the incredible power of positive thinking, according to science

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Having a positive attitude does way more than just make you pleasant to be around. A positive mindset delivers a whole host of benefits to your mental health, physical health, quality of life, and even longevity.

Here, we’ve collected some of the latest and greatest science around the benefits of positive thinking — proof that looking on the bright side of life pays real dividends both now and in the future.

How positivity can brighten your day

In the day-to-day grind, finding things to be positive about can seem like a heavy lift. You’ve got bills to pay, appointments to keep, laundry to do, people relying on you… so much going on, in other words, that taking time out for good vibes feels like an indulgence you can’t afford.

Yet, on the contrary, investing just a small amount of time in positive thinking might be the most important part of your day. An optimistic outlook can support you through all of your tasks and to-dos — and maybe even leave you with a higher energy level.

One line of thinking posits that we are neurologically wired to be positive and simply need to remind ourselves from time to time to put it into practice. Psychology’s self-affirmation theory, first described in 1988, argues that we are motivated to maintain a view of ourselves as fundamentally good.

Putting affirmations into practice isn’t (unfortunately) as simple as telling yourself, “I like myself.” Instead, you have to be very specific about what it is about yourself you appreciate.

Your affirmations should be grounded in your values and an authentic sense of self-belief. To identify your values, experts say, consider what it is you genuinely like doing — like, “I love being a parent.” Then devise believable affirmations oriented towards these things: “I really try to stay patient with my kids all the time.”

Improved self-image is just one of the benefits of a positive state of mind. A more meaningful life is another.

It’s counterintuitive to imagine a positive environment as being meaningful — since usually it’s the other way around. A life lived purposefully brings positive feelings, the conventional thinking goes.

There might be a feedback loop between positive psychology and meaning, though. Recent research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that positive experiences shared among people lead to a greater sense of meaningfulness, as long as “mutual care and synchrony” are in place.

How positivity boosts your overall health

The health benefits of optimism are profound, as a small sample of recent studies demonstrates. Strikingly, having a good attitude appears to result in a stronger immune system and better health across all of our bodily systems.

– Positivity is negatively correlated with heart disease. Numerous studies show that whether you have a negative attitude or a positive outlook, it is reflected in your heart health. (This may also be the explanation for “broken heart syndrome,” in which extreme emotions or difficult situations cause heart problems.) In one of the studies, the most positive people were found to have twice the odds of possessing ideal cardiovascular health profiles.

– Positivity tracks with better lung health. Men with a more optimistic mindset have better lung function across their lifespans and experience a slower rate of pulmonary function decline over time, relative to more pessimistic men.

– Optimism has a knock-on effect on our brain health. A nine-year study of nearly 1,000 adults found that those with more positive affect — defined by the researchers as feeling enthusiastic, attentive, proud, and active — experienced less memory decline as they aged than negative people.

– Positivity is linked to lower all-cause mortality. Optimism helps protect you from many different killers, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, and infection. The more positive a person is, the less likely they will be to die from any of these causes. And that’s true even after controlling for sociodemographic characteristics and depression.

How positivity helps you live longer

Putting a positive spin on life can make your days brighter, give you renewed purpose, and enhance your physical as well as mental health.

When positive feelings are applied to aging, it turns out, you might even live longer.

Yale University psychologist Becca Levy has shown in multiple studies that people with a more positive attitude about the aging process — and the benefits it brings, like increased wisdom — do better late in life than those with a less optimistic attitude.

That’s true in people of all age cohorts, Levy’s research found. People who are optimistic about aging in their 30s, 40s, and 50s go on to have better health, more capacity for everyday tasks, and even faster recovery from injury in their senior years than those who fixate on the bad things about aging.

Positive thinkers even live longer: by a surprising 7.5 years, on average.

Western culture doesn’t typically see aging too favorably. But by reframing our views of the aging process, we can add quality years to our lifespans.

“By labeling aging as a disease, it ignores the many strengths of aging and the many ways that there can be growth in later life,” Levy tells National Geographic.

Positive energy can even increase the odds that we’ll reach “exceptional longevity” — defined by researchers as living to 85 or longer. Harvard University, blogging about this research, suggests that a few small steps can help increase positive effect:

– Reframe situations to focus on the positive. This can be as simple as asking what you might be able to learn from a difficult situation instead of catastrophizing. Thinking about how you can learn and grow naturally orients you towards a better future.

– Set goals that are actionable. Goal-setting also focuses you on the future. The key is to think of new ways to make your goals realistic and specific: e.g., “wipe down the counters and scrub the sink” instead of “clean the kitchen.”

– Try to smile. Turns out, there’s a feedback loop with smiling (just like with positivity and meaning). Because we associate smiling with good feelings, forcing yourself to smile on a daily basis for just a few minutes may improve your positive emotions and the quality of your thoughts.

– Put it down in writing. A simple tool like a gratitude journal can help you enumerate all of the good things in life. In general, those who practice gratitude on a regular basis are happier, healthier, and better able to withstand the challenges of daily life.

How do you try to maintain positive thoughts and live more in the present moment?

Photo by Freddy Mishiki on Unsplash.

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