3 Scientific Studies that Prove the Power of Positive Thinking
Is the glass half empty or half full? When life is easy, the answer to this question is quite apparent. When the going gets tough, it takes more effort to drown out the roar of negative self talk- that endless internal chatter that is self-defeating. Thinking positively, on the other hand, can make a real difference when you are going ‘through the wire.’ When your life feels completely out of control, this powerful habit can set into motion a chain of events over which you have complete and total control. For example, positive thinking triggers positive emotions such as joy, interest, contentment, pride, and love.
Joy, for instance, creates the urge to play, be creative and push limits. Contentment triggers the urge to savor the present and integrate current circumstances into new views of self and the world. Through the assistance of positive emotions, people who think positively in challenging circumstances are more likely to take actions that build resources, healthy coping skills, and resilience.
What is positive thinking?
Positive thinking does not mean that you stick your head in the sand or view the world through rose colored glasses. Positive thinking is the mental attitude of optimism, which searches for favorable outcomes in all situations. It relies on the emotional state of hope, which looks past the current circumstance and supports the building of emotional, social, and other resources for positive action.
Positive thinkers make the best out every situation, focusing on what they can control, letting go what they cannot, and search for ways to improve the situation and lessons to learn.
Good health: Why it pays to think positively
Opinions differ on what constitutes a good life, but no one dreams up a ‘living my best life’ scenario where her mental or physical health is on the decline. Here are the numbers to prove it: according to the Global Wellness Institute, the global health and wellness industry is now worth $4.2 trillion, and represents 5.3% of global economic output. The top four trends driving the growth of the health and wellness industry are clean eating, wearable devices, wellness tourism, and Amazon.com - the consumers’ top choice for skin care and supplements.
The numbers show that for most part, people tend to care about their health and are increasingly willing to pay to make it better. But why run after the latest gadget or wellness escape when research has proven that people who think positively are happier, healthier and live longer? One plausible reason is that positive thinking doesn’t come naturally in times of trouble and it’s often not taught. The good news is that it’s not too late to learn how think positively and reap the benefits.
While practicing positive thinking can seem more difficult than filling up your shopping cart with feel-good-quick consumer goods, the results of positive thinking are well worth the effort. Research has found that positive thinking can aid in stress management and even plays an important role in overall health and well-being. I’ve found 3 studies published in peer-reviewed journals that prove the health benefits of positive thinking.
Research: A positive attitude can improve your immune system.
Study 1: Negative thinking signals the body’s immune response.
A meta-analysis of more than 300 studies covering 30 years of inquiry into the relationship between stress and the immune system found that stressful events can change immune system functioning. The type and duration of stress determines the type of change that occurs. Acute time-limited stress, such as public speaking or mental math, triggered an adapted boost of natural immunity that accommodates for the “flight or fight” response. Brief naturalist stressors, such as taking an exam, resulted in a shift in immune system function that mediates and regulates immunity, inflammation, and the process through which the body manufactures blood cells.
Chronic stress is an emotional pressure suffered for a prolonged period of time in which an individual perceives they have little or no control. It involves an endocrine system response in which corticosteroids are released. Such stress can include unemployment, traumatic injuries, chronic illness, or situations in which a person’s social identity is forcefully changed - e.g. being a caretaker for a loved one who falls ill. Across all demographics, researchers found that chronic stress triggered global immunosuppression — which is a decrease of almost all functioning immunity.
Science confirms what we already know. Stress is no bueno! But what’s the role of positive thinking? The researchers included a meta-analysis of global stress appraisals and intrusive thoughts of people in the middle of a stressor, which happened a year or less before immune assessments, or was currently living with a chronic stressor.
People who assessed their lives as ‘stressful’ or reported intrusive negative thoughts had a significant reduction in natural killer cells - whose job is to target and eliminate virus and tumor infected cells.
Key takeaway: These findings suggest that a person’s attitude toward a stressor may be a factor in immune response. But first, let’s all take a collective moment to gaze inward at our immune systems and cry: et tu, Brute? When we’re feeling low, and in desperate need all of our cells to rally, the immune system is standing on the sidelines waiting to hear from our playbook. There’s always good news wrapped up in the bad news. Since nearly all stress is self-reported, you are in control of what your immune system hears. Once again, is your glass half-empty or half-full? It’s no wonder that the self love movement leads with positive self talk. Indeed, if the molecules in your immune system respond to your thought patterns, it’s time to advance the practice of positive self talk to the top of our to-do lists.
Research: Positive thinking reduces anxiety.
Study 2: Visualizations and positive self talk reduces negative thinking and intrusive thoughts.
In this study, researchers from Kings College in London worked with 102 subjects diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, to determine whether positive visualization could supplant intrusive negative thoughts.
Participants were randomly assigned to three interventions: (i) practice in generating mental images of positive outcomes to worry topics ; (ii) practice in generating verbal descriptions of positive worry-related outcomes; or (iii) practice in generating positive images unrelated to any current concerns.
The main finding was that all three groups showed significant reductions in negative intrusions, with an insignificant reported difference between the three. All participants reported less worry and anxiety. Thus, it seems that replacing the usual flow of verbal worry with any alternative positive ideation was the factor behind observed changes.
Key takeaway: These findings suggest that any form of positive thinking is better than allowing negative thoughts to run amok. This is critical in that strong, negative emotions can last hours, sometimes days - putting our bodies in a heightened chemical state. Research finds that anxiety is an emotion that can last up to four hours. On the other hand it's been shown that persistently thinking about a positive event lengthens feelings of joy, which can last up to six hours. Since the subconscious brain can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s imagined, visualizing positive events might be the scientific equivalent of a magic bullet that simultaneously reduces worry and increases joy.
Research: Positive people are happier and less likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors.
Study 3: Happiness promotes success in health, work and relationships.
This paper examined studies of over 275,000 people to determine whether happiness causes success or vice versa. At first blush this sounds like a chicken-egg situation, but scores of longitudinal data later, the researchers provide the answer to this question.
In a study of about 5,000 people, happiness was associated with comparatively better health as measured by health problems self reported, such as missed days from work due to sickness and hospitalization, 5 years later.
Studies found that happy people are less likely to engage in harmful behaviors such as smoking, unhealthy eating, and substance abuse. Limited data also suggest that short-term positive emotions can affect the degree to which a person engages in sub-optimal behaviors. For example, less cigarette smoking and alcohol use were associated with recent happy moods.
Positive mood is implicated in the preventative and treatment aspects of health. One study predicted a lower incidence of stroke 6 years later, and sports-related injuries over the duration of a hockey season. Optimism— a related construct, was also associated with lowered incidence of heart disease, 10 years later, with a higher quality of life, better physical recovery, and faster return to pre-surgery behavior 6 months following cardiac surgery; and with less risk to heart disease 8 months after surgery.
Key takeaway: The findings of this research support the ‘build hypothesis’ which states that over time, positive emotions enable people to build personal social, physical, and intellectual capital. Positive thinking enables you to create positive emotions such as happiness, joy, resilience, and contentment. These in turn make it easier for you to have a positive outlook on life. People with positive outlooks tend to interact with others and with life's challenges in a positive way. As a result positive people are more likely to acquire favorable life circumstances - including health and wealth. The findings of this research scream LAW OF ATTRACTION. But before you hop on the Googles, head over to the next article where I share science-backed self care practices that will help when you are stressed.