is a positive psychology that is associated with expecting beneficial things to happen, and finding silver linings or better future outcomes when they don’t.

Positivity extends beyond each individual thought when it becomes a practice or habit that guides our thinking toward an overall optimism. This mindset is deeply entwined with key pillars of well-being like happiness, self-awareness, identity, self-acceptance, emotional intelligence, motivation, career success, social relationships, and even physical health. 

Positive thinking has also been shown to beget positive thinking. In fact, research shows that just as positive experiences and circumstances can inspire more positive thoughts and help banish negative emotions. Sort of like a self-fulfilling prophecy, positive thinking itself can increase the likelihood of good things happening in our lives.

The power of positive thinking, and what it is not

Before we talk about how to attain a more optimistic outlook, let’s set the record straight about what a positive mindset is not. Namely, it doesn’t mean we ignore or are oblivious to the truth, no matter what areas of your life you’re focusing on.

Positive thinking or making the best of things is sometimes derided as wearing rose colored glasses, turning a blind eye, or having a “Polly Anna” mindset. Those stereotypes miss the point.

Certainly, there are those that adopt an “only-acknowledge-the-positive” approach that actively obscures reality. But that way of thinking is not at the heart of the positive thinking we’re exploring here.

Instead, the positive mindset we’re after is one that sees the good, the bad, and everything in between, but then, actively chooses to focus on whatever positives—and opportunities for improvement—can be found. 

What does positive thinking do to your brain?

Positive thinkers are active, critical, solution-driven thinkers. Negative thinkers or ruminators may think of themselves as realists, but really, a laser focus on the negative keeps you there and blinds you to any positives. Because, often, there are some pluses—if you know where to look—along with whatever else comes your way.

Negative thinkers pay attention to defeat, failure, surprise, or situations that didn’t go their way. It is a universe of negative thought that begets negativity.

positive mindset

Positive thinkers don’t let setbacks derail them, their attitude, or their belief in themselves. 

This may mean accepting a negative outcome gracefully. It may mean forgoing bitterness, learning from mistakes, accepting responsibility, and working toward a better result. Believing that there will be a next time is a big part of this approach. So is laughing when the chips are down or looking at a disappointment as a chance for a fresh start. 

Ultimately, optimism lets us seek out solutions rather than getting trapped by the intensity of whatever problems we face. It shows us how to capitalize on the bumps in the road and make peace with the potholes. It lets us float above the issues at hand to see the light on the horizon. 

Benefits of positive thinking: Stop limiting yourself!

Research shows that there are tremendous benefits to positive thinking, impacting everything in a person’s life span from the mind and body to a person’s career trajectory, romantic endeavors, life satisfaction, and longevity. 

Physical health benefits

Essentially, feeling good, really does make you feel better. Scientists have found that having a positive mindset offers numerous physical health advantages, including:

  • Better physical health, including digestion and cardiovascular health
  • Faster healing
  • Less frequent and shorter illnesses
  • Less incidence of chronic diseases and pain
  • Longer lifespan

Research makes clear that the mind-body connection works in both ways. So, if your mind is healthy (and positive-leaning), then your body will tilt this way, too. Of course, positive thinking is not a panacea and negative thinking is not making you sick. Instead, studies show that a positive outlook is simply one factor (among many) that can influence our physical health and increase our odds of positive health outcomes.

Mental health benefits

Research is also very clear that positive thinking has a strong correlation with positive emotional health. Specifically, those with a positive mindset tend to have better self-esteem, motivation, self-awareness, resilience, coping skills, and life satisfaction.

Even better, ample research shows that an optimistic outlook offers some protection from many mental health concerns, including the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Life dissatisfaction
  • Sleep challenges like insomnia
  • Suicidal ideation

It’s important to point out that a person may develop negative thinking patterns as a result of having a mental health condition. Likewise, positive thinking doesn’t magically erase all mental health challenges—or fix all your problems. 

Plus, no one should blame themselves or their thinking for their mental (or physical) health challenges. Ultimately, that’s counterproductive and reductive. Instead, the point is that positive thinking is linked to better mental health. And working toward a more positive mindset is often an effective treatment of mental health issues.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy Teaches Positive Thinking

Shifting from unhelpful, destructive, or negative thoughts to more positive, helpful ones is the basis of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy is one of the most effective and common treatments for a range of mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, marital problems, and drug and alcohol use disorders.

thinking positive
(lorenzoantonucci / Getty)

“Research studies suggest that CBT leads to significant improvement in functioning and quality of life,” explains the American Psychological Association. Additionally, evidence shows that CBT can be as effective, sometimes even more so, than taking psychiatric medications or using other types of therapy. 

While there are many effective ways we can work on transforming our thinking on our own, seeking out CBT is also an option if you’re ever feeling stuck or in need of support. A trained CBT therapist can offer extra guidance and ensure your efforts to embrace positive thinking are successful.

How positive thinking builds your skills

In addition to improving mental and physical health, having positive thoughts also offers numerous practical benefits. Evidence shows us that a positive outlook can enhance a variety of vital life skills. For example, positivity encourages us to strategize, collaborate, focus, and dream big. Read some of these positive quotes about life to get into the mindset!

