When challenges come our way, it may be easy to succumb to negative thoughts. But look on the bright side—optimistic thinking isn't just in our heads. Thinking positively can also boost our physical and mental health.
The Power of Positive: The Need-to-Know
Optimistic thinkers tend to anticipate the best possible outcome in any situation. (For instance: "I may have totaled my car, but thank goodness for insurance!") And research suggests seeing the glass half-full is good for our health, career, and love life. Studies have found self-reported optimism predicts lower rates of mortality and cancer, and better cardiovascular health and immune function. Other research has found the benefits of positive thinking are especially pronounced in low-income countries. One study even suggests optimism helps women battle breast cancer. And elderly people who hold positive stereotypes about old age generally recover better from disability than those who think negatively.
Some psychologists think optimists tend to be healthier because they cope better when they can't meet their goals. It's also possible that people who think positively attribute less significance to stressful events.
But the benefits of optimism go beyond a clean bill of health. Forget the raving resume—there may be a connection between positive thinking and landing a stellar job. Optimists also have a better chance of securing a stable, loving relationship. Still, thinking positively may be easier said than done.
Every Little Thing Is Gonna Be All Right: Your Action Plan
While some psychologists think we can learn to be optimists, other experts believe optimism is a personality trait we're born with. And other factors, like socioeconomic status and cultural background, may have a role in our ability to think positively. Several studies have found a relationship between pessimism and lower economic status—though it's unclear whether low socioeconomic status causes people to be more pessimistic or it's other way around. Cultural differences may also come into play. Studies suggest Western cultures tend to anticipate more positive events than Eastern cultures do. Some psychologists suggest that's because Westerners focus more on self-enhancement and see themselves more positively than Easterners.
But before becoming Mr. or Ms. "Everything-Is-Awesome," know that being too optimistic can have a downside. Expecting the best in every situation may lead to failed expectations. Some experts argue defensive pessimism—"hope for the best, prepare for the worst"—helps people respond to certain threats and may even reduce anxiety.
Here are some quick tips on how to start seeing the glass half-full:
- Find the good. Even in less-than-great situations, there's a way to find something positive. It may be hard to see at first, but try looking closer! (For instance: "I may be completely lost, but the view from here sure is pretty.")
- Write it down. At the end of the day, write down a few good things that happened, like finishing a big report at work or getting an email from an old friend. The habit makes it easier to appreciate the positive parts of life.
- Speak with success. Sometimes it's not the specific situation that determines a good or bad mood, but how we talk about it. (For example: "The exam may have been super hard, but telling friends we tried our best may cheer us up.")
- Forget the green-eyed monster. It's easy to compare ourselves to others and become envious of what you don't have. Instead, try to appreciate the good qualities and remember what you're grateful for.
- Take control: Science has shown people feel more optimistic about situations they can control. So take a seat behind the driver's wheel and remember choices like working out more and eating healthfully are (almost always) yours!
- Smile! Grin at this: In one study, participants who held a pen in their mouth (causing them to use their smiling muscles) perceived cartoons to be funnier than those without the pen. So not only are smiles contagious, they may actually make situations seem better.
- Stay balanced. Life isn't all good, all the time, so don't worry if those positive thoughts don’t flow freely. Staying realistic is also important to help manage anxiety and boost productivity.
Originally published in September 2013. Updated June 2015.