When you harness the power of positivity, it’s amazing the impact it has on your life. It can decrease stress and make every moment worth experiencing. By thinking positive, you just can’t help but be optimistic, even when everyone around you is miserable. As a result, you are happier, less depressed, and more satisfied. I believe in positive thinking so much that I touch on the topic in just about every chapter of my book, Outsmart Your Smartphone, and I created a whole happiness program based on Positive Psychology to help you boost happiness.
The benefits of positive thinking are vast. So how do you train your brain to think positive?
1. Ask yourself, “Do I think positively?”
Not sure whether you’re a negative nelly? Take this well-being quiz, which not only gives you a score on “positivity,” but can help you identify the other skills that can most help you improve your happiness and well-being. If you’re someone who needs to work on your positivity, keep reading.
2. Strengthen your memory for positive information.
Did you know that you may be able to increase your positivity just by memorizing lists of positive words? It’s because when you force your brain to use positive words frequently, you make these words (and their basic meaning) more accessible, more connected, and more easily activated in your brain. So when you go to retrieve a word or idea from your memory, positive ones can come to the top more easily.
Not sure which words are positive? Psychologists have painstakingly measured thousands of words to determine how positive and negative they are. I’ve compiled only the most positive of the positive words into a positive word workbook for adults, and a positive word workbook for kids. If you’re struggling to think positive, try this strategy first. It can help develop your brain in ways that may make the other positive thinking strategies easier to implement.
3. Strengthen your brain’s ability to work with positive information.
Once your brain has built strong neural networks for positive words, try to extend these networks by asking your brain to use positive information in new ways. For example, you could memorize positive words and set an alarm that reminds you to recall these words, in reverse order, an hour later.
Or, you could print out these words on cards, cut them into two pieces, shuffle them all together and then find each card’s match. For example, the word “laughter” would be cut into “laug” and “hter.” To match the word pieces, your brain has to search through lots of positive information to find what it’s looking for. This positive memory recall task may make it easier when you try to think positive.
4. Strengthen your brain’s ability to pay attention to the positive.
Are you one of those people who notices the bad stuff—like when someone cuts you off in traffic or your food doesn’t taste quite as good as you wanted it too? Then you likely have trained your brain to focus on the negative, and your brain has gotten really good at it. It can be really challenging to undo this training. So instead, train your brain to be even better at focusing on the positive.
5. Condition yourself to experience random moments of positivity.
Did you know that you can condition yourself for positivity? If you’ve ever taken an intro to psychology course, you’ve probably heard about the study of Pavlov’s dog. Here is a quick refresher:
Pavlov had a dog. Pavlov would ring a bell to tell his dog that it was almost feeding time. Like most dogs, Pavlov’s dog would get really excited when he was about to get fed. So he’d drool all over the place. What happened? Well, suddenly Pavlov’s dog started getting excited just by the sound of that bell, even when food wasn’t present. Eating food and the sound of the bell became linked in the dog’s brain. Something as meaningless as a bell was now making the dog excited.
This effect is called classical conditioning. It’s the idea that when two stimuli are repeatedly paired, the response that was first elicited by the second stimulus (food) is now elicited by the first stimulus alone (the bell). This happens all the time without us even realizing it. For example, the favorite food for many of us is something that we ate as a child with our families. What likely happened was the positive feelings of being with family and the particular food got paired in our brains. As a result, we now get the warm-fuzzy feelings that we got from spending time with family just from eating the food alone, even if our family is not currently present when we eat it.
Although your environment is conditioning you to react in particular ways all the time, if you know what you’re doing, you can use classical conditioning to boost your positivity. You do exactly what Pavlov did. You just repeatedly link boring things (like a bell ringing) with positive thoughts and feelings over and over again. Pretty soon, these boring things will generate positivity automatically. That’s classical conditioning at work. This can help you think positively because when you are going about your life, maybe even feeling bummed about stresses or challenges, you’ll have these little positive moments that keep you energized and in a good mood.
