Thinking positively doesn’t just make you more pleasant to be around – it can help you lose weight, work out harder and even save your life…
‘Positive thinking cured my cancer.’ ‘Positive thinking made me the business success I am today.’ ‘Positive thinking is how I work out harder and faster.’ We’ve all heard this kind of babble, and you’d almost be forgiven for thinking that being positive can literally cure anything. But it’s not always easy, especially when the whole world seems to be turned upside down as it has been in the last few months.
There are, however, techniques you can use to improve your positive thinking so you can keep going even when life throws you a couple of curve balls, and, perhaps surprisingly, there are also benefits to not thinking positively… we’ll cover both, so whether you’re a natural-born optimist or not, you’ll get more control over your mental and physical health.
WHEN BEING POSITIVE IS A POSITIVE
Optimistic people tend to live longer. In fact, according to research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, having a glass half full rather than half empty attitude can clock you an extra 11-15% life span and makes you much more likely to live to the age of 85 and beyond. This effect is regardless of what you eat, your overall health and even smoking.
So, what is the magic that positivity creates? Scientists can’t say for sure, but one aspect could be less stress. Research from the Berkeley Well-Being Institute shows what might seem like a no-brainer to most – thinking positively decreases stress. Pretty obvious when you think about it – more positive thinking and less worrying about the future would obviously mean less, er, worrying about the future. That alone could result in a massive drop in cortisol levels which in turn would have an impact on some major health influencers such as cardiovascular disease.
Another influencing factor is that thinking positively makes us more likely to achieve our goals. Take weight loss for example. There are numerous studies showing that when obese individuals expect to reach a healthy weight (as opposed to simply wanting to), they’re more likely to achieve that goal. It’s the same with lifting. Knowing you can achieve the muscle gains you want and expecting it, conditions your mind and body to achieve that. Thinking you can’t, means you won’t – it’s really that simple. This effect is powerful.
For example, a Harvard research group did a study with two groups of maids, telling one group their work was good, they were maintaining an active lifestyle with their work, and how many calories they burned as they did it. The other group were told nothing, no positive or negative information was provided. At the end of a month, the group which had been given expectations – provided with positive thinking – dropped in weight, lowered their blood pressure and improved their waist to hip ratio too. All just from a bit of positive thinking.
BUT CAN YOU JUST ‘LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE’?
If you’ve ever picked up a self-help book or read an inspirational quote about positive thinking and grumbled to yourself about it not being easy, you’re not alone. Most people don’t simply decide to think positive from one day to the next and enjoy the benefits from that day forward. The problem is that thinking in a positive way isn’t like a switch that you can just turn on, and it’s not just a question of thinking optimistically either. If you just try to think everything is always going to be wonderful, then that’s not realistic. Positive thinking might even backfire and make you feel worse.
WHEN POSITIVE TURNS NEGATIVE
And being overly optimistic can lead to disaster. In terms of finances, for example, positive thinking can lead to irresponsible behavior like gambling, according to research published in the University of Chicago Press Journals. What people do is selectively focus on one win among all the other losses they’ve endured – positive thinking – which then leads them to gamble more. It may not be gambling, it may simply be spending the savings with the idea that ‘I’ll earn more’ (again, positive thinking), which then results in financial downfall.
Applying this to muscle building or weight loss can lead to similar disasters. Being overly optimistic about how much weight you can lose won’t just lead to disappointment, it also makes you more likely to focus on when you’ve been ‘good’ (ie I didn’t eat that chocolate donut this morning during the meeting) when in fact the rest of the time you’ve missed your calorie goals (eating chips and chocolate cookies all evening, say).
Researchers at Duke University Fuqua School of Business found extreme optimists actually worked fewer hours and saved less money than your average middle-of-the-road optimist, who was also less likely to smoke and more likely to pay off her credit card. So, in essence, while being happy-go-lucky is a good thing, thinking yourself to be extremely lucky in the face of reality led to negative behavior and results.
In terms of the coronavirus pandemic, thinking positively has been a life saver. Optimism is what keeps health workers going to work, and it’s what has kept ordinary folk at home to prevent the spread of the virus. If people hadn’t believed that staying at home would help (ie being optimistic), they wouldn’t have done it. And if health workers assumed the worst, they likely wouldn’t have headed to work each day either.
