We have all received the sound advise to remain positive when we face setbacks and challenges. As the challenge is bigger, the more unrealistic this glass-half-full wisdom can be found. The motivation to concentrate on the positive is hard to find when positivity seems nothing more than wishful thinking.
The real obstacle to positivity is the fact that our minds are hard-pressed in searching for and focusing on threats. This survival mechanism served our ancestors very well when we were hunters and collectors.
It’s been eons ago. This mechanism now generates pessimism and negativity in the mental tendency to wander until it is endangered. These “threats” magnify the perceived probability that things go wrong. This mechanism serves you well when the threat is real and is just down the path. However, this will create more damage when the threat is just imagined.
Positivity and Health
Pessimism is not good for your health. Several studies have shown that optimists are healthier than pessimists physically and psychologically.
The research topic was carried out by Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania. In people who attribute pessimistically their failures to personal deficits, Seligman finds far higher rates of depression. However, optimists treat failure as a learning experience and believe that they will be better in the future.
Seligman worked with Dartmouth and University of Michigan researchers to examine physical health in a survey following individuals aged 25 to 65 in order to see the correlations between their level of pessimism or optimism and their overall health. The researchers found that the health of pessimists deteriorated much faster as they grew older.
The findings of Seligman resemble those of the Mayo clinic, which found that optimists are less likely to have cardiovascular diseases and have a longer life span. While no precise mechanism was identified for pessimism to affect health, Yale and the University of Colorado researchers found that pessimism is associated with a weakened immune response to tumor and infection.
Researchers in both Kentucky and Louisville Universities have been able to use a virus to inject optimists and pessimists and determine their immunity. They found optimists have a considerably stronger immune response than pessimists.
Positivity and Performance
It’s not only good for your health to maintain a positive attitude. The connection between positivity and performance was also studied by Martin Seligman. In one study he measured in particular how optimistic or pessimistic insurance salesmen are, whether they attribute failed sales to uncontrolled personal deficits or if they can work to improve circumstances. Optimist sellers sold 37% more policies than pessimists, who left the company twice as likely in their first year.
Seligman studied positive behavior more than anyone else and believes that with a simple effort and expertise pessimistic ideas and trends can be converted into optimistic ones. But this is not just Seligman’s faith. His study shows that people can transform a tendency to pessimistic thinking into positive thinking by simply using techniques which create long-term behavioral changes.
Here are two simple steps to train your brain to be more optimistic rather than pessimistic:
- Separate fact from fiction. To learn to focus on the positive, it is necessary to know how to stop negative self-discussion. The more negative thoughts you think about, the more power you give to it. Most of our negative thoughts are not really facts. Whenever you find yourself thinking negatively, stop and write down your thoughts. This will slow down your momentum of negative thinking, hence, making you more rational to evaluate if these are indeed facts. Most of these will not be true esp. if you read words such as “never”, “always”, “worst”, “ever” and the like.
Do you really “always” lose your pen? Of course not. Are you “never” going to find a solution? If you seem to be stuck, then stop pursuing the same path and take a different route or perhaps, ask help from a friend. When all the statements you’ve written seem to be facts, let your trusted friend read it and see if he agrees with you. Then surely the truth will emerge.
When you feel like something always or never happens, this is just your brain telling you that everything is severe or frequently happens. By separating your ideas from facts, it will help you to escape from the cycle of negative behavior, and move towards a positive new perspective.
- Identify a positive. Now that you know how to snap yourself out of negative thoughts, it’s time to train your brain to focus on the positive thoughts. This will naturally come after some practice, but you first need to help your wandering mind by selecting something positive to think about. Any positive thinking helps to refocus the attention of your brain. It’s relatively straightforward when things go well and your mood is good. It can be a challenge if things go poorly and your mind is overflowing with negative thoughts. Think about your day in those moments and identify one good thing, no matter how small. If you can’t think about something this day, consider the day before or even the week before. Or maybe an exciting event in the future that needs your focus.
The point here is to divert your attention to positive thoughts when you find yourself thinking about negative thoughts. In step 1, you defeat negativity by separating fact from fiction. In step 2, you replace negative with positive. Once you have a positive thought, focus on that only every time you come across a negative thought or event. If you find that difficult, then repeat the process of writing down your thoughts and evaluating if it’s fact or fiction. Then let positive thoughts flow freely through your mind.
These 2 steps are very simple but is powerful because it trains your brain to let go of negativity and focus on positivity. Bad old habits will be broken, only if you force yourself to use them regularly.
Given that we naturally have the tendency to think negatively, we must help ourselves by putting these steps to use. With these, we can reap the physical, mental and better performance benefits that come with a positive mindset.