If you roll your eyes at the term “positive thinking,” you’re not alone. Those of us who watched Saturday Night Live in the 90s underwent the formative experience of chortling along each time Stuart Smalley lisped “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” In the decades since then we’ve been subjected to a wave of New Age pseudoscience promising we can have anything in the world if we just ‘visualize’ it positively. Those starving refugee children? — the problem must be their bad attitude.
But however your eyes are rolling, the opposite probably doesn’t appeal to you either. Who wants to be the dour nay-sayer in their family, friend group, or workplace?
There’s clearly a sweet-spot between overblown optimism and early-onset Grumpy-Old-Man Syndrome. Read this post to learn ways to train your brain to be more positive without sacrificing realism.
You can (probably) be (moderately) more positive
But first: you’ll never get started unless you think a better outlook is possible, so let’s explore realistically whether we can change.
“My viking ancestors took all the happy people from your civilization.”
And even when it comes to non-genetic factors in our happiness, much of our basic outlook on life depends on the experience of trauma or nurture as a child. (The next time someone is a little too self-congratulatory on how happy they have “made themselves” through positive thinking, shove a little of this science their way to temper their cheer.)
And yet, whatever our emotional baseline, research suggests we retain some wiggle room. Maybe even as much as 40% of our happiness is due to actions that we control. Science is beginning to reveal our “neuroplasticity” — the ability of our brain to change — and though it won’t make a Pollyanna out of a clinically depressed person, it means there’s significant potential for sliding our brain up the optimism scale.
Positivity improves lives – in ways you can measure
But even if it’s possible to be more positive, is it worth the work?
Yes. Even a modest increase in the brain’s capacity for more frequent positive emotions can improve our lives significantly. This doesn’t mean you can have anything in the universe by ‘manifesting’ it through positive vibes. It does mean better physical, mental, and emotional health, a greater capacity for intimacy in relationships, greater altruism, and more creativity.
This isn’t just a confusion about causation, as people who attain these goals are thereby happier: psychological researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and Ed Deiner went through the literature exhaustively to conclude, “Study after study shows that happiness precedes important outcomes and indicators of thriving, including fulfilling and productive work.” When you experience happiness and hope, you begin creating a better life for yourself.
The wellness website Prevention reports some stark physical benefits of a positive outlook:
A 9-year study of cardiovascular health in more than 900 men and women in the Netherlands found that pessimists not only die sooner of heart disease than optimists, but they also die sooner of just about everything. It’s enough to drive a pessimist crazy—and sure enough, pessimism has been linked to higher odds of developing dementia.
The benefits can be quantified in other ways too, the same article reports a study of first-year law school students asked them to rate their optimism on a 5-point scale. Ten years later, every 1-point increase in that scale corresponded with $33,000 more in annual income.
Are your eyes still rolling?
If you’d like to tap into the power of positivity – without drinking the overhappy kool-aid – you’re in luck. We’ve combed through the internet’s Field Guide to Finding the Happy Life and researched the hard science to parse truth from myth. Incorporate the following suggestions into your life for a greater sense of well-being — without tossing out your critical thinking skills or pretending away negative feelings:
1. Affirm — without BS
Any blog post about hacking your brain into happiness will tout the use of positive affirmations. If you close your eyes and repeat “I am a unique child of this universe” enough times, they promise, you’ll begin to “eagerly anticipate each new day and feel as if you can cope better with daily challenges.” The theory is similar to that which kept Bart Simpson writing one sentence on the chalkboard in the show’s opening credits.
And just like Bart, we never learn our lesson. Dr. Joanne Wood and colleagues published research in the journal Psychological Science deflating the value of daily positive mantras. For those who already had high self-esteem, repeating something positive had a very small positive effect. But for those who didn’t already love themselves — the ones most in need of the boost — affirmations actually made them feel worse. Commenting on the study for Psychology Today, Scott Lilienfeld concludes that the affirmations probably “underscored the discrepancy between how they feel about themselves and how they want to feel about themselves. In all likelihood, it just reminded them of how unlovable they really feel.”
