What do you really know about positive thinking?
Positive thinking is a hot topic in self-help and mental health circles recently and seems to have many benefits, so I thought I would give it a look. Many studies have shown that positivity allows for better health, skill development, greater success, more productivity - and even longer life. But having said that, we still have to be cautious.
Some of those promoting the benefits of positive thinking seem to imply that thinking positively is the only thing you need to do to get your life on track but, unfortunately, if it’s the only thing you rely on, it can backfire.
Studies at the University of California  and New York University  showed that visualising success can actually reduce your achievements in exams or job searching. Maybe the visualisers felt that they didn’t need to put in as much effort as usual, or were less well-prepared for obstacles. Or maybe too much fantasising about a rosy future takes up too much time for you to actually get anything done!
Some also suggest that simply visualising a thing will result in it coming about. Do you want to be rich? Or happy? Keep imagining that you already are and it will happen! Obviously, it’s not as easy as that to solve your problems, or no one would ever have any. And if you never take action to make things change, then the chances are that they won’t.
But just because positive thinking isn’t an automatic cure-all does not mean that it’s worthless. It cannot replace practical working towards your goals, but it might be able to make it easier. The parts of the brain that are involved with ‘intention’ are sited close to those involved in ‘action’, so firing off one could generate action in the other. 
Positive feelings also allow for more creative thinking. In one study, (Fredrickson ), those taking part were divided into groups and shown film clips which caused different emotions. Then they were asked to list what they would like to do in similar situations. The viewers of positive clips could list many more solutions and options than the angry, fearful, or neutral groups, because negative emotions force you to focus on the immediate problem, while positive ones allow more freedom in your thinking.
When we’re calm and happy, we are also able to learn new things more easily. Fredrickson calls this the “broaden and build” theory; since positive emotions encourage you to generate more options and choices you learn more easily. The learning can happen as a kind of side-effect as well as being a specific goal. For example, if you enjoy sports, the positive mindset taking part brings about will also teach you physical skills, teamwork, and strategy.
Even more curiously, thinking a certain way can cause physical changes. Harvard professor Ellen Langer conducted an experiment in 1979 in which several men over seventy lived at a retreat decorated in 1950s style, containing 1950s items like a black-and-white TV. Half of them were asked to talk about their memories of the 1950s, while the other half were asked to pretend it was the 1950s and that they were twenty years younger. After only a week, both groups were significantly stronger and able to think more quickly, but the improvement was greater in the group pretending to be younger. The effects even included greater muscle mass and reduced arthritis.
Langer performed other studies on similar lines with similar results. For example, elderly people who cared for a plant lived longer - they felt they had a responsibility, which improved their mood. Other studies have also shown that positivity leads to improved health in general, longer life, and shorter recovery times from injury and illness. A possible factor is that when you feel good about yourself, you are more likely to take care of yourself. Of course, taking better care of yourself will make you feel better about yourself, too.
There are many ways to improve your ability to think positively. For example, try various ways to train your brain into positive patterns. Practice paying more attention to positive information than negative. Here are some websites with activities that can teach you how to do this, including picking out positive words from among negative ones, listing things you feel grateful for and happy about, and how to make the most of leisure time. It’s best to set aside a specific time each day for this.
If you struggle with this, consider using hypnotherapy to help focus your mind, and teach you techniques for dealing with negativity. Also, in daily life, pay close attention to positive happenings. Use positive affirmations when you get up, or before you do something important. Spending time with positive people will also help, and you can encourage others to think positively by being happy around them.
It’s possible to train yourself to experience happiness from different things, too. When you feel good, practice associating it with something else – maybe use a particular fragrance in your room or wear a certain item or listen to a specific song. Soon, that thing will make you remember all the good feelings you had with it and will make you feel good in itself.
Of course, there are many other ways to keep a positive attitude, and not all of them will work for everyone. Do your own research and test out a few different ways to find what works for you. And if you need some help to focus your mind on the positives in your life, call me, hypnotherapy can help you do this.
Next time, we'll look at negative thinking – can it ever actually be useful to you, and how should you deal with it when it's not?
And if you need any help in the meantime, please drop me a line to see how I can offer it.
Debbie Waller is a professional hypnotherapist, specialising in stress, anxiety and related issues. She also offers EMDR which is used for trauma, PTSD, phobias and OCD and publishes hypnotherapy-for-ibs.co.uk for those interested in using hypnotherapy to relieve the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
Debbie owns a multi-accredited hypnotherapy school, Yorkshire Hypnotherapy Training and offers further training for qualified therapists via CPD Expert. She is the author of Their Worlds, Your Words, editor and contributor to the online magazine Hypnotherapy Training & Practitioner, and co-author of The Hypnotherapy Handbook.
For more information on any of these services, phone 01977 678593.
Researcher & drafter: Rachel Waller.