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What A Positive Mindset Can Really Do

Being an optimist is a choice that can result in a healthier, happier life. With these tips, becoming one is totally doable.

Last updated: December 1, 2020
What Having a Positive Mindset Can Really Do

Optimists expect the best. They approach everything with a can-do, it's-all-going-to-work-out mindset. Thinking this way sounds pretty great. But does that outlook pan out? Could optimists actually have better lives? According to research, yes.

In a group of nearly 230,000 people, those who had higher levels of optimism were associated with a lower risk of experiencing a major cardiovascular condition, according to a review of studies published in the journal Cardiology. And in a recent Harvard study of about 13,000 people, those who reported being hopeful also had better physical health and healthier habits, as well as more social support and greater psychological and social well-being.

If you're about to click out of this story because you assume these results apply only to already cheery types, know this: You can choose to have a positive mindset.

"Optimism is malleable, and we can learn to become more optimistic", says Elaine Fox, PhD, a professor of psychology and affective neuroscience at the University of Oxford and the author of "Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain". The first step in choosing to be positive instead of negative is knowing why your brain is wired for one or the other.

"When you have positive expectations, you're more likely to put energy into what you're trying to achieve. With negative expectations, you don't know where or what to step towards, so often you don't take any steps."

Loretta Breuning, PhD,

Founder of the Inner Mammal Institute

"The neural pathways that create positive or negative thinking are built when we're young", explains Loretta Breuning, PhD, the founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and author of "The Science of Positivity". Our past experiences, specifically during childhood, shape our expectations for things to go well or poorly, says Breuning, and that's key for our motivation later in life.

"When you have positive expectations, you're more likely to put energy into what you're trying to achieve. If you have negative expectations, you probably won't, because your brain isn't designed to pursue something that isn't going to give you a reward", she says. "With negative expectations, you don't know where or what to step towards, so often you don't take any steps."

This glass-half-empty thinking not only triggers the release of cortisol, a stress hormone that sends a "threat" alert to the brain, it also becomes perpetual, says Breuning. "You reinforce that negative neural pathway. It's like your native language; it comes to you so easy that you don't know how it even got there."

When you feel stuck in this spiral of gloomy thoughts, telling yourself to simply think positive can feel futile. And it may be: Thinking on its own isn't actually that helpful, says Fox. The benefits of positivity are driven not by how we think, but by what we do. "If you do a lot of positive things, that will boost your mood and a positive mindset", says Fox.

Feeling empowered? Here are five ways to act on it.

  1. Spend 3 Minutes a Day Reframing Your Brain

    For one minute, picture the helpful steps you can take no matter what situation you're in. For example, you might be stuck at home, bored. During this 60 seconds, think about all the organising, guitar playing and meditating you'll finally be able to do with your extra time.

    Doing this one-minute exercise three times a day—say, after finishing each meal—for six weeks can rewire your brain for a positive mindset. "It's not necessarily about getting stuff done", says Breuning. "It's about replacing negative expectations with positive expectations because you know the negative ones are just random slices of life rather than reality."
  2. Commit to One Feel-Good Activity Every Day

    Whether it's sweating out stress with a workout, cooking your favourite meal or video-chatting with a friend, any small action that helps you feel better physically, mentally or emotionally can promote a positive mindset, says Fox. "The point is you're doing something that will help instil it, not just hoping that you can try to be more optimistic", she says.
  3. Think Tenaciously

    You know that old saying, "Try, try, try again"? That kind of dogged persistence is a key component of optimism, says Fox. That's because the more you're willing to dig in and strive, the more likely you are to succeed. And success naturally makes us feel and act more positive.
  4. Control What You Can

    "Optimists have a sense that they're in control", Fox says. One way to adopt that belief: Focus on what you can do versus what you can't.

    For example, maybe the race you spent months training for is cancelled, and you can't go for that new PR. But you can pick a new training goal—say, foam rolling every night or eating a veggie at every meal—to challenge you instead. Giving yourself this sense of agency is comforting and uplifting, and it can ultimately propel you to take more positive actions.
  5. Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

    You can be an optimist and still prepare for things to not work out. In fact, this outlook, which Fox dubs "realistic optimism", should put you in a far better position than blindly believing that life will provide only rainbows and butterflies, because it won't. Planning for bad outcomes, such as getting hangry on a long run (pack snacks!), puts you in control.

    "The trick is to not become overly focused on the potential setbacks", says Fox. "A healthy mind is one in which there is a good balance between sensible assessments of potential threats and dangers, and an overarching optimism that things will turn out well in the end, even if it's not in the way you expect."