Science of Positive Thinking

POSITIVE THINKING is the heart of Positive Psychology, which is the scientific field dedicated to researching the effects of positive thoughts and emotions on overall wellbeing. Through positive thinking, one reduces the tendency to perceive situations through a negative lens.  

In the early stages of sciences, emotions were dismissed by scientists as insignificant. Then, only negative emotions such as anger and grief were studied. Now, Positive Psychology research emphasizes the scientific importance of understanding positive emotions, which it seems can strongly influence our levels of happiness and lead us to flourish both physically and psychologically.  

Studies show that positive thinking can do more than just put a smile on your face -- it can strengthen your propensity to fight disease, to boost your immunity, and to live a healthier life with more sustained physical and psychological well-being.  As Johns Hopkins researcher explains, “People with a family history of heart disease who also had a positive outlook were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event within 5-25 years than those with a more negative outlook.”  This fact held to be true even in people with family history who had the most risk factors for coronary artery disease.

One theory for why this may be the case is that people who are more positive are protected against the inflammatory effects of stress.  It is possible that heightened optimism directly impacts our biological systems.

A Harvard study also showed the power of positive thinking.  In the study, “women who were optimistic had a significantly reduced risk of dying from several major causes of death over an eight-year period, compared with women who were less optimistic.”

Social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson describes positive emotions as “nutrients,” which give us sustenance in a way similar to how physical food does.  She describes the effects of positive emotions not only on the psyche but also on the physical body. The way positive people carry themselves and expand their chests is noticeably different and healthier.  

One effective practice for strengthening positive thinking is loving kindness meditation, which Barbara studied scientifically.  The practice of loving kindness meditation includes repeating a certain set of phrases or mantras and extending well wishes out towards others.  She reports that the practice creates measurable changes within the fundamental rhythms of the heart and leads to heart rate variability, which enhances the ability to cope with stress.  She also suggests that there may be a relationship between positive thinking and changes in gene expression in the immune system. Moreover, her research shows that positive thinking reduces the perception of racial bias and that when people are in more positive states of mind they are less likely to categorize and judge other people.  

One researcher, Professor Diener, has spent over 10 years doing scientific research in the field, and his findings suggest that the thing that the happiest people in the world have in common is close, supportive relationships.  “Happy people” he describes as healthier and more positive, having more flourishing social relationships, acting as better citizens, and even more productive in the work environment. Additionally, their immune system is stronger.  

Today, it is clear that our main focus as a society should not merely be on increasing physical resiliency to disease, but also psychological resiliency to disease through learning how to strengthen the habit of positive thinking.  While some people are born happier, it is possible for everyone to increase their levels of happiness by learning how to think more positively about their life situations. The propensity for positive thinking is like a muscle, which can be strengthened and trained with proper practice and time.



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