Positive thinking is no longer just a soft and fluffy term thrown around in psychology classes. Reams of research are beginning to reveal that positive thinking is about much more than just displaying an upbeat attitude and a smile. Studies have consistently shown that a positive attitude can have a beneficial effect on our health and success. A recent article from the Mayo Clinic cited the following health benefits of positive thinking:
- Increased life span
- Lower rates of depression
- Lower levels of distress
- Greater resistance to the common cold
- Better psychological and physical well-being
- Reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease
- Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress
But how does one become a positive person? Are we born seeing the glass either ‘half full’ or ‘half empty’? And, are we destined to go through life this way?
Recent research says, ‘no’. Scientists have learned that the brain continues to adapt and rewire itself throughout our lives and our thoughts and behaviors directly influence this process.
So how do we actually become more optimistic? One technique is by consciously and actively practicing gratitude. At the end of every day, make a conscious effort to remember and write down 2 or 3 things for which you are grateful. You can record them in a journal or on pieces of paper that you drop into a jar. At first, you will most likely begin with the big stuff like family and a house over your head. But as you continue, you will be forced to carefully look back over the day and remember the little things, such as the great lunch you had, or the phone call with your mom or even a thoughtful text from a friend. Your brain can only hold a certain amount of information at a time, so by focusing on and reinforcing the positive events of the day, you crowd out the negative thoughts.
Over time, this way of thinking will actually rewire your brain. Just think of your brain as a dynamic, connected power grid, with billions of roads and pathways lighting up every time you think or feel. The well travelled roads are your habits and your established ways of thinking and feeling. Every time you think in a certain way or feel a specific emotion, you strengthen those roads and make it easier for your brain to travel along them.
However, when you think about something differently or choose a different emotion, you carve out a new road inside your brain. If these new thoughts and emotions are reinforced frequently, a new pathway gets stronger and becomes the preferred path. The old pathway becomes used less and less and weakens. (This is the concept of Neuroplasticity.)
One recent study published in the Journal of Research in Personality confirmed the impact of positive thoughts on one’s health. Ninety college student were spilt into two groups, one of which wrote about intensely positive experiences three days a week, and the other group wrote about a control topic. After just three months, the students who wrote about positive experiences had better mood levels, fewer visits to the health center, and experienced fewer illnesses.
I have been planning on using a gratitude jar with my kids for years and never seem to get around to it. But as I write this blog, I am making a public promise to make gratitude part of my family’s life. It only takes minutes a day and can lead to a happier more satisfied life. Think about doing it for your family and send us a comment to tell us how it is going.
Also, if you are interested in learning about living a more optimistic life, Cara Maksimow, LCSW, CPC, conducts Optimism Workshops locally and by web. Check out her link at http://www.maximize-wellness.com/workshops.html.
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