As I write this, the UK has just been moved up into a tier 5 response to Covid-19. Schools are closed once again, we have been asked to stay at home unless absolutely necessary and hundreds of thousands of businesses have been ordered to close. Across the country many people will be struggling with that news and with the thought that the virus is once again spreading, well, virulently. So, is it really a good time to talk about the power of positive thinking? What difference can it really make? It turns out that, while of course there are times when the world feels like a dark place, and it is important to be realistic about what’s going on, in general being optimistic and having a positive outlook can really help.
1. It’s not blind optimism. It’s not about sticking your fingers in your ears, screwing up your eyes and thinking of rain drops on roses and whiskers on kittens. True positive thinking, or positive psychology, is a little more nuanced than that. It’s about focusing on the good in any given situation, not about ignoring reality. It’s about making the best out of every situation, rather than dwelling on the negative, particularly when there is nothing that can be done about it.
2. It can help your physical wellbeing. Including your immune system. Astonishingly, and no one really understands how it works, but there is a rather large body of evidence that seems to point to positive thinking having a tangible impact on physical health, from boosting your immune system to improving outcomes for patients with heart disease, stroke and even brain tumours. One study found that people with a family history of heart disease who also had a positive outlook were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event within five to 25 years. Another study, of university students, found that students who had been confident that they would do well in the year ahead had more and better functioning immune cells than those who were worried. Studies suggest that people who experience frequent positive emotions even live longer!
3. It can help mental wellbeing. It’s perhaps less surprising that being optimistic can be beneficial to your mental health, and perhaps there is an element of which came first here but the evidence suggests it can make a real impact. A recent study showed how the power of positive visualisation could help people with generalised anxiety disorder to significantly reduce negative thoughts, worry and anxiety. Our brains can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s imagined, so visualising positive events, and focusing on positive thoughts, can help to simultaneously reduce worry and increase joy.
4. It can help you be more successful. A landmark study found that when people are experiencing positive emotions like joy and contentment, they see more possibilities in their lives and, importantly, they are able to build on those possibilities. A sense of optimism may therefore help build success further down the road across the board from relationships to career goals.
5. You can train yourself to do it. Don’t worry, not all of us are born optimists, but anyone can train themselves to stop dwelling on negative thoughts and start looking for the positive. Practices like meditation, positive visualisations, reframing negative situations to look for a positive angle and writing a gratitude journal (where you pick out what you are particularly grateful for each day) can all help to introduce a more positive frame of mind. Even simply taking notice of the way we think and talk about ourselves and the situations we find ourselves in can be really helpful. And if all else fails, try smiling, it really can make the world a brighter place – studies have shown that even fake smiles can help to lift your mood.