What does it mean to think positively?
Why is thinking positively important?
And how do we learn to do it?
In this article, we’ll address these questions while providing resources to help you cultivate the ability to think more positively. With these insights, you’ll better understand how to swap out negative thoughts for positive ones, grow your wellbeing, and even improve your physical health.
Before we dive in, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology, including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.
What Is Positive Thinking in Psychology?
Broadly speaking, positive thinking can be thought of as positive cognitions. This distinguishes positive thinking from emotions, behaviors, and longer term outcomes like wellbeing or depression.
In the research on positive thinking, an agreed-upon definition is still evolving. For example, Caprara and Steca (2005) suggested that life satisfaction, self-esteem, and optimism were indicators that a person was engaging in positive thinking.
Indeed, these concepts may involve positive thinking, but they are also often thought of as positive outcomes that might result from engaging in positive-thinking strategies.
Others have been more precise about what positive thinking involves. Bekhet and Zauszniewski (2013) outlined eight key skills that contribute to positive thinking that can be recalled easily using the acronym THINKING:
- Transforming negative thoughts into positive thoughts
- Highlighting positive aspects of the situation
- Interrupting pessimistic thoughts by using relaxation techniques and distraction
- Noting the need to practice positive thinking
- Knowing how to break a problem into smaller parts to be manageable
- Initiating optimistic beliefs with each part of the problem
- Nurturing ways to challenge pessimistic thoughts
- Generating positive feelings by controlling negative thoughts
You’ll note that this list includes techniques such as relaxation that may or may not be cognitive.
Other researchers have explored the different dimensions of positive thinking and have suggested that positive thinking can be understood as a construct with four dimensions (Tsutsui & Fujiwara, 2015):
- Self-encouragement thinking
This involves thoughts about being one’s own cheerleader.
- Self-assertive thinking
This involves thoughts about doing well for others.
- Self-instructive and control thinking
This involves thoughts that guide performance.
- Self-affirmative thinking
This involves confident thoughts.
As you can see, positive thinking can be defined in different ways. Inconsistent definitions of positive thinking in the research make it difficult to draw clear conclusions about the role of positive thinking in mental health.
For example, Diener et al. (2009) suggest that positive thinking is good for wellbeing, but when positive thinking and wellbeing are measured with the same scales (for example, scales that measure optimism, subjective wellbeing, or life satisfaction), the research may really be saying that something predicts itself, which is not very useful or informative.
Clearer definitions about what positive thinking is and how it’s different from assessments of wellbeing are needed to better understand the actual benefits and importance of positive thinking.
Are There Benefits? 4 Research Results
Given that there are different definitions and components of positive thinking, the benefits of each may be different.
Here we’ll aim to clarify which types of positive thinking are good for mental health and wellbeing and which types might not be so good.
First, positive thinking about the self tends to be good for wellbeing. For example, when people have confidence in their abilities to achieve, they are more likely to succeed and achieve (Taylor & Brown, 1994).
Viewing oneself more positively than others also seems to buffer the effects of stress (Taylor & Brown, 1994). This evidence is mostly consistent with research on self-worth, self-confidence, and self-esteem (Miller Smedema, Catalano, & Ebener, 2010) – processes that may be considered types of positive thinking.
Second, optimistic thoughts are generally thought to be good for wellbeing. It doesn’t seem to matter whether these thoughts are unrealistic or not. Optimistic thinking tends to help people feel better, have more positive social relationships, and cope better with stress (Taylor & Brown, 1994).
Third, positive thoughts or beliefs about control appear to be beneficial. For example, believing that we have control during stressful experiences seems to help us cope better (Taylor & Brown, 1994).
The benefit of positive thoughts about control appears to be consistent with other research on the challenge mindset. When we have a challenge mindset, we believe that we have the skills and ability to handle current stressors. This mindset can be contrasted with a threat mindset, which is characterized by thoughts and beliefs that we can not effectively handle our current stressors (Crum, Akinola, Martin, & Fath, 2017).
The challenge mindset, where we believe we have more control, is more beneficial for us.
Lastly, a general positive outlook toward life, oneself, and the future is considered so beneficial that it is often considered a part of wellbeing itself (Caprara & Steca, 2005). As the philosopher René Descartes once said:
I think, therefore I am.
This seems true when it comes to positive thinking; if we think we feel good, then we do.
Positive Thinking and Physical Health: 5 Findings
Research has begun to provide compelling evidence for a link between positive thinking and physical health. Namely optimism, which is often considered a type of positive thought, seems to contribute to positive health outcomes. For example, Scheier and Carver (1987) linked optimism to fewer physical ailments such as coughs, fatigue, muscle soreness, and dizziness.
Optimists also seemed to recover faster from coronary artery bypass surgery (Scheier & Carver, 1987). Other evidence points to the potential impact of positive thinking on cardiovascular health, including better blood pressure and lower risk for heart attacks.
Positive thinking also seems to improve the quality of life among cancer patients and can be protective against the common cold, allergies, and other immune system issues (Naseem & Khalid, 2010). Furthermore, AIDS-specific optimism is related to active coping (Taylor et al., 1992).