6. Think positive, but not too much, and think negative when you need to.
Of course, thinking positive has its benefits. But thinking positive isn’t always the best response. Negative thoughts sometimes have benefits, too.
When we are sad or grieving, thinking negative thoughts and showing the emotions that these thoughts create helps us communicate to others that we need their support and kindness. When we are treated unfairly and get angry, our thoughts can help motivate us to take action, make changes in our lives, and change the world. Casually pushing these negative emotions aside without seriously considering their origins can have negative consequences. So when you focus on the negative, ask yourself, is this negative emotion resulting in action that improves your life? If so, then keep it. If not, then work on changing it.
7. Practice gratitude
I’ll be the first to admit that there are an infinite number of things to be angry, sad, or anxious about. But the truth is that there are also an infinite number of things to feel passionate, joyful, and excited about. It’s up to us to decide which we want to focus on.
One way to train your brain to focus on the positive it to practice gratitude. Gratitude is when we feel or express thankfulness for the people, things, and experiences we have. When we express gratitude at work, we can more easily gain the respect and camaraderie of those we work with. When we are grateful for our partners or friends, they are more generous and kind to us. When we are grateful for the little things in our day-to-day lives, we find more meaning and satisfaction in our lives.
Need to build a gratitude habit? Try these 5 ways to practice gratitude.
8. Savor the good moments
Too often we let the good moments pass, without truly celebrating them. Maybe your friend gives you a small gift or a colleague makes you laugh. Do you stop to notice and appreciate these small pleasures that life has to offer? If not, then you could benefit from savoring.
Savoring just means holding onto the good thoughts and emotions we have. You can savor by holding on to the emotions you’re feeling in positive moments. Or you can savor by thinking about positive experiences from long ago. Savoring is a great way to develop a long-lasting stream of positive thoughts and emotions.
9. Generate positive emotions by watching fun videos
The broaden-and-build theory suggests that experiencing positive emotions builds our psychological, intellectual, and social resources, allowing us to benefit more from our experiences. So how do we infuse our lives with small bursts of positive emotion?
One way is to watch positive or fun videos. Watching cat videos or inspirational videos can generate a quick boost of positive emotions that can help fuel an upward spiral of positive emotions. Just be sure to mentally hang onto the positive emotions that emerge, through strategies like savoring, so that you take your good mood with you when you leave the couch. And be careful not to get sucked in for too long or you may end up feeling guilty for not getting more done.
10. Stop minimizing your successes
We have a bad habit of downplaying our successes and not fully appreciating our wins. For example, we may say, “Anyone could memorize positive words,” or “I didn’t increase my happiness as much I wanted to.” But this fails to recognize the effort that you put in—effort that not everyone would put in. These phrases minimize your small successes instead of celebrating them.
I struggle with this one a lot. People will praise me for building my own business—a business that helps people increase their happiness and well-being. But I’ll say, “Anyone could do it. I just got lucky.” This kind of thinking downplays all the small efforts I put in to make my business successful. Anyone could do it, but they didn’t; I did.
The same is true for you. Even reading this post all the way to this point means you are putting effort in to improve your ability to think positive. Give yourself some credit for that. As you pursue positive thinking, happiness, or well-being—whatever your goal is—take note of your wins. After every small win, celebrate a little bit.
11. Stop all-or-nothing thinking
All-or-nothing thinking is when we view a situation as all good or all bad. This is another tough negative thinking habit to overcome. For example, I might think I’m a failure because I have not been particularly successful at helping kids cultivate the skills that help them think positive and increase happiness. I even had to shut down my first business which aimed to cultivate well-being in kids.
On the other hand, I have had great success in working with businesses to help them develop their happiness apps, writing content for these products and courses, and selling workbooks to help people learn happiness skills. What do you think? Does this make me a failure or success? If I was prone to all-or-nothing thinking, then I’d have to choose one or the other.
There is always room for improvement, but be careful not to start thinking you’re a complete failure just because you’re not a complete success in all the ways you hoped to be. You win some, you lose some. That’s life.
Previously published on psychologytoday
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