When faced with setbacks and challenges, we’ve all received the well-meaning advice to “stay positive.” The greater the challenge, the more this glass-half-full wisdom can come across as unrealistic. It’s hard to find the motivation to focus on the positive when positivity seems like nothing more than wishful thinking.
The real obstacle to positivity is that our brains are hardwired to look for and focus on threats. This survival mechanism served humankind well when we were hunters and gatherers, living each day with the very real threat of being killed by someone or something in our immediate surroundings.
Today this survival mechanism breeds pessimism and negativity through the mind’s tendency to wander until it finds a threat. These “threats” magnify the perceived likelihood that things are going—and/or are going to go—poorly. When the threat is real, this mechanism serves you well. When the threat is imagined and you spend two months telling yourself the project is a failure, this mechanism leaves you with a soured view of reality that wreaks havoc in your life.
Positivity and Your Health: Numerous studies have shown that optimists are physically and psychologically healthier than pessimists. Optimists treat failure as a learning experience and believe they can do better in the future. Optimists have lower levels of cardiovascular disease, longer life spans, and significantly stronger immune response.
Higher rates of depression have been found in people who pessimistically attribute their failures to personal deficits. Pessimists’ health deteriorated far more rapidly as they aged. Pessimism has been also associated with a weakened immune response to tumors and infection.
Positivity and Performance: Keeping a positive attitude isn’t just good for your health. Two ways you can train your brain to focus on the positive are:
1. Stop negative self-talk in its tracks. The more you ruminate on negative thoughts, the more power you give them. Most of our negative thoughts are just that—thoughts, not facts.
2. Help your brain learn what you want it to focus on—the positive. Once you have identified a positive thought, draw your attention to that thought each time you find yourself dwelling on the negative.
Given the mind’s natural tendency to wander toward negative thoughts, we can all use a little help with staying positive. Practice these steps, and you’ll reap the physical, mental and performance benefits that come with a positive frame of mind.
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