How can positive thinking improve our lives? – Part A

Publication Date: July 28, 2014, 3:31 p.m.

At one time or another, many of you have heard people speaking of the benefits of positive thinking. What exactly is positive thinking and how can it contribute to the improvement of health, well-being and self-confidence?  Positive thinking basically means being able to face challenges in a positive perspective. This doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding or ignoring unpleasant situations but rather it is connected to one’s effort to try and find oneself and one’s abilities through a positive prism.


Research bears out the fact that positive thinking is important.  When one feels happy, one’s thoughts are as follows: “I like myself.  Life is beautiful.” But what happens when things don’t turn out well?  How does one handle that period of time when unpleasant events constantly occur?


The effect of thinking on the functioning of the brain


Neuroplasticity is the science which describes the ability of the brain to change its mental representations, to change its structure and function as a result of new experiences. These experiences include the element of surprise and the new piece of information, which rouses attention and creates the need for further exploration. Thinking can change the structure and function of the brain. This idea was first introduced by William James in 1890.  How is the above idea connected to positive thinking and us? Repeated positive thinking and positive activity can enhance those areas of our brain responsible for the arousal of positive feelings.


Positive thinking improves health


According to research it has been determined that positive thinking reduces stress and plays an important part in the health and well-being of the individual.  Indeed it has been argued that positive thinking is more important than the state of happiness one experiences and the optimistic attitude to life.  While researchers continue to explore its effects, they have come to interesting conclusions:


  • Reduction of negative stress and negative thoughts.
  • Reinforcement of the immune system.
  • Feeling of well-being and improvement of health.
  • Reduction of the risk of coronary heart disease.
  • Reduction of respiratory problems.
  • Utilization of skills in difficult situations.


Barbara Fredrickson, researcher of Positive psychology at the University of North Carolina, published an important piece of work concerning positive thinking.  Before we focus on the effect of positive thinking on the brain function, as it emerged through Fredrickson’s experiment, let us concentrate on the influence of negative thinking.


How can negative thinking affect the functioning of the brain?


Let us suppose that you are walking in a forest and suddenly a tiger appears before you. The minute this happens, the brain registers a negative feeling which is none other than fear.  Your only thought is that it will attack you.  When the tiger crosses the path and comes towards you, you will run.  The rest of the world does not exist for you, you feel afraid and your only thought is how to escape danger.  In essence, negative thinking is blocking your brain and you focus on these thoughts.  At that moment you might have the choice of climbing up a tree, not moving or grabbing a piece of wood, but your brain ignores all these choices because it has blanked out at the thought of the impending tiger attack.


In every case your brain focuses on its negative feelings of fear, anger and stress.  In order to protect oneself the only thing that functions is survival instinct.


How can positive thinking affect the functioning of the brain?


Now let us compare the above situation under the influence of positive thinking on the functioning of an individual’s brain.  This is exactly the point that Barbara Frederickson brings to the surface in the story through the experiment she conducted.


Barbara Fredrickson’s experiment


During the experiment, she divided the participants into five groups and to each group she showed different images.  The first two groups watched images which caused positive feelings.  The first group experienced feelings of joy and the second feelings of satisfaction.  The third group was the control group.  They watched neutral images and didn’t experience any particular feeling.  The last two groups watched pictures which caused them negative feelings.  Group four experienced feelings of fear and the fifth group experienced feelings of anger.


Then every participant was asked to imagine themselves in a situation where they would experience similar feelings and to record within twenty lines on a piece of paper what they would do.  Everyone began recording their thoughts with the phrase: “I would like to ….”


The finding of the experiment


The participants who experienced feelings of fear and anger recorded short answers.  The participants who experienced feelings of joy and satisfaction recorded a larger number of actions in comparison to the rest of the groups, but also in comparison to the control group.


As a result, the experience of positive feelings such as joy, satisfaction and love brings about more chances in life and reinforces the feeling of choice.



Contributor: Sanna Nanou, Philologist, 11/11/13

Translator: Panayiota Vlahopoulou


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