So what can be done? The key isn’t to drop affirmations, but rather to also embrace realism, to make our positivity more believable and helpful to us. Psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen instructs those who want to use positive thinking to achieve their goals to follow the steps of Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan, often shortened to WOOP:
- Wish: Indulge in an affirmation or an optimistic dream. (Example: I am going to exercise and become fit.)
- Outcome: Imagine the positive things that would happen if you attain that wish. This tends to strengthen the wish. (I’ll feel better, look good, live longer.)
- Obstacle: Now realism steps in. Identify the biggest possible obstacle to achieving this goal. (I’m already always behind schedule – how am I going to set aside the time to exercise?)
- Plan: Establish an effective behavior to get around the obstacle. Put it in if-then form. (If I’m running low on time, then I will do a shorter work-out, and make up for it with more exercise the following weekend).
The problem with the typical affirmation is it stops at step 2. Oettingen concludes:
“The solution isn’t to do away with dreaming and positive thinking. Rather, it’s making the most of our fantasies by brushing them up against the very thing most of us are taught to ignore or diminish: the obstacles that stand in our way.”
2. Use your critical thoughts to challenge negativity
If you’re already a pessimist, however, overblown affirmation isn’t your problem. Instead, it might be most useful to train yourself to challenge negative thoughts when they arise.
Negative fantasies, after all, can be just as unrealistic as positive ones: psychologist and organizational consultant Matthew Della Porta notes that “people tend to have a cognitive bias toward their failures, and toward negativity.” Having a realistic worldview likely includes being able to talk yourself down from some of your more dire assumptions.
According to psychologist and author Alex Lickerman, pessimists draw three conclusions from failure, believing they are:
- Internal (‘This is all my fault’)
- Universal (‘This affects absolutely everything’)
- Immutable (‘This isn’t changeable’).
The opposite response can be deliberately cultivated, into a trait which psychologists refer to as ‘learned optimism.’ This is different from a naturally sunny disposition: in some ways, it is merely allowing the critical part of your brain to critique itself, turning your negativity back on itself. Rather than repressing your skepticism, this mental habit involves turning that skepticism toward your anxieties and fears, resulting in a more grounded positivity.
In addition to feeding yourself (realistic) affirmations, recognize each negative thought and ask these three questions:
- Are there ways this isn’t my fault?
- Are there limits to the effects of this problem? (what good things remain to me in spite of this problem, or are there even benefits that might spring from it?)
- In what ways can this problem be changed, either to fix it or to not repeat it in the future?
Do this until you build a mental habit of asking your internal critic these clarifying questions.
3. Prioritize non-competitive goals
Quickly answer: what are your top goals in life?
If you mention making more money, becoming more successful, or out-competing someone else in some way, we have bad news for you: research shows that even if you attain those goals, you’ll probably feel less happy and hopeful in the future (and you’ll likely be truly miserable if you don’t reach them).
So where should we put our greatest focus? Bruce Headey at the University of Melbourne has poured over extensive data to find that people who become more happy over time are those who prioritize what he calls “non-zero sum goals.” These goals are collaborative instead of competitive – reaching them doesn’t stop anyone else from doing so, too. In fact, in most cases, they require others to reach the goal with you. The most common non-zero sum goals are building friendships, strengthening family ties, and engaging altruistically in social or political groups.
This echoes more research on the flimsiness of money’s link to happiness. Psychologists have found that wealthy people tend to be less able to enjoy a pleasurable experience. They concluded:
Money, or its hectic pursuit, has been shown to hinder people’s ability to savor everyday experiences. In a study looking at working adults, wealthy individuals reported lower levels of savoring ability (the ability to prolong positive emotion) relative to their poorer peers.
One of the most basic ways to build a happier brain is to recalibrate your priorities. Ironically, since positivity supports greater financial success, prioritizing relationships over money could mean you pick up that promotion only once you realize it’s not the most important thing in your life.
4. Always say thank you
Your mom was onto something when she sternly asked “And what do you say?” after someone gave you a gift or treat.
