Positive thinking is the practice of focusing on the positive side of things and looking for the best in situations and people. It doesn’t mean putting your head in the sand and ignoring bad things. Instead, it’s about making the best of whatever situation you are in. It’s been shown to have significant benefits on people’s wellbeing, as well as on other factors including life expectancy.

Summary by The World of Work Project

Positive Thinking

Positive thinking is the practice of focusing on the positive side of things. It’s part of positive psychology, and has been increasingly popular since the 1990’s.

In fact, the power of positive thinking has been known for millennia. Greek philosophers celebrated the importance of concepts like “eudaimonia” (roughly translated to fulfillment) and hedonic happiness, or subjective wellbeing. And slightly more recently, Thomas Jefferson advised to “Take things always by their smooth handle”.

A painting of Thomas Jefferson, a promoter of some aspects of positive thinking
Thomas Jefferson, courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Benefits of Positive Thinking

Positive thinking has many benefits. Most obvious are things like an improved sense of wellbeing and fulfillment and a reduction in depression. But there are also many more surprising benefits.

For example, positive thinking has been shown to have a host of physical benefits. It is known improve physical health and longevity, and to reduce blood-pressure and stress. It also reduced the risk of heart attacks and increases resistance to illnesses like the common cold.

Positive thinking also changes the way we think. This can lead to benefits for individuals and teams in the world of work. For example, positive thinking leads to increased clarity of thinking, creativity and problem solving. It also helps people manage their mood more effectively, and improve their coping skills.

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Increasing Positive Thinking

Clearly, having a positive outlook on the world can be very helpful in many different ways. It’s something most people would generally benefit from having more of. What then can we do to challenge our negative and increase our positive thinking?

Listening and Self-awareness

A great starting point for all things like this is to become mindful and aware of the current state. By intentionally listening to our self-talk we can start to notice whether we’re positive or negative, and when our tone of self-talk changes. It’s only when we’re aware of it, that we can start to change it.

Identify Negatives

Once we’re aware of our self-talk, we can start to identify negative thinking. The type of negative thoughts that we all have often fall into several categories. By developing an awareness of these different categories, it becomes easier to spot them. And when we become able to name the different types of negative self-talk we have, they become less powerful. We can name them, and we can address them.

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There are many different forms of negative thinking. Six of the most common are: Ignoring positives, all or nothing thinking, catastrophic thinking, predicting the future, mind reading and personalizing. As individuals, we’ll probably experience all of these at some points in our lives, but might have a stronger disposition towards some than others. We can think of these as mind-traps that we can fall into.

Challenge Negative Thoughts

Once we have developed the ability to identify and name some of our negative thoughts and thinking traps, we can start to challenge them. When we have a thought we should ask ourselves is it: helpful to us, is it evidence based and is it logical. If it is all of these things, then great. If it’s not all three, then it may be negative and we might want to challenge it.

Were we think a thought in negative, we should look to change it or replace it with a positive thought. We should find thoughts that are helpful, logical and evidence based and hold on to them. One way we can challenge negative thoughts is by coming up with new, positive thoughts. Our post on ETC self-coaching model talks through how to do this in more detail.

Remember, just because you think something, doesn’t mean you need to believe it.

Use Positive Language and Words

Another way we can challenge negativity is through the words we use. As we allude elsewhere, naming things and using words is very powerful. We can challenge the words that we use and replace potentially negative ones with more positive ones. For example “I have to” is a constricting, negative statement. Whereas, “I want to” is similar in meaning most of the time, but is positive and contains agency. If we can change our language in this way, we’ll become more positive.

Similarly, another way we can change our thoughts is by re-framing our negative thoughts in more helpful, positive ways. For example, we might re-frame our anxiety as excitement, which is a more helpful thought process. You can learn more about this in our post on reversal theory.

It’s not just emotions we can do this with, we can also re-frame our perspectives on many situations we find ourselves in in our lives and in the world of work.

Boost Positive Thinking

We can also apply our attention in such a way that we spend more time and energy on positive things, which boosts our positive thinking. Since the brain can in some ways be trained like a muscle, the more we use certain parts of it, the better we get at them. This is the case with positivity. The more we look for the positive, the more easily we’ll find it.

Some things we can do to help increase our attention on the positive include:

  • Focusing on good things and savoring positive moments,
  • Practicing gratitude and saying thank you more often to people,
  • Keeping a journal of positive events and celebrating your successes,
  • Letting more humor into your life and work,
  • Consciously practicing positive self-talk, and
  • Being in the present, perhaps through meditation, even for just 2 mins a day.

Learning More

Eudaimonia is an interesting way to think about happiness. More broadly, positive thinking can help improve our wellbeing and coping mechanisms as well as our confidence and self-esteem. It can also help to reduce our stress levels. ETC self-coaching model is a useful tool for challenging and changing our self-talk when it becomes unhelpful. Positive thinking affects our emotions and our ability to do it may be part of our emotional intelligence.

You might find it interesting to learn more about social pain and the role of our emotions in work through our podcast on the topic:

The World of Work Project View

We’re super huge believers in the benefits of positive psychology. We have personal experience of counseling in support of some of these areas and have benefited from changing our outlook somewhat. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s helpful.

When you get into a cycle of negative thinking it can be self-fulfilling. It can also be quite addictive. You start to look for negativity, and your brain can be firing quite quickly. There’s something sort of addictive about finding a potential problem and planning to overcome it. It can feel helpful. But in reality, it’s often not at all. It’s just the creation of fake problems that you can feel like you’re solving. Along the way there can be a fair bit of adrenaline and it can feel overwhelming.

Overall we think that trying to take life by the smooth handle is the best way to go. We know it’s not always possible, but quite often if we do, then things turn out well. It’s also good to learn that even if things don’t go well, that often that is actually OK too. Many of us have good coping skills and will be fine. And knowing this can reduce some of the stress and anxiety we feel, and the risk of a spiral of negative self-talk.

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Jantz, G. L. (2016). The Power of Positive Self-Talk. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hope-relationships/201605/the-power-positive-self-talk

Gable, Shelly L., Haidt, Jonathan, What (and Why) Is Positive Psychology? Kendra Cherry at Very Well Mind (2017B)

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