Consider this scenario: You’re preparing for an important presentation. It’s not going very well and you start to think you’re going to mess it up completely. Every small mistake you make reinforces this idea, up to the point where it’s all you can think about.
What this example demonstrates is the power – and danger – of negative thinking. Research into negative thoughts has shown how they lead us to dissociate from the outside world and turn our focus to one thing only: the thing that is making us feel angry, scared or bad about ourselves. As a result, we stagnate.
Positive thoughts have the opposite effect, opening our minds to see a whole range of possibilities and therefore welcoming new ideas and perceptions. Barbara Fredrickson, a professor at the University of North Carolina and researcher of positive emotions, believes thinking positively can even have long-term benefits. In her ‘broaden and build’ theory she describes how the broadening of our sense of what is possible generated by positive thoughts can lead us to develop new skills and so progress in life.
For some of us, looking at things from the bright side is something that comes easily; others find it harder. That doesn’t mean all hope is lost, though: thinking positively is something that you can train yourself to do.
First of all, you’ll need to start making a conscious effort to not give in to negative thoughts. Recognise when you start dwelling on the bleaker side of things and put a stop to it by asking yourself what you could do to make the situation better. Then start setting actionable goals for yourself – reaching them will empower you.
The next step is to foster positive thoughts. Easier said than done? Not necessarily. While positive thinking creates positive emotions, this process also works the other way around. This means that doing things you love, that bring you joy, can help you to think more positively. Think, for example, of a time where you engaged with something you are passionate about: perhaps you went to a concert or saw a film you really loved. Did you feel inspired afterwards? Perhaps it even led you to actively pursue a goal related to that passion?
Or you can try something new. Meditation has been proven to help cultivate positive thoughts, while a study published in the Journal of Research in Personality showed that writing about positive experiences can have the same effect.
Thinking positively means getting out of your head and looking for solutions. It’s something you may have to practise to get better at, but ultimately it can open doors that you may otherwise have walked right past.