When asked, “what’s positive thinking,” your first response might be to imagine bubbly personalities and light quotes about hanging in there on office posters. You may think of it as synonymous with optimism or being a “think happy thoughts” kind of person.
Positive thinking is actually a mindset that anyone can adopt with a little practice. It involves identifying negativity and countering it with realism and encouraging self-talk. Positive thinking has many health benefits that come from reframing your life to embrace making changes toward a better future.
Here’s what you need to know about positive thinking.
What’s positive thinking?
In the simplest terms, positive thinking is a method of maintaining an optimistic outlook on yourself and your life through affirmative self-talk and other techniques. Positive thinking can have many important health benefits including
- Increased life span
- Less stress and pain
- Better psychological health and a reduced risk for depression
- Better physical health including improved cardiovascular function and a reduced risk of death from stroke and certain diseases
Through constant application, positive thinking can vastly improve your circumstances. This is the key, though: positive thinking is an active mindset requiring work and practice. It isn’t a magic solution to problems, but rather a reframing of them to see your situation in a more manageable light.
The difference between positive thinking and toxic positivity
An important thing to note about positive thinking is that, as mentioned, it focuses heavily on realism and setting realistic positive expectations for yourself and your accomplishments. When you begin to attempt setting unrealistic expectations of yourself, you wander into the territory of toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity is a response to suffering and stress that comes from a place of misunderstanding, discomfort, or a lack of empathy. It is the generalization or overhyping of a positive mindset in a way that doesn’t apply to a particular situation and may in fact be harmful instead.
Toxic positivity is so named because it’s a shallow understanding of the meaning of positivity. These sentiments, whether they come from you or from others trying to “help,” completely bypass the examination of negative thoughts on the premise that negativity is somehow inherently bad.
Doing this means that you never reach the actual cause of the issue so it festers over time and grows worse.
How positive thinking works
While it sounds nice on the surface, the concept of positive thinking can be intimidating and hard to understand in practical applications. Really, the process of adopting positive thinking is relatively easy. Here’s how the process of positive thinking works, and how to avoid toxic positivity in the process.
Identify negative thinking
The first step to positive thinking is identifying its opposite – negative thinking. Negative thinking is a set of destructive mental behaviors that tend to increase stress rather than reduce it. It can take many forms, such as:
- Filtering, your attention focuses on the negative aspects of a situation and away from the positives.
- Magnification, the negative aspects seem much larger, more important, or more impactful than they actually are.
- Personalizing, you assign blame to yourself in situations where there’s no blame to assign.
- Catastrophizing, you automatically assume that the worst outcome is the most likely.
- Perfectionism, you set an impossible standard for yourself and admonish yourself harshly when you fall short of it.
- Polarizing, completely eliminate the possibility of grey area in your mind; things are either perfectly good or perfectly bad.
- “Should have” thinking, you focus on all of the tasks you “should” be doing and become frustrated with yourself because you aren’t doing them.
Try to note when you see these patterns occurring. Don’t worry about trying to solve them at first; you have to know where the problems lie to fix them. Keep a journal if you can, and note when you find yourself stuck in a negative thought pattern.
Of course, some situations are just bad. There’s no getting around the negativity that comes from a difficult social, financial, or personal situation. Even so, there are times when we feel that a situation is much worse than it really is. So, it’s important to be realistic with your positivity.
A great place to start is identifying the facts of a situation. Understanding the concrete portions of a situation – what was actually said, what has already been done, the stated expectations of those involved – can help you see what the imagined parts of the scenario are, and what you have control over.
Focus on the things that you can control, and try to offer yourself grace for the things you can’t.
The next step toward positive thinking is implementing positive self-talk. Self-talk is the term used to describe the words you use to describe yourself in your own head.
A good rule of thumb for starting to use positive self-talk is to act as if you’re talking to a loved one. Don’t talk about yourself in a way that you wouldn’t about someone that you care about. For instance, if you wouldn’t call your best friend lazy for not finishing a long to-do list after a hard day; why should you say it to yourself?
A Perfect Example of What’s Positive Thinking
Start small. When you notice yourself in a negative thought spiral, take a moment to assess where the negative thoughts started, and use affirmative self-talk to counter them. Here’s a scenario to examine as an example.
- You notice that you are feeling extremely guilty about not calling your mother back when you missed a call from her during a busy workday. You think that you must be a horrible child for missing the call and that she must hate you for it. You’ve been berating yourself because you should have called.
- Identify the negative thought patterns here as being personalizing, magnifying, catastrophizing, and “should have” thinking.
- Remember that, when she called, you were in the middle of a fairly intense project that required your full attention. You note that your mother didn’t leave a voicemail and that she would have if the call were extremely important. You remind yourself that only a few hours have passed, which is well within a reasonable timeframe to return a call.
- Think of what you would feel if the roles were reversed, and your mother had missed a call from you. Take a moment to tell yourself that it’s okay to miss the occasional call; you are allowed to participate in your own life, and you have plenty of time to respond. You say to yourself that you can call your mother back in the morning when you are refreshed and ready to talk and that it will be a lovely way to start your day.
- Calmly text your mother to let her know that you will call her back in the morning. She responds by saying that she understands you’re busy and looks forward to talking to you then.
By taking the time to give yourself positive self-talk, you can offer yourself the time and grace that you would offer to a loved one for mistakes and missteps. This kind of self-love can help promote change where change can happen and acceptance where it can’t.
Conclusion on What’s Positive Thinking
Positive thinking is a process that takes time. Often, a great place to start is by giving yourself the grace to learn positive thinking techniques. You may not get it right the first time, or the first few times, and that’s okay.
What’s positive thinking? It’s being able to see yourself as a friend and a human being, capable of mistakes, yes, but also of doing amazing things.