What Is Positive Thinking?

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Do you tend to see the glass as half empty or half full? You have probably heard that question plenty of times. Your answer relates directly to the concept of positive thinking and whether you have a positive or negative outlook on life. Positive thinking plays an important role in positive psychology, a subfield devoted to the study of what makes people happy and fulfilled.

Research has found that positive thinking can aid in stress management and even plays an important role in your overall health and well-being. It can help combat feelings of low self-esteem, improve physical health, and help brighten your overall outlook on life.

This article discusses what positive thinking is and the health benefits of being positive. It also explores some of the strategies you can use to become a more positive thinker.

What Is Positive Thinking?

Positive thinking means approaching life's challenges with a positive outlook. It doesn't mean seeing the world through rose-colored lenses by ignoring or glossing over the negative aspects of life.

Positive thinking does not necessarily mean avoiding difficult situations. Instead, positive thinking means making the most of potential obstacles, trying to see the best in other people, and viewing yourself and your abilities in a positive light.

Some researchers, including positive psychologist Martin Seligman, frame positive thinking in terms of explanatory style. Your explanatory style is how you explain why events happened.

  • Optimistic explanatory style: People with an optimistic explanatory style tend to give themselves credit when good things happen and typically blame outside forces for bad outcomes. They also tend to see negative events as temporary and atypical.
  • Pessimistic explanatory style: People with a pessimistic explanatory style often blame themselves when bad things happen, but fail to give themselves adequate credit for successful outcomes. They also have a tendency to view negative events as expected and lasting. As you can imagine, blaming yourself for events outside of your control or viewing these unfortunate events as a persistent part of your life can have a detrimental impact on your state of mind.

Positive thinkers are more apt to use an optimistic explanatory style, but the way in which people attribute events can also vary depending upon the exact situation. For example, a person who is generally a positive thinker might use a more pessimistic explanatory style in particularly challenging situations, such as at work or at school.

Recap

While there are many factors that determine whether a person has a positive outlook, the way that they explain the events of their life, known as their explanatory style, plays an important role.

Positive Psychology vs. Positive Thinking

While the terms "positive thinking" and "positive psychology" are sometimes used interchangeably, it is important to understand that they are not the same thing. Positive thinking is about looking at things from a positive point of view. It is a type of thinking that focuses on maintaining a positive, optimistic attitude. Positive psychology is a branch of psychology that studies the effects of optimism, what causes it, and when it is best utilized.

Health Benefits of Positive Thinking

In recent years, the so-called "power of positive thinking" has gained a great deal of attention thanks to self-help books such as "The Secret." While these pop-psychology books often tout positive thinking or philosophies like the law of attraction as a sort of psychological panacea, empirical research has found that there are many very real health benefits linked to positive thinking and optimistic attitudes.

Positive thinking is linked to a wide range of health benefits, including:

  • Better stress management and coping skills
  • Enhanced psychological health
  • Greater resistance to the common cold
  • Increased physical well-being
  • Longer life span
  • Lower rates of depression
  • Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease-related death

One study of 1,558 older adults found that positive thinking could also reduce frailty during old age.

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Aging Research found that having a positive mental attitude was linked to decreased mortality over a 35-year period. People who had a more positive outlook were also more likely to get regular physical exercise, avoid smoking, eat a healthier diet, and get more quality sleep.

Clearly, there are many benefits of positive thinking. But why, exactly, does positive thinking have such a strong impact on physical and mental health?

One theory is that people who think positively tend to be less affected by stress. Research suggests that having more positive automatic thoughts helps people become more resilient in the face of life's stressful events. People who had high levels of positive thinking were more likely to walk away from stressful life events with a higher sense of the meaningfulness of life.

Another possibility is that people who think positively tend to live healthier lives in general; they may exercise more, follow a more nutritious diet, and avoid unhealthy behaviors.

How to Practice Positive Thinking

While you might be more prone to negative thinking, there are strategies that you can use to become a more positive thinker. Practicing these strategies regularly can help you get in the habit of maintaining a more positive outlook on life.

  • Notice your thoughts: Start paying attention to the type of thoughts you have each day. If you notice that many of them are negative, make a conscious effort to reframe how you are thinking in a more positive way.
  • Write in a gratitude journal: Practicing gratitude can have a range of positive benefits and it can help you learn to develop a better outlook. Experiencing grateful thoughts helps people to feel more optimistic.
  • Use positive self-talk: How you talk to yourself can play an important role in shaping your outlook. Studies have shown that shifting to more positive self-talk can have a positive impact on your emotions and how you respond to stress.

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Potential Pitfalls of Positive Thinking

While there are many benefits to thinking positively, there are actually times when more realistic thinking is more advantageous. For example, in some situations, negative thinking can actually lead to more accurate decisions and outcomes.

Some research has found that negative thinking and moods can actually help people make better, more accurate judgments.

However, research suggests that realistic optimism might be the ideal. The results of a 2020 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin revealed that people who have mistaken expectations, whether those expectations are optimistic or pessimistic, tend to fare worse in terms of mental health when compared to realists. 

The authors of the study suggest that the disappointment that optimists experience when their high hopes are not realized can have a negative impact on well-being. This doesn't mean that people should strive to be pessimistic thinkers. since studies indicate that people with a negative outlook tend to fare the worst. Instead, having a generally positive outlook that is focused on realistic expectations may be the best approach. 

In some cases, inappropriately applied positive thinking can cross the line into what is known as toxic positivity. This involves insisting on maintaining a positive mindset no matter how upsetting, dire, or damaging a situation might be. This type of excessive positivity can impede authentic communication and cause people to experience feelings of shame or guilt if they struggle to maintain such an overly positive outlook.

Recap

Positive thinking can have pitfalls at times. While it is important to have an overall positive outlook, unrealistically high expectations can lead to disappointment. Being unable to accept any negative emotions, known as toxic positivity, can also have a negative effect on mental well-being.

A Word From Verywell

Even if you are not a natural-born optimist, there are things you can do to learn how to think more positively and become a positive thinker. One of the first steps is to focus on your own inner monologue and to pay attention to your self-talk.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do I start practicing positive thinking?

    Strategies that can improve your positive thinking include noticing your thoughts and making a conscious effort to shift from negative thoughts to more positive one. Practicing positive self-talk and practicing gratitude can also be helpful ways to start having a more positive outlook.

  • Why is positive thinking important?

    Positive thinking is important because it can have a beneficial impact on both physical and mental well-being. People who maintain a more positive outlook on life cope better with stress, have better immunity, and have a lower risk of premature death. Positive thinking also helps promote greater feelings of happiness and overall satisfaction with life.

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of positive thinking?

    Positive thinking has been shown to help people live healthier, happier lives. When they have a positive outlook, they are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors such as exercising, eating healthy, and getting plenty of rest. Downsides of positive thinking include the risk of forming overly high expectations that result in disappointment and being affected by toxic positivity.

  • How do you change your thinking from negative to positive?

    Practicing mindfulness can be a way to build self-awareness and become more conscious of how your negative thoughts affect your moods and behaviors. As you become better at identifying negative thought patterns, you can then take steps to shift into a more positive mindset. Actively replacing negative thoughts with positive ones can help you eventually learn to become a more positive thinker.

11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.