Of those who’ve come out of the situation most unscathed, most are people who tried to get something positive out of the experience – spending time learning new recipes (is everyone baking their own bread now?), doing crafts, exercising at home and so on. This is when thinking positive becomes key to survival. And, the good news is that you can train yourself to do it…
CREATE POSITIVE THINKING TRIGGERS
You know how your favorite childhood meal – fish fingers and mash, mac and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches etc – makes you feel safe, content and good? Well, that’s because it reminds you of good times, family times when someone made that food for you or you made it for yourself and gained satisfaction that way. You made the connection between the food and the feeling by repeating it. So, pick something positive in your life and ‘hook’ it up with another activity or behavior, so you can repeat it and enjoy the benefit of positive thinking without
having to actively call up any thoughts.
Perhaps you’re proud of how powerful your core has become with all your workouts. So, each time before you sit down to have your regular morning coffee, do a couple of crunches to remind yourself just how strong your core is. You’ll drink your coffee feeling great about your strong abs and back, and, over time, simply drinking that coffee will make you feel good about your body.
It doesn’t matter who you’re thanking – God, your family, the landlord, the people who harvest the avocados that produced the guacamole you’re eating – just take a moment to consider how you are lucky. It could be something huge – someone just gave you a loan to start a business – down to the smallest details, such as how great that cup of coffee is, or how pleased you are with your eyebrows today. It doesn’t matter how small or big the thing is, just take a moment to value it.
SEE MISTAKES AS OPPORTUNITIES TO LEARN
This one can be hard but it’s important. When you make a mistake or when something isn’t working out, try to sit back and consider why that is. Pinpoint the reason and figure out a way to work on that to improve it.
WRITE DOWN YOUR PLUSES
This can be difficult if you’re down on yourself, so look up ‘positive attributes’ online and then cherry pick any that apply to you.
USE YOUR IMAGINATION
Sometimes we don’t get what we want because we don’t really know what it is. You think you want more money or to be promoted at work, but in reality, you just want to travel more (which you think more money and a promotion would bring). If you write down what you really want, with specifics, you might find the answer isn’t exactly what you thought.
Rather than a promotion with more money, it could be that a change of career is a better option for success in reaching your dreams. Write down where you’d like to be in five years, imagining the very best scenario, down to how healthy you’ll be, what a normal day might look like and so on. Then work backwards – how can you work towards that?
TAKE THE DRUGS
It’s last on the list but it needn’t be your last resort. There’s a stigma attached to taking any kind of medication for emotional and psychological problems but that isn’t necessarily the best viewpoint. You have a headache; do you stop to think whether or not you should take the aspirin or paracetamol because you’re ‘self-medicating’? No.
You might try to avoid whatever behavior led to the headache in future if you can figure out what it was (dehydration, too much alcohol, reading without glasses etc) but realistically, we all take medications all the time without worrying. Yet when it comes to emotional and psychological issues, we’re more reticent.
You don’t need to get full-on ‘happy pills’ from your GP as there are a wide variety of gentle, natural medications you can try first. For something that wouldn’t be out of place in your grandma’s medicine cabinet, grab some lavender essential oil. Research published in the journal, Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that it has a significant effect on the nervous system, reducing anxiety.
And now, of course you’ve got CBD oil. “I would suggest making sure you’re getting enough vitamin D, and eating healthily goes without saying, but also consider taking CBD oil,” says Sultan Dajani, community pharmacist and adviser to www.dragonflycbd. com. “A few drops as part of a daily regime has been shown to reduce fear and anxiety.”
Think of it as just another way of helping you look on the bright side.
Adjusting your life in these small, but meaningful ways may not cure cancer or make you an overnight business success story, but you can be certain that each step, from the gratitude you felt for having a balcony to do yoga on to spending an extra moment savoring that morning co ee, is training you to become a more positive person. And yes, we’re positive about that.
This article originally featured in TRAIN for HER issue 87. You can get a free subscription to the mag here.