Although there are many benefits of positive thinking on health, there appears to be one key caveat. Urging patients with severe illness to think positively about extremely negative situations can be too big of an ask.
Psychological support that includes positive thinking can place an unnecessary burden on already struggling patients. So it’s important to keep in mind that positive thinking is just one of many potentially successful strategies and shouldn’t be forced upon individuals who don’t feel like it’s a good fit for them (Rittenberg, 1995).
9 Real-Life Examples of Positive Thinking
So what are some examples of positive thinking? Let’s break positive thinking down a bit.
Past-focused positive thinking
Past-focused thinking that is negative or pessimistic may contribute to greater depression. Shifting these thoughts to be more positive can help us move past bad things that happened in the past.
Here are examples of past-focused positive thoughts that put a positive spin on the past while still acknowledging the difficult situation:
- “I did the best I could.”
- “That job interview went badly, but at least I learned what to do differently next time.”
- “I know my childhood wasn’t perfect, but my parents did the best they could.”
Present-focused positive thinking
Present-focused positive thinking can help us cope more effectively with our current challenges, decrease our stress, and potentially improve our life satisfaction.
Here are some examples of present-focused positive thoughts:
- “I’m so lucky to have my friend Jane who really cares about me.”
- “That breakfast was so tasty and beautiful, and I enjoyed it immensely.”
- “Even though I may make mistakes, I always try my best.”
Future-focused positive thinking
Future-focused thinking that is negative or pessimistic may contribute to greater worry or anxiety. Shifting these thoughts to be more positive can help us stay more present and stop generating negative emotions about things that haven’t even happened yet.
Here are some examples of future-focused positive thoughts:
- “It’s all going to turn out fine.”
- “I can’t wait to go to that event next week.”
- “I will continue to work toward my goals, so I know that my future is going to be great.”
By focusing positive thinking backward, in the moment, and forward, we can use it to resolve different types of negative thoughts and potentially improve multiple aspects of wellbeing.
Positive Thinking vs. Negative Thinking
Like positive thinking, negative thinking is not a clear-cut construct. But as a relatively simple example, optimism is often contrasted with pessimism.
When it comes to performance, both optimism and pessimism are equally effective. More specially, a person who is a defensive pessimist does better when using one strategy, and a person who is a strategic optimist does better when using another. That means that negative thoughts can help some people in some circumstances (Norem & Chang, 2002).
When it comes to wellbeing, optimists tend to be in a better mood, while pessimists tend to be higher in anxiety (Norem & Chang, 2002). But simply inducing a more positive mood in pessimists doesn’t just hurt their performance, it makes them more anxious.
Defensive pessimists do and feel better when they’re allowed to explore potentially negative outcomes – this helps them manage their anxiety more effectively. Furthermore, defensive pessimists have better outcomes than other anxious people who are not pessimists.
All this is to say that ridding people of their pessimism is not only unhelpful, but it may also be harmful (Norem & Chang, 2002). So what does one do with negative thinking?
In the case of pessimists, it may be better not to force them into positive thinking. To them, it may feel like trying to put a square peg into a round hole. Instead, it may be more helpful to explore whether negative thoughts are functional, useful, and beneficial.
It may be helpful to record negative thoughts to understand why they appear and how they affect other emotions and behaviors. Use our Dysfunctional Thought Record Worksheet to do this, as it will help explore negative thought triggers and practice making thoughts more adaptive.
This doesn’t mean these new thoughts have to be positive, just more helpful. Furthermore, you can access our Getting Rid of ANTS: Automatic Negative Thoughts Worksheet as well.
Criticisms: What Positive Thinking Is Not
Although we’ve covered compelling research on the benefits of positive thinking, there are some criticisms that are worth mentioning and help clarify what positive thinking is not.
First, excessive positive emotion may actually harm wellbeing. For example, Dr. June Gruber’s research suggests that too much positive emotion can be a risk factor for mania (Gruber, Johnson, Oveis, & Keltner, 2008).
Furthermore, thinking excessively about happiness has also been linked to lower wellbeing. Especially, setting unreasonably high standards for happiness and frequently thinking about one’s own emotional state have been linked to lower happiness (Ford & Mauss, 2014). This research suggests that there may be some aspects of positive thinking that are not good for us.
Another common criticism of positive thinking is that it’s an inappropriate, and possibly ineffective, strategy in some situations – for example, in response to the death of a loved one (Bonanno & Burton, 2013).
Further research has shown that cognitive reappraisal, which involves thinking about the positives or silver linings of a situation, can help in some situations and hurt in others. More specifically, using this positive thinking strategy was actually associated with higher depression in situations that were controllable (Troy, Shallcross, & Mauss, 2013). This suggests that positive thinking may not be an effective strategy in all situations.
Another criticism centers around particular types of positive thinking that are not based on science. For example, experts in the field of psychology generally consider “the law of attraction,” which suggests that believing in something will make it so, to be pseudoscience, not based on scientific methods.