Other skills, behaviors, and characteristics that can grow with optimism include the following:

  • Coping skills
  • Emotional regulation
  • Executive function
  • Follow through
  • Goal-setting
  • Gratitude
  • Letting go
  • Mindfulness
  • Not taking things personally
  • Openness and willingness to hear other perspectives
  • Problem-solving
  • Processing grief, disappointment, and other hardships
  • Resilience
  • Self-care
  • Tenacity
  • Working with others

The possible benefits of thinking positive goes on and on. Let’s take a look at how to get there.

How do you become a positive thinker?

The keys to becoming a positive thinker are awareness, intention, and seeing the link between thoughts, actions, and emotions. Try out a variety of positivity strategies to find the ones that work best for you. 

Believe in the power of positivity

Normal Vincent Peale’s 1952 international bestseller “The Power of Positive Thinking” popularized the concept that our thinking has the power to shape our lives.

While we can’t change everything that happens to us externally, we can exert powerful control over our internal dialog. Our reflection and reaction to what happens in our lives is as important (or more so) than what happens. 

Positive thinking isn’t a cure-all, but overwhelming research shows that it can make a big impact on just about every area of life, from the nitty gritty like not giving up to actually living longer and happier. 

Like the classic children’s story “The Little Engine That Could” tells us, simply having a mantra like “I think I can” helps us succeed. Nike’s “Just Do It” is another prime example. Essentially, stop worrying about the could haves, should haves, or can’ts, and simply go for it, whatever “it” may be.

Believe in your power to change

Whether you just want to rid yourself of occasional negativity or you’re mired in negative thoughts, believing in your power to change your thinking is a great place to start. This step recognizes your own agency and gives power to hopefulness. Know that you get to decide which thoughts you focus on. 

Remember, people aren’t completely negative or positive thinkers. Instead, negative or positive thinking falls on a spectrum. And the relative positivity or negativity of one’s thinking may ebb and flow throughout your life. 

See that positive thinking takes courage, strength, and perseverance. Praise yourself for trying. The key is to keep at it, chipping away at negativity while replacing it with positive thinking.

Let negativity and negative self talk go

Freeing yourself from negativity is not about ignoring these thoughts. Instead, acknowledge them and then let go of what doesn’t serve you. 

Give yourself time, if needed, to feel bad or wallow. Then, go back to the thought and consider if there is anything there that you need or that’s helpful. Be open to other perspectives and allow yourself, when ready, to think about any positives or avenues for change you can pursue.

Give yourself grace

Just like riding a bike, it takes time, practice, and possibly, a few falls to learn this skill. But once you do, the world becomes a much bigger, happier place.

Research tells us that positive thinking comes more naturally to some people than to others. But even if you feel wired to negativity, you can do this! It just might take a bit more work and dedication to dismantle deeply rooted negative thinking. We can all have the power to shift our thinking toward positivity.

Look for solutions

Reject the trap of fixating on the problem. Instead, look for the underlying issue. Then, focus on solutions, lessons learned, or what you could do differently next time. This takes practice, but with consistent effort you can retrain your thinking. 

For example, if you are feeling defeated about missing an appointment, search for solutions rather than berating yourself for always being late or forgetful. Aim to look forward rather than ruminating over the misstep.

Reframe your thinking

This is where the old adages of not crying over spilled milk, turning lemons into lemonade, and the grass always being greener really shine. Accept what you can’t change, think about what went well, what you’re grateful for, resist comparing yourself (and your fortunes) to others, and look for the silver linings. 

Doing so builds contentment, being present, moving on, and planning for the future. Self-awareness of one’s own thinking allows the space for changing those patterns.

Find your positives

Consider what makes you feel and think positively. This could be sports, music, certain people, foods, hobbies, reading, sex, or anything else that works for you. Consciously choose these activities to better capitalize on the positive boost you’ll get.

how to think positive
(Westend61 / Getty)

Note that being around certain people or doing certain things (like not sleeping enough or overindulging in alcohol) may encourage negative thinking, behaviors, and outcomes. Conversely, research shows that positivity can be contagious. 

Being mindful of how you spend your time and with whom matters. So, aim to practice self-care and other healthy lifestyle habits—and surround yourself with other positive thinkers. 

Actively curate thoughts

Aim to objectively curate your thoughts. Prune unhelpful, negative ones to cultivate more reality-based, action-oriented thinking. Notice thoughts that lead to a path of worry, catastrophizing, stress, or self-hatred. Instead of getting stuck there, acknowledge the fear, anxiety, or disappointment at its core. Then, consciously give space for what might be a more positive way to view the situation. Think about what you can do and then put your energy into those actions.

Mr. Rogers always said to find the helpers. The same approach can be applied to your thoughts. Which of your thoughts are helpful to you, which are not? This process is not always easy, and certainly, some negative thoughts are helpful, normal, and expected. However, the more you can move your thinking, even slightly, to a positive realm, the better you’re likely to feel physically and emotionally. 

Key takeaways for a more positive outlook

Positive thinking isn’t about pretending everything is perfect. Instead, it’s about gratefulness, taking responsibility for your own success and happiness, and going after your dreams.

Positive thinking is both a trait and a skill that can be harnessed. So, while some of us may be more naturally inclined toward looking on the bright side, that doesn’t mean that those with a more negative bent can’t learn to flip their thinking. 

In fact, with the right tools, practice, and motivation, anyone can become a positive thinker—and enjoy the benefits of this transformative mindset. Ultimately, positive thinking allows us to shape and harness our minds to help us be happier, healthier, and live our best lives.

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