Positive thinking isn’t just a soft and fluffy feel-good term. Yes, it’s great to simply “be happy,” but those moments of happiness are also critical for opening your mind to explore and build skills that become valuable in other areas of your life.
Research is beginning to reveal that positive thinking is about much more than just being happy or displaying an upbeat attitude. Positive thoughts can actually create real value in your life and help you build skills that last much longer than a smile.
What Negative Thoughts Do to Your Brain
Let’s say that you’re walking through the forest and suddenly a tiger steps onto the path ahead of you. When this happens, your brain registers a negative emotion – in this case, fear.
Researchers have long known that negative emotions program your brain to do a specific action. When that tiger crosses your path, for example, you run. The rest of the world doesn’t matter. You are focused entirely on the tiger, the fear it creates, and how you can get away from it.
In other words, negative emotions narrow your mind and focus your thoughts. At that same moment, you might have the option to climb a tree, pick up a leaf, or grab a stick but your brain ignores all of those options because they seem irrelevant when a tiger is standing in front of you.
This is a useful instinct if you’re trying to save life and limb, but in modern society we don’t have to worry about stumbling across tigers in the wilderness. The problem is that your brain is still programmed to respond to negative emotions in the same way – by shutting off the outside world and limiting the options you see around you.
For example, when you’re when you are stressed out about everything you have to get done today, you may find it hard to actually start anything because you’re paralyzed by how long your to-do list has become. Or, if you feel bad about not exercising or not eating healthy, all you think about is how little willpower you have, how you’re lazy, and how you don’t have any motivation.
In each case, your brain closes off from the outside world and focuses on the negative emotions of fear, anger, and stress just like it did with the tiger. Negative emotions prevent your brain from seeing the other options and choices that surround you. It’s your survival instinct.
What Positive Thoughts Do to Your Brain
Research has tested the impact of positive emotions on the brain using the following experiment. During this experiment, research subjects were divided into five groups and showed them different film clips.
The first two groups were shown clips that created positive emotions. Group 1 saw images that created feelings of joy. Group 2 saw images that created feelings of contentment.
Group 3 was the control group. They saw images that were neutral and produced no significant emotion. The last two groups were shown clips that created negative emotions. Group 4 saw images that created feelings of fear. Group 5 saw images that created feelings of anger.
Afterward, each participant was asked to imagine themselves in a situation where similar feelings would arise and to write down what they would do. Each participant was handed a piece of paper with 20 blank lines that started with the phrase, “I would like to…”
Participants who saw images of fear and anger wrote down the fewest responses.
Meanwhile, the participants who saw images of joy and contentment, wrote down a significantly higher number of actions that they would take, even when compared to the neutral group.
In other words, when you are experiencing positive emotions like joy, contentment, and love, you will see more possibilities in your life. These findings were among the first that suggested positive emotions broaden your sense of possibility and open your mind up to more options.
How to Increase Positive Thinking in Your Life
What you can do to increase positive emotions and take advantage of the “broaden and build” theory in your life?
Well, anything that sparks feelings of joy, contentment, and love will do the trick. You probably know what things work well for you. Maybe it’s playing the guitar. Maybe it’s spending time with a certain person. That said, here are three ideas for you to consider.
Meditation – a recent study has revealed that people who meditate daily display more positive emotions that those who do not. As expected, people who meditated also built valuable long-term skills. For example, three months after the study was over, the people who meditated daily continued to display increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms.
Writing – a study, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, examined a group of 90 undergraduate students who were split into two groups. The first group wrote about an intensely positive experience each day for three consecutive days. The second group wrote about a control topic. Three months later, the students who wrote about positive experiences had better mood levels, fewer visits to the health centre, and experienced fewer illnesses.
Play – schedule time to play into your life. We schedule meetings, conference calls, weekly events, and other responsibilities into our daily calendars, so why not schedule time to play? When was the last time you blocked out an hour on your calendar just to explore and experiment? When was the last time you intentionally carved out time to have fun? Give yourself permission to smile and enjoy the benefits of positive emotion. Schedule time for play and adventure so that you can experience contentment, joy, exploration and to build new skills.
Finding ways to build happiness and positive emotions into your life – whether it is through meditation, writing, exercise or trying new things – provides more than just a momentary decrease in stress.
To put it simply: Seek joy, play often, and pursue adventure. Your brain will do the rest.