If you’re like me, having someone say this to you mostly makes you want to roll your eyes and groan. After all, what’s the point of thinking positive? Are rosy thoughts full of unicorns and sunshine really going to help you out when you’re stressed because you’ve got twenty things to finish and only enough time to get through two or three of them?
Well, as it turns out, apparently they do help. Happy thoughts have been shown to raise your attentiveness, increase your mental productivity, help nerve connections to grow, improve the way that you think and analyze things, affect how you look at your surroundings, and cause – you guessed it – more happy thoughts, which repeats this cycle.
How does it work? Those of us not inclined to Pollyanna-ish behavior will be “happy” to hear that there is real science behind the power of positive thinking rather than it being some enlightened higher-state-of-consciousness thing. Positive thoughts actually have the power to make physical changes to the structure of your brain and alter the way that it functions.
It is able to do this because whenever we have thoughts, they cause our brains to release chemicals. Negative thoughts are related to cortisol, which can slow down your brain and make it more difficult to function normally. In some people, this can even lead to severe depression.
Focusing on negative thoughts leads to fear, which decreases activity in your cerebellum. This means your brain has more trouble processing new information, making solving the problem that got you so negative in the first place even more difficult.
Positive thoughts, on the other hand, produce the feel-good chemical serotonin. But it doesn’t just make you feel good, serotonin promotes brain function and growth so that you can use your brain to the best of its ability. But you’re probably wondering, what does positive thinking do precisely? Let’s walk through the chain of events.
Thinking positively helps to reinforce the synapses you have in your prefrontal cortex (PFC) as well as create new ones. Because your PFC is the brain’s integration center, it regulates those signals that your neurons are sending out into your body and to the rest of your brain, so having plenty of strong synapses means your brain will have an easier time with this.
But it even goes beyond that because your PFC is the part of your brain that gives you the ability to actually consider what you’re doing and reflect on it, maintain control over your emotions and behaviors, decide what you want to focus on, and learn about your own thinking processes. Essentially, a high-functioning PFC is what makes us into the people that we want to be by helping us to define and achieve goals in our life.
Want some practical, concrete examples of why it’s better to think positively? Studies of those with differing personalities have shown time and time again that those who tend to be more pessimistic in their outlook generally suffer for their inability to see the good in life:
-They die earlier than their optimistic counterparts.
-They tend to believe good events are fleeting, but bad events are normal.
-They have a much higher chance of suffering from depression – eight times more likely than optimists!
-They don’t do as well in school.
-They don’t enjoy as much success in their careers.
-Their relationships go through more ups and downs.
In contrast, those prone more to positive thoughts reap a number of rewards:
-They live longer.
-They’re more confident.
-They engage in healthier habits.
-Their immune systems are stronger.
-They socialize more and tend to have more friends.
-Their relationships are strong.
-They feel fulfilled and happy.
The good news is (if you negative thinkers out there can see fit to believe me!) it’s possible to train your brain to limit the amount of negativity you feel. How? By thinking happy thoughts (seriously) and forcing yourself to stop and readjust your focus if you find yourself headed down a negative path. The more positive we are in our thoughts and actions, the easier it becomes!