Can positive thinking really work?

Staying positive is something that can be talked about a great amount by people but it may not be something that they actually understand, and they may not truly believe that positive thinking really works. Trying to stay positive could be incredibly difficult in challenging situations, but is it not always better to attempt to stay positive than to think the worst in every challenging situation you meet? In theory, definitely. At least, that is what I believe.

I recently spoke to someone who had been learning about positive thinking and the related thought processes on things that happen in everyday life. A lot of what they spoke about made sense, but it made me think about how changing people’s thought processes can be extremely difficult. I suppose it’s like changing any old habit for something new; it takes time before the process becomes something that naturally occurs and something that feels normal. But, like with lots of changes that could be made in life, if you are committed to it working then that will always be a good basis for it to work.

When you have a challenge in your life, instead of getting caught up in the frustration the situation brings with it, one option is to try and focus on the positive (any positive) it may have, along with keeping the situation rational and not focusing on the elements that can’t be changed. This process can be extremely tricky to do, but it is not impossible to carry out. Well, not in most situations anyway. Some examples of this working in everyday life could be:

  • I'm in a traffic jam and I’m late for work. The positive could be that at least I have a job, and I can’t do anything about the traffic so I won’t focus on that.
  • My car breaks down and it needs to be fixed before I can go anywhere. The reaction to this could be that that this is not something I can change, but I will focus on getting the car fixed, and once that happens the situation will be better.
  • I have a new challenge at work whereby I have a new role and therefore there is a lot of work for me to have to deal with, particularly due to another person needing me to take over their workload as well. The positive response to this could be that I will be appreciative of my new role and the challenges that will arise, and for the people I work with allowing me to use my organisational and administrative skills to sort this situation out.
  • I have so much work to do for my university course. The positive thinking for being in this situation could potentially be that at least I am at university and I have the opportunity to work hard and achieve all I can whilst studying for my qualification.
Positive thinking can also lead to other areas of life, and other people, being impacted upon for the better. An example of this is in a recent study which found that mothers who think positive thoughts during their pregnancy have children who perform better in maths and science. It was found that such positive thinking also leads to these mothers being more likely to provide their children with diets that help with brain development, they would read stories to their children more often, and they would also show an interest in their homework and academic progress. The results from this study show how positive thinking can lead to more encouraging actions being taken by these mothers which enhanced their children’s lives. Perhaps the optimism thinking positive thoughts brings with it, and the ‘glass half full’ approach they have, seeps into their overall outlook and in turn radiates good practices that can help their children become the best version of themselves they can be. I think situations like this are common because if the opposite circumstances occurred, such children would not have the potential to flourish.

The above is just one example of how positive thinking can positively influence other parts of life and then allow for better outcomes to occur. However, I also think it can become a defence mechanism and/or a way of coping in times of adversity. Trying to focus on a good outcome rather than a bad one can put up a barrier to what is potentially going to happen. A person may not want to think about the negative outcome and therefore may not be prepared for it if it transpires. Therefore I do think that people may have to be cautious when it comes to wanting to think positively about a situation as there may come a time when all the positive thoughts in the world are not enough to change an unpleasant situation.

In tough times, it can be difficult to think of anything but the adverse situation a person may find themselves in, but enabling a way of thinking to try and combat this could help someone deal with what they are going through – whatever that may be. Thinking about the worst case scenario all the time is not only a miserable experience for the person, but it can also cloud other areas of their life. Unfortunately, bad things happen in this world, but having a positive mind set can at least help people when dealing with what life throws at us. So, can positive thinking really work? I think that it can, but it is dependent on the situation and whether a person is willing to look and see if there is a brighter side to life.

Sarah Keeping MBPsS MSc PgDip GDip BA (Hons)

Follow Sarah on twitter at @keepingapproach