When faced with setbacks and challenges, many of us have received the well-meaning advice to “stay positive.” The greater the challenge, the more this glass-half-full wisdom can come across as Pollyanna-ish and unrealistic. It’s a request to ignore the negative and act happy even while you continue to face difficulties.
The real obstacle to positivity is that our brains are hardwired to look for and focus on negative events. This survival mechanism served humankind well when we were hunters and gatherers, living each day with the very real threat of being killed by someone or something in our immediate surroundings.
That was eons ago. Today this mechanism breeds pessimism and negativity through our tendency to focus on negative information or events—our current “threats.” When the threat is real and lurking in the bushes down the path, this mechanism serves you well. When the threat is imagined and you spend two months convinced the project you’re working on is going to flop, this mechanism may leave you with a soured view of reality that wreaks havoc on your life.
Positivity and your health
Pessimism is trouble because it’s bad for your health. Numerous studies have shown that optimists are physically and psychologically healthier than pessimists.
Martin Seligman, Ph.D., Zellerbach family professor of psychology and director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, has conducted extensive research on the topic. He’s even been referred to as the “father of positive psychology.”
Seligman found much higher rates of depression in people who pessimistically attribute their failures to personal deficits. In an examination of physical health, Seligman worked with researchers from Dartmouth and the University of Michigan on a study that followed people from age 25 to 65 to see how their levels of negativity or positivity influenced or correlated with their overall health. The researchers found that pessimists’ health deteriorated far more rapidly as they aged.
Seligman’s findings are similar to a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, which found that, among women, “higher optimism was associated with longer lifespan and a greater likelihood of achieving exceptional longevity overall and across racial and ethnic groups.” Additionally, a meta analysis published in JAMA Network found that optimism may serve to reduce the risk of cardiovascular events and all-cause mortality.
Positivity and performance
Embracing positivity isn’t just good for your health. Seligman has also studied the connection between positivity and performance. In one study in particular, he measured the degree to which insurance salespeople were optimistic or pessimistic in their explanatory styles, and how that affected their sales performance and quitting rates. Optimistic salespeople sold 37% more policies than pessimists. They were also twice as likely to still be with the company at the end of their first year.
Seligman has studied positivity extensively, and he believes in the ability to turn pessimistic thoughts and tendencies around. But Seligman doesn’t just believe this. He has researched and written a book about it, showing that people can transform a tendency toward pessimism into positive thinking through simple techniques that create lasting changes in behavior.
How to boost positivity for your health
Your brain just needs a little help to defeat its negative inner voice. Here are two simple steps you can take in order to train your brain to focus on the positive:
1. Separate fact from fiction.
The first step in learning to focus on the positive is stopping negative self-talk in its tracks. The more time you devote to ruminating on negative thoughts, the less you’re working on focusing on the positive. Just remember that many of our negative thoughts are just that—thoughts.
When you find yourself believing the negative things your inner voice says, it’s time to stop and write them down. Literally—stop what you’re doing and write down what you’re thinking. Once you’ve taken a moment to slow down the negative momentum of your thoughts, you may be more rational and clear-headed in evaluating their veracity. You can bet the statements aren’t true any time you see words like never, always, worst, ever, etc.
Do you really always lose your keys? Of course not. Perhaps you forget them frequently, but most days you do remember them. Are you never going to find a solution to your problem? If you really are that stuck, maybe you’ve been resisting asking for help. Or if it really is an intractable problem, why are you wasting your time beating your head against the wall?
If your statements still look like facts once they’re on paper, take them to a friend or colleague you can trust, and see if they agree with you. Then the truth will surely come out.
When it feels like something always or never happens, your brain is likely inflating the perceived frequency or severity. Identifying and labeling your negative thoughts is the first step toward escaping the cycle of negativity and moving toward a positive new outlook.
2. Identify a positive.
Now that you have a tool to snap yourself out of self-defeating negative thoughts, it’s time to help your brain learn what you want it to focus on—the positive.
But first, you have to give your wandering brain a little help by selecting something positive to think about, whether by replacing the negative thought or reframing it. When things are going well and your mood is good, this may be relatively easy. When things are going poorly and your mind is flooded with negative thoughts, this may be a challenge. In these moments, think about your day and identify one positive thing that happened, no matter how small. If you can’t think of something from the current day, reflect on the previous day or week. Or perhaps there is an exciting event you are looking forward to that you can focus your attention on.
The point here is you must have something positive that you’re ready to shift your attention to when your thoughts turn negative. Once you have identified a positive thought, draw your attention to that thought each time you find yourself dwelling on the negative. If that proves difficult, you can repeat the process of writing down the negative thoughts to discredit their validity, and then allow yourself to freely enjoy positive thoughts.
I realize these two steps sound basic, but they have tremendous power. They retrain your brain to have a positive focus.
Given the mind’s natural tendency to wander toward negative thoughts, we can all use a little help with staying positive. Put these positivity steps to use, and you’ll reap the health, mental and performance benefits that come with a positive mindset.
This article, originally published on LinkedIn Pulse, was updated July 2023. Photo by Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Dr. Travis Bradberry is the award-winning co-author of the #1 best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and the co-founder of TalentSmart, the world’s leading provider of emotional intelligence tests and training, serving more than 75% of Fortune 500 companies. His best-selling books have been translated into 25 languages and are available in more than 150 countries. Dr. Bradberry is a top LinkedIn Influencer and he has written for, or been covered by, Newsweek, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Harvard Business Review.