If you want to learn how to start positive thinking, then you're in the right place. The benefits of being an optimist - defined as a person who always believes that good things will happen - are well documented. Indeed, living a long life with strong relationships and better overall health are just some of the reasons positivity has such a good reputation.
But being an optimist doesn't come naturally to everyone. Indeed, many people are pessimists - which, as you might know, is a person who tends to believe the worst will happen. However, research suggests that it is possible to rewire your brain to become more glass half-full rather than half-empty.
That said, harnessing the powers of positive thinking is a little more than understanding how to relax your mind with some yoga for beginners, and simply looking on the bright side of life - although it certainly helps. We've called on the expert advice of psychologist Dr Meg Arroll (opens in new tab) to explain the best steps for nourishing your internal optimism, and we'll also introduce you to the practice of positive thinking meditation which is sure to become an integral, feel-good part of your self-care routine...
What is positive thinking?
A key way to go from being a pessimist to an optimist is to enlist positive thinking - the practice of focusing on the good in any given situation. "While it is undoubtedly challenging to change our personal circumstances, it is possible to change our outlook on life,” says Dr Arroll.
What's more, research has indicated that positive thinking is catching. "If you’re surrounded with negativity, for instance if there is a culture at work which suffocates creativity and progression, it can be difficult to remain positive," points out Dr Arroll. “We all know how good it feels to be surrounded by positive people and it can have a real and profound impact not only on our thinking styles, but also our health behaviors."
But while our levels of positivity may fluctuate, are some people actually built more optimistic than others? Indeed, research from King's College London (opens in new tab) has shown that being optimistic or pessimistic is about 25% inheritable. "But apart from the genetic component, people can become more pessimistic due to a number of reasons," explains Dr Arroll. "These include social, environmental and interpersonal factors. For example, growing up in households characterized by criticism can lead to a pessimistic outlook and set patterns of negative thinking, which then often result in a ‘glass half empty’ perspective. It can also be very tough to foster optimism if you’re stuck in a poverty trap – social mobility is slowing so it’s perhaps unsurprising that anxiety is increasing in people."
However, trying to boost optimism where you can is well worth your while. A study from Boston University (opens in new tab) found optimistic people were more likely to live to the age of 85 or higher. They found that, on average, the most optimistic men and women had an 11% to 15% longer lifespan compared to pessimistic people. Additionally, findings from the Harvard School of Public Health (opens in new tab) showed that the most optimistic women were 30% less likely to die from serious illnesses, including cancer, heart disease and stroke.
How to start positive thinking
Now you know about the benefits of optimism, it's time to learn how to begin thinking more positively.
“There is likely to be a genetic component to our thinking styles including optimism, but the wonderful thing about the human brain is its neuroplasticity," explains Dr Aroll. “Our brains constantly make new connections and we can actively strengthen those neural networks by looking for the positives in life.”
In other words, even the most pessimistic person has the capacity to become more optimistic. Here are Dr Arroll's top five tips for banishing negative thinking once and for all:
1. Practice gratitude
Before your mind races into your daily to-do list each morning, think of three things that you are grateful for. These don’t need to be massive, life changing events – your child’s smile, the sound of raindrop on the windowpane; anything that you feel enhances your life experience. It might take a little practice to stop your mind veering off into all the tasks you need to do that day, but with time you’ll reset your brain to automatically think of positive thoughts every morning.
2. Show kindness
Demonstrating a small act of kindness every day. One of the best ways to nurture an optimist view is to focus on the needs of others, rather than ourselves. Again, this doesn’t need to be a heroic act, simply holding a door open for someone, asking a colleague how they are and truly listening, or giving someone who looks a little low a warm smile. Don't forget to; practice kindness towards yourself and cultivate body confidence.
3. Start a journal
Journaling is also a good way to enhance a positive attitude. But you don’t have to write down purely positive thoughts, as expressing more difficult feelings through the written word can help process them. The key here is to reflect on challenging situations and see what you can take from them. Want to tick some items off your to-do list at the same time? Try one of these best goal planners.
4. Get healthy
Pay attention to your physical needs too. It’s hard for even the most upbeat person to maintain optimism if they’re tired, hungry or in pain. Sleep can be disrupted by negative ruminative thoughts so when you do shift to a more optimistic outlook, it may well be easier to get a decent amount of good quality sleep. Need some help nodding off? Here's how to build a bedtime routine so you'll drift off in no time.
5. Find nature
Spending time in nature can also ground us, helping us feel part of our environment and within a much larger picture. This perspective is important as it can be all too easy to get overwhelmed by the minutia of daily life. Aim for a daily walk – even 10 minutes is enough to boost mood, protect emotional health and aid positive thoughts. If you want to try something different, then forest bathing and Nordic walking are great options.
Positive thinking meditation
“There is no one single way to practice a positive thinking meditation, but you can infuse methods of meditation with a positive way of thinking to achieve quite dramatic results," says holistic life coach Nichola Henderson (opens in new tab). “I would recommend Japa Mala meditation, in which you recite a phrase or mantra that resonates with whatever positive thoughts you are trying to cultivate. You can also try mindfulness meditation, with is wonderful for self-compassion and kindness. Additionally, visualization meditation is also great for enhancing positive thinking - you can use the meditative state to bring to life who you want to be and how you want to feel.”
How exactly does it boost positivity? “Think of meditation as a form of brain training," explains Henderson. "In order to change the way you think long term, you have to tap into those deeper beliefs and values, the subconscious brain. Meditation helps the mind increase awareness and change default patterns. It produces a state in which the body and mind are equally relaxed, so that you can focus attention on what you are trying to grow or cultivate in your life - in this case, a more positive approach."
Don't be disheartened if it feels like an uphill struggle. "Yes, you might fall back into negative thinking - again and again," notes meditation and yoga teacher Yesim Yuva. "But every step is worth it and you will see the positive changes around you. Our thoughts create our reality - be aware how much power your thoughts have over you, and always remember that you have more power over your thoughts than you think."
How can you make meditation a part of your journey to optimism? “Each time you practice helps, no matter what the experience is, you are building on an important practice," says Henderson. "I would advise showing up for whatever time you can - whether five minutes, ten minutes or more. Just lift the pressure off and let the practice be a choice, not a chore. Meditation is something that takes some time to weave into the fabric of your routine, but persistence is key."
Lauren is a freelance writer and editor with more than six years of digital and magazine experience. In addition to Womanandhome.com she has penned news and features for titles including Women's Health, The Telegraph, Stylist, Dazed, Grazia, The Sun's Fabulous, Yahoo Style UK and Get The Gloss.
While Lauren specializes in covering wellness topics—ranging from nutrition and fitness, to health conditions and mental wellbeing—she has written across a diverse range of lifestyle topics, including beauty and travel. Career highlights so far include: luxury spa-hopping in Spain, interviewing Heidi Klum and joining an £18k-a-year London gym.
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