In fact, these types of beliefs are considered magical thinking, and research has shown that greater familiarity with the law of attraction is associated with higher depression (Jones, 2019). So it’s important to keep in mind that positive thinking can be a useful tool in some circumstances and may contribute to optimism, positive outcomes, and wellbeing, but it’s not magic.
Our 5 Best Positive Thinking Resources
Here are some resources to help you learn more about positive thinking and build positive thinking skills.
Radical self-love cards
This worksheet helps you build a deck of self-affirmation cards. These can help cultivate more self-focused positive thoughts.
Grab the Stacking the Deck worksheet for guidelines.
Reverse the Rabbit Hole
Those of us with anxiety know that thoughts take on a mind of their own and take us along for the ride.
By considering positive outcomes, you may be able to derail this process and get out of the anxiety rabbit hole.
Grab the Reverse the Rabbit Hole worksheet to get started.
Paying attention to positive events
It’s human nature to pay more attention to the negative than the positive. But if we’re always just focusing on the bad stuff, we never get around to noticing and appreciating the good stuff.
Make an effort to pay more attention to the positive in life. Grab our Skills for Regulating Emotions worksheet to learn more.
I’m Great Because…
Sometimes we are self-critical because we just haven’t spent the time to think about what is great about us. Reflecting on our good qualities can make positive thinking easier.
Check out our I’m Great Because… worksheet for some prompts.
My Love Letter to Myself
Exploring our positive qualities and working to better understand how they benefit us can help us value ourselves more.
To build this self-insight, take a peek at our My Love Letter to Myself worksheet.
A Take-Home Message
Positive thinking has been of interest to psychologists for some time. Still, a mutually agreed-upon definition of positive thinking remains elusive.
Regardless of how positive thinking is measured, it appears to impact both mental and physical health positively.
Further, many useful resources are available to help people build their positive thinking skills.
Overall, the research suggests that cultivating positive thinking in counseling, therapy, or on your own is indeed a worthwhile endeavor. We trust our resources will be beneficial in guiding you on a more positive path.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
If you wish for even more tools, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 300 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.
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- Bonanno, G. A., & Burton, C. L. (2013). Regulatory flexibility: An individual differences perspective on coping and emotion regulation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(6), 591–612.
- Caprara, G. V., & Steca, P. (2005). Affective and social self-regulatory efficacy beliefs as determinants of positive thinking and happiness. European Psychologist, 10(4), 275–286.
- Crum, A. J., Akinola, M., Martin, A., & Fath, S. (2017). The role of stress mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to challenging and threatening stress. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 30(4), 379–395.
- Diener, E., Wirtz, D., Biswas-Diener, R., Tov, W., Kim-Prieto, C., Choi, D. W., & Oishi, S. (2009). New measures of well-being. In E. Diener, Assessing well-being: The collected works of Ed Diener. (pp. 247–266). Springer.
- Ford, B., & Mauss, I. (2014). The paradoxical effects of pursuing positive emotion. In J. Gruber & J. T. Moskowitz (Eds.), Positive emotion: Integrating the light sides and dark sides (pp. 363–382). Oxford University Press.
- Gruber, J., Johnson, S. L., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2008). Risk for mania and positive emotional responding: Too much of a good thing? Emotion, 8(1), 23–33.
- Jones, B. (2019). If you think it you can achieve it: The relationship between goal specificity and magical thinking. Murray State Theses and Dissertations, 140.
- Naseem, Z., & Khalid, R. (2010). Positive thinking in coping with stress and health outcomes: Literature review. Journal of Research & Reflections in Education, 4(1).
- Norem, J. K., & Chang, E. C. (2002). The positive psychology of negative thinking. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(9), 993–1001.
- Miller Smedema, S., Catalano, D., & Ebener, D. J. (2010). The relationship of coping, self-worth, and subjective well-being: A structural equation model. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 53(3), 131–142.
- Rittenberg, C. N. (1995). Positive thinking: An unfair burden for cancer patients? Supportive Care in Cancer, 3(1), 37–39.
- Scheier, M. E., & Carver, C. S. (1987). Dispositional optimism and physical well‐being: The influence of generalized outcome expectancies on health. Journal of Personality, 55(2), 169–210.
- Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1994). Positive illusions and well-being revisited: Separating fact from fiction. Psychological Bulletin, 116(1), 21–27.
- Taylor, S. E., Kemeny, M. E., Aspinwall, L. G., Schneider, S. G., Rodriguez, R., & Herbert, M. (1992). Optimism, coping, psychological distress, and high-risk sexual behavior among men at risk for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(3), 460.
- Troy, A. S., Shallcross, A. J., & Mauss, I. B. (2013). A person-by-situation approach to emotion regulation: Cognitive reappraisal can either help or hurt, depending on the context. Psychological Science, 24(12), 2505–2514.
- Tsutsui, K., & Fujiwara, M. (2015). The relationship between positive thinking and individual characteristics: Development of the Soccer Positive Thinking Scale. Football Science, 12, 74–83.