Psychologist Sonja Lyubormirsky has found that overall life satisfaction significantly increases for those who keep a ‘gratitude journal,‘ where they write down things they’re thankful for every week. Similar research by Emmons and McCullough found that the journals improved physical health, raised energy levels, and relieved pain and fatigue in research subjects who had neuromuscular disease.
Even when things are bad, chances are a lot of people are doing an array of both huge and small things to make your life a little better. Expressing gratitude isn’t just good manners – it’s a life-improvement strategy.
5. Keep your friends close
We know it intuitively: friends make us happy.
Now science can help quantify this effect:
- Strong social ties make us 50% less likely to die young, with health benefits comparable to quitting smoking, and greater than exercising regularly and staying at a healthy weight.
- In middle age, having regular contact with ten or more friends massively improves well-being compared to those with fewer or no friends.
- Good friends make you half as likely to catch the common cold.
- Going through an unpleasant experience with a best friend gives you a greater sense of self-worth and less cortisol in your system (the stress hormone at the root of many health problems).
- In economic terms, “having a better social life can be worth as much as an additional $131,232 a year in terms of life satisfaction.”
And while the thrill of most positive life improvements wears off within six months, the joys of friendships don’t. We’re talking about long-term mental health insurance, in a shared sense of positivity. So when you’re facing a stressful situation keep your buddies about you as though your brain depended on it.
6. Get Moving (Exercise)
As cardiologists were monitoring the value of exercise training in physical recuperation, they couldn’t help but notice their patients having a change in mood as well. Some of these findings were published in the journal Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases: people who engaged in exercise training lower levels of depression, anxiety, hostility, total psychological stress, and had fewer stress-related deaths. The mood-improving capacity of regular physical activity is so impressive that many mental health experts prescribe it as a front-line treatment for mild to moderate depression and anxiety.
The benefits likely come from the body’s release of endorphins. Endorphins block pain signals, locking to opioid receptors in the brain. These receptors got that name because they are the same ones affected by opiates like morphine. In fact, “endorphin” is just a portmanteau of the words “endogenous morphine” (meaning it’s internally produced). It means a safe and non-addictive punch of euphoria.
And you don’t have to join the masses of spandex-clad gym-devotees to get it. Research suggests you can gain full mental benefits long before you see six-pack abs. Working at 80% of your capacity for only 20 minutes, especially if it involves sprinting or heavier lifting, can flood your brain in its own antidepressants.
7. Stop Moving (Meditate)
If breathing in and out solved anything, you’d have all the answers by now, right?
Wrong. Though meditation looks like ‘doing nothing,’ inside it’s a complex neurochemical dance, and new research is showing how it can unlock positive emotions in the brain.
A team of doctors have reviewed nearly 19,000 studies on meditation for the prestigious journal JAMA Internal Medicine. They found that the most rigorous evidence concluded meditation has a small but significant effect on reducing anxiety, depression, and pain. The results, though consistent, appear modest — until you recognize that meditation is about as effective as psychopharmaceuticals, only without any of the drugs’ unpleasant side-effects.
The results are so compelling that last October’s edition of Scientific American featured the neuroscience of meditation as its cover story. The authors write:
The discovery of meditation’s benefits coincides with recent neuroscientific findings showing that the adult brain can still be deeply transformed through experience. [. . .] The evidence amassed from this research has begun to show that meditation can rewire brain circuits to produce salutary effects not just on the mind and the brain but on the entire body.
If the idea of meditating sounds unpleasant or boring to you, begin at only 3-5 minutes a day. Avoid any of the trappings of meditating that make you feel silly – like annoying music, religions you don’t believe in, or mantras that don’t make sense to you. Instead, focus on the stripped-down core of mindfulness meditation: a non-judgmental observation of how your mind functions and what your body is feeling. Since you are objectively observing yourself, rather than trying to force a particular emotional outcome, meditation can come easily to a realist.
For more tips on meditating your way to mental health, visit here.
Even if we weren’t born with the Danish happy-gene, these tips will help you make the most of our brain’s capacity to change. And you can do it without swallowing your skepticism or repressing your realism – in fact, through these methods, your hard-nosed objectivity can give you a boost in the quest for long-term, grounded growth in positivity.