“I’m never going to pass this exam.”

“I’m not smart enough to understand this stuff.”

We’ve all had these kinds of negative thoughts bubble up in the past; it’s just part of being human.

But these negative thoughts don’t have to have such a dire impact. It is possible to train yourself to think more positively even in the most difficult of situations. By being optimistic, you’ll start to see health and learning benefits that seem too good to be true.

Benefits of positive thinking

Several studies show that reframing thought into more positive patterns can positively affect our health. One of these proven health benefits from positive thinking is the decreased risk of heart disease. A multi-decade long study found individuals who reported higher levels of positivity and well-being had nearly a 50% decrease in risk for a coronary event.

Another positive thinking health benefit is an enhanced immune system. For this study, elderly participants reviewed a series of photos, and those who remembered more positive photos than negative showed enhanced immune function that stuck with them for years after the study.

And that’s not all, other health benefits of positive thinking include:

Optimistic thinking also has a direct impact on your ability to learn and perform in academic settings. A study out of Sanford showed that children who had a positive attitude toward math performed better on average than those who had a more negative outlook. Positive thinking had a direct effect on memory and learning by observing that children with positive outlooks had greater activation of the hippocampus while solving math problems.

Another recent study that tracked middle-aged adults over time found that those with a more positive outlook had enhanced memory retention as they aged.

When you leave the classroom and move on to a professional setting, positive thinking becomes even more critical.

The science behind positive psychology

Martin Seligmen is widely considered the father of positive psychology. He has done extensive study and research on the benefits of positivity in one’s life, as well as how to cultivate optimism in one’s life.

The concept of wellness often focuses overly on our physical efforts like working out and eating healthy. Martin Seligmen has always known that mental wellness is just as important as it directly affects our physical health.

How do we actually think more positively? 

Your brain is a muscle that requires training. We cannot teach ourselves to ‘think positively overnight’, but with continued practice it’s possible. To reap the benefits of positive thinking, you have to cultivate and practice a positive mindset and perspective. Here are four strategies and exercises that can help you get there.

1. “I’m grateful for…”

Try to list out three things you’re grateful for everyday, ideally in the morning before you get your day going. These don’t have to be grandiose things, you can be grateful for something as simple as that first sip of hot coffee in the morning.

You can list these out mentally to start out, but you’ll get bonus points by writing them down in a journal. This journal is also a great resource to look back at during those times you’re really down and struggling.

Gratitude exercises such as this can decrease stress and depression, improve eating habits, and help you get better sleep. This is the one positive thinking exercise to rule them all (maybe Smeagol should’ve tried this one out).

2. Finding good during the bad

Bad things happen to everyone. Usually it’s these bad and unforeseen events that spark the greatest negativity in us. To prepare for these events, you can think back on past negative events in your life and reflect on them. Think about ways you could have dealt with the situation better, and find some positives that may have come out of it. This will help train you to deal with these situations in a more positive way in the future.

3. Positive self-talk

That little voice in our head can be a real bully sometimes, but you can improve that by practicing positive self-talk.

First you’ll need to identify your negative thoughts when they come up. That can be harder than it sounds, because these thoughts tend to unconsciously bubble up. But by taking note of your negative thoughts, you’ll be able to recognize them whenever they bubble up.

After taking note of your negative thoughts, start to rephrase them in positive ways. Many of our negative thoughts are absolute like “I’ll never be able to pass this test”. This type of thought is self-defeating and usually isn’t true (as much as you think it may be). Try to rephrase it to something like “once I’m fully prepared I can pass this test”, or “I’ll keep trying until I pass this test”.

You should also recognize your achievements and pat yourself on the back for the smallest of successes. We tend to downplay our own achievements, and any small task completed that is working towards a larger goal is a success, think of it as such.

4. Thought catching

Related to positive self-talk, when you have negative thoughts, it’s important to understand them within the context of your own experience and assumptions. Thought catching is a practice from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that asks us to examine our thoughts.

The American Psychological Association defines CTB’s core principles as:

  1. Psychological problems are based, in part, on faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking.
  2. Psychological problems are based, in part, on learned patterns of unhelpful behavior.
  3. People suffering from psychological problems can learn better ways of coping with them, thereby relieving their symptoms and becoming more effective in their lives.

Thought catching asks us to examine the triggers, situations, and feelings that surround the thoughts we have. (You can read more about CBT and its role in stress and anxiety in this post.) It’s a helpful way of reframing how we react to things in more positive and realistic ways.

Positive thinking pitfalls

Like everything in life, balance is essential. Overdoing positive thinking can actually be a negative. Forcing yourself to be optimistic all the time can lead to toxic positivity, something that’s emerged as a buzzword during the pandemic.

Some signs of toxic positivity can include:

  • Feeling guilty for having any negative feelings
  • Dismissing feelings of sadness or anger
  • Ignoring major problems
  • Lacking empathy for others feelings of sadness or anger

Humans have complex brains with complex needs. We can’t just be positive all the time. We need to experience emotions such as sadness, anger, guilt, and we need to grieve. By forcing yourself to stay in a positive mindset, you can fall into a trap of rejecting any negative emotions you or others have.

Sometimes it’s completely appropriate to feel sadness, anger, or guilt, and you should let those emotions in. You don’t want to create an unhealthy relationship with positive thinking, you can end up causing more harm than good.

Make sure you also put action behind your positive thoughts. Just thinking positive things isn’t a full recipe for success. For example, thinking “I’m going to absolutely crush this exam” alone won’t materialize that thought into existence. It’s a great first step, but you need to actually put the work in to study and learn the material to crush that exam.

Don’t worry, be happy

While it may not be as simple as Bobby McFerrin would have you believe, thinking positively can yield great rewards in life. Practice positive thinking regularly and you’ll start to notice an improvement in your mood, learning, and health. And what’s better than that?