Most of us recognize that a cheerier, more optimistic outlook is the best way to approach life. It helps to reduce stress, which is a key to improving health and dealing with depression. But it takes more than keeping a smile on your face or putting on blinders to your problems. Life’s challenges teach us more than its rewards. But to make all this work for you requires adopting and sustaining the habit of positive thinking.
The Power of Positive Thinking
This is actually a very familiar concept, but one that most of us don’t really devote enough consideration to considering how simple it really is, and the benefits that go along with it. People who become adept at keeping a positive attitude tend to have:
- Healthier relationships
- Higher productivity
- Better health and longer lifespans
- More energy and stamina
- Less anxiety and depression
- Better capacity to deal with stressful situations
- Increased calmness and psychological balance
- Lower incidence of drug or alcohol abuse
Positive thoughts reduce the negative influences that can come with the stress of your career, daily commutes, arguments, accidents, and even personal failures. Think of the holistic “whole health” approach that sees mind and body as one. Reducing negative emotions reduces your stress, and that makes you healthier and happier.
Coping With Stress
Unless you’re completely psychic, there’s no way you can avoid troubling setbacks like a flat tire or a crashed computer program. It’s how we let it affect us–how we think and react–that determines our level of stress.
Pessimistic types are more likely to blame themselves and withdraw into denial, depression, or complete surrender to their perceptions of disaster. It creates an almost crippling mindset of “There’s no point, something bad always happens.”
Optimists tend to see setbacks as merely an unfortunate set of circumstances, and their reaction is to fix the problem and keep going. Optimists are more likely to have a stress-coping mechanism that comes into play in negative circumstances.
Research indicates that stress raises levels of the hormone cortisol, which is known to suppress the immune system, among other things. Small wonder, then, that stressed-out people suffer from poorer health.
Develop Positive Thoughts
Optimism is not genetic; it can be acquired with a little self-discipline. There are several ways you can develop a habit of looking at things in a more optimistic light:
1. Make Note of Your Thoughts
Very seldom are our inner thoughts at rest. Part of our brain is commenting on our own thoughts and circumstances automatically. Sometimes this amounts to day dreaming, or dredging up old memories. But this inner dialogue can tell us volumes if we learn to listen to internal reactions.
Our thoughts can be negative: “I forgot to pay my electric bill! What a dummy.” or positive: “No worries, I’ll send a check tomorrow.”
If your thoughts tend to be self-critical, anticipating disaster or failure, or dismissive of your own abilities, you’re in a pessimistic downward spiral. It means you’re likely to focus on worst-case scenarios and self-doubt that erode your confidence and self-esteem. You may start to feel that circumstances are too much to handle and you are inadequate or unlucky. When this self-doubt becomes fixed in your mind, your quality of life suffers.
The path to positive thinking is recognizing when negative thoughts occur and countering them with something more uplifting.
2. Understand How Negative Thinking Happens
The more negative thoughts you have, the more they contribute to a pessimistic outlook. Recognize negative thought habits and how they change your feelings.
- Black or white views: The idea that life is always one extreme or another is not very helpful. If something you’ve done doesn’t work out perfectly, or bring you the praise you were hoping for, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. There is always a middle ground; in fact, complete success or utter failure are the rare exceptions.
- Over-generalizing: If you start thinking “I always stink at this” or “I never make it on time” you’re only reinforcing your feelings of failure and increasing your own stress. Convincing yourself that negative outcomes are the norm is inviting failure and depression. Tell yourself that next time will be different.
- Taking it personal: If you allow the comments and criticisms of others to dictate your opinions of yourself, you’re setting yourself up for an inferiority complex where you value casual and often thoughtless remarks more than your own efforts. Everybody experiences self-doubt, but don’t allow yourself to be tortured by it.
Instead, see criticism as constructive advice, especially if it was intended that way. It does take perseverance, but understanding your own negativity is a good start.
3. Evaluate Your Inner Dialogues
After–or during–every situation, stop and ask yourself how you react to it, intellectually and emotionally, and whether that response was justified or appropriate. You could even keep a stress journal. Think about what may have prompted the fear and self-doubt. Was it past failures, past criticism, or simple pessimism? What can you do to be ready the next time? What would have been a healthier response? Try to track where your moods come from, and when and why they change.
4. Practice Positive Self-talk
Learn to recognize when negative self-talk enters your mind, and practice immediately countering it with something positive. Imagine that it was a friend or loved one having these self-degrading reactions – what would you say to encourage them? Allow yourself the same level of compassion and support.
Understand Positive Thinking
Positive thinking isn’t brainwashing or making light of bad situations. It’s about approaching setbacks more productively, by actually addressing and solving problems. Learn to look for the good outcomes instead of dwelling on – or imagining – the worst. It starts with being aware of your own thoughts and feelings, and correcting yourself when those thoughts are negative.
Improving the way you approach your life will help to improve every part of it, starting with your ability to handle stress.