Positive thinking sounds useful on the surface. (Most of us would prefer to be positive rather than negative.) But “positive thinking” is also a soft and fluffy term that is easy to dismiss. In the real world, it rarely carries the same weight as words like “work ethic” or “persistence.” However, those views may be changing.
Psychologists, doctors and psychiatrists are beginning to reveal that positive thinking is about much more than just being happy or displaying an upbeat attitude. Positive thoughts can actually create real value in your life and help you build skills that last much longer than a smile.
The impact of positive thinking on your work, your health, and your life is being studied by people who are much smarter than me. Positive Psychologists around the world study a positive psychology and have released information that provides surprising insights about positive thinking and its impact on your skills.
Have you ever stopped to consider what negative thoughts do you your brain?
Let’s say that you’re walking through the forest and suddenly a bear steps onto the path ahead of you. When this happens, your brain registers a negative emotion — in this case, fear.
Researchers have long known that negative emotions actually take control of your brain to do something. When that bear crosses your path, for example, you run. The rest of the world doesn’t matter. You are focused entirely on the bear, the fear it creates, and how you can get away from it.
In other words, negative emotions narrow your mind and control the focus of your thoughts. At that same moment, you might have the option to climb a tree, pick up a leaf, or grab a stick — but your brain ignores all of those options because they seem irrelevant when a bear is standing in front of you.
This is a useful instinct if you’re trying to save life and limb, but in our modern society we don’t have to worry about stumbling across bears in the wilderness (Especially in South Africa). The problem is that your brain is still being controlled and programmed to respond to negative emotions in the same way every time you have a negative thought — by shutting off the outside world and limiting the options you see around you.
For example, when you’re in a fight with someone, your anger and emotion might consume you to the point where you can’t think about anything else. Or, when you are stressed out about everything you have to get done today, you may find it hard to actual start anything because you’re paralyzed by how long your to-do list has become. Or, if you feel bad about not exercising or not eating healthy, all you think about is how little willpower you have, how you’re lazy, and how you don’t have any motivation.
In each case, your brain closes off from the outside world and focuses on the negative emotions of fear, anger, and stress — just like it did with the bear. Negative emotions prevent your brain from seeing the other options and choices that surround you. It’s your survival instinct.
Now, let us look at the benefits of positive emotions. Interestingly enough, research shows that these emotions do not subside. In fact, the biggest benefit that positive emotions provide is an enhanced ability to build skills and develop resources for use later in life.
Let’s consider a real-world example.
A child who runs around outside, swinging on branches and playing with friends, develops the ability to move confidently (physical skills), the ability to play with others and communicate with a team (social skills), and the ability to explore the world around them (creative skills). In this way, the positive emotions of play and joy help to motivate the child to build skills that are useful and valuable in everyday life.
These skills last much longer than the emotions that initiated them. Years later, that foundation of athletic movement might develop into a scholarship as a college athlete or the communication skills may blossom into a job offer as a business manager. The happiness that promoted the exploration and creation of new skills has long since ended, but the skills themselves live on.
All of this research begs the most important question of all: If positive thinking is so useful for developing valuable skills and appreciating the big picture of life, how do you actually get yourself to be positive?
Join me for my next blog to find out!
Compiled by Olivia Guerini