Being positive: it’s all the rage these days. But what does science actually say about having a positive attitude, and can it improve your health? Here are five insights into the science surrounding positivity, negativity and how you really can harness a realistic positive attitude to improve your life.
1) Positivity: Hokum or Actual Science?
Positive thinking was once derided as wishful thinking, but a research study published in 1985 by Michael F. Scheier and Charles S. Carver, called “Optimism, Coping, and Health: Assessment and Implications of Generalized Outcome Expectancies” helped to change that. The scientists in that study believed that when we approach a challenge our brain subconsciously does a series of calculations to guess the likelihood of our success. Once again, the math is important.
Obviously, if you believe you are going to succeed even before you attempt a task, you may not be more likely to actually succeed but you are probably going to give everything you’ve got into achieving that goal which in turn can improve your chances. When you do achieve that goal, your mental calculations are shown to be correct and that intensifies the rewarding feelings you experience. As a result you are less likely to feel negative health outcomes from your exertions or at the very least focus on them as much. In essence, you’ve increased your wellbeing and are likely to take that forward into your future endeavors.
The opposite also seems to be true. If that mental calculation returns a negative expectation, you may still do the task but you’re less likely to want to put energy towards overcoming those challenges because you’re more likely to see it as wasted energy, and when something does go wrong you are more likely to focus on that because you have been proved right.
The researchers tested this theory on undergraduates, using a questionnaire to rate their optimism four weeks before their final day and immediately after. The results showed that those who had been optimistic going into that stressful exam period were less likely to report physical symptoms (such as fatigue) than those who had rated themselves as less optimistic. This sense of optimism has been called “dispositional optimism” and when we talk about positivity and our own attitudes, this is generally what we’re talking about (with some exceptions which we’ll talk about below). The good news is, you probably can cultivate dispositional optimism — but why would you want to?
2) Positivity Can Impact Your Health in Beneficial Ways
It’s important to start by saying that the impact of a positive mental outlook has been overstated in our media and the research does not support it being a cure-all like some headlines might have led us to believe. However, there are reasons to think that positivity over negativity is on the whole better for us.
Studies have linked positivity with a number of health outcomes, for instance, lower rates of depression, greater resistance to common (usually non-serious) health complaints, better psychological well-being which in turn promotes physical well-being, and a greater resilience during stressful situations.
There are also some studies that show that people who register having positive expectations in life may live longer, but those are hard to substantiate because so many variables are involved.
On the other end of the spectrum, we also know that a persistent negative attitude does have harmful consequences. A study released this month found that cynical distrust appears to correlate with developing conditions like dementia. This is the first study to look at dementia, but other research has shown that cynicism — which I hasten to add is not the same as healthy skepticism — is linked to a number of negative mental health outcomes.
That being said:
3) Positivity Can Also be Bad for You
This is really where the danger of the “positive thinking” mantra you hear from a lot of self-help gurus can come in. Studies have shown that positivity actually leads to more risk-taking behavior. Up to a point that’s good, but when it causes us to miss vital clues about dangerous situations and warning signs about our actions, that puts us on course toward a bad outcome.
June Gruber, Associate Professor at Yale University, argues in a fantastic essay for Edge that the scientific literature tells us, like in most areas of life, moderating our positivity is actually crucial to ensuring we have a good balance in life — this is called realistic optimism and it implies that we should always strive to have as accurate a picture of environment as possible but that it may be healthy for us to try to interpret the options open to us in a positive manner.
So, certainly, trying to stamp out unrealistic negativity is a good idea, but not giving in to a mindset that says we must always be positive is also crucial in order to get a realistic picture of the things we are facing in our lives.
It’s also important to note that research shows how negative emotions are very important in our lives and shouldn’t be ignored.
4) Negative Emotions are also Important to Living a Happy Life
It might seem counterintuitive, and certainly goes against the credo of a lot of the self-help gurus who tell us that we must suppress all negativity. However, scientific studies have shown that negative feelings ultimately can contribute to us living to our full potential.
That’s because negative emotions are great engines of change. They force us to do things in a way that happiness, by its nature, can’t. Negativity can also breed better performance in some circumstances. Research has shown (a good summary here) that people who expect things to go badly will — to a point — attempt to stop that negative outcome by over-preparing, which means they may actually outperform others.
Obviously, that’s not sustainable in the long-term because of the stress that is involved. Yet, embracing negative emotions in a strategic way as a signal of something that is wrong and needs correcting, shouldn’t be forbidden. In fact, given the mounting evidence, it’s probably essential for us to perform at our very best in whatever we might choose to do.
5) Don’t Let Positivity (or Negativity) Be a Trap
Our current culture thinks of happiness and positivity in quite materialistic terms. The problem, however, is that trying to collect more happiness by being positive actually misses what happiness is. We noted Professor June Gruber’s work above on how binging on positivity can actually be harmful. Of course, it’s a good idea to keep open our access to positivity for when we need it, but positivity shouldn’t be a goal in itself. That comes with one exception, though.
What if you’re stuck in a negative pattern of thought and feel that it’s detrimental to your life? Can you really think your way out of that? The good news is there is some evidence to say that changing your mental attitude toward a more positive (but still realistic) mindset is possible for the average person who doesn’t have untreated mental health issues, and that it can help us to see what opportunities are open to us.
It may also help for some people who, like myself, suffer certain mental health problems like anxiety. You can find tools and resources into increasing positive self-talk here.
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