Research shows that positive thinking has a significant impact on the body and the brain. Positive thinking
- Improves your immunity
- Helps you cope better with stress
- Can make you more resilient
- Can help you live longer
The impact of positive thinking has consequences for aging well and dealing with cognitive deficits in yourself or others.
When we talk about positive thinking we are not suggesting that you stick your head in the sand or have an unrealistic vision of life. An unrealistic vision or a syrupy saccharine approach to life does not lead to cognitive resilience. In fact, it can lead to life choices that place you in an untenable situation. If you have an unrealistic view of your abilities or your environment, you may choose a career path that is wholly unsuited to your temperament or abilities. You may have expectations of your future spouse that are wholly unrealistic. You may come to conclusions about a work environment or a social situation that gloss over significant problems. Or you may not seek appropriate medical treatment for serious symptoms.
Positive thinking or a positive attitude towards life leads to the effect labelled as cognitive broadening.
Cognitive broadening refers to the range of personal resources built through the body and brain’s experience of positive emotions. Those resources include physical resources, social resources, intellectual resources, and psychological resources.
A positive outlook helps the body and brain to build this wider range of resources including:
Physical resources: physical skills, health, and longevity;
Social resources: friendships and social support networks;
Intellectual resources: expert knowledge and intellectual complexity;
Psychological resources: resilience, optimism, and creativity.
Positive emotions impact us physically by reducing the effect of negative stress. Research shows that the body returns to its cardiovascular norm faster through the experience of positive emotions. This leads to improved health outcomes and a longer life.
In the Nun Study, a comparison was made between nuns who exhibited positive attitudes in their earlier life with those who had a more pessimistic outlook. The study found that nuns who had a positive attitude lived on average 10 years longer than nuns who had a more pessimistic attitude.
A positive attitude also inclines us towards taking on new challenges and learning new skills. This means we are more likely to get involved in sports or other activities where we are not immediately successful. An individual with a negative attitude generally gives up at the first unsuccessful attempt – making it difficult to master a new skill.
Positive emotions also help us build friendships and social support networks. We know from the research that positive social networks reduce depression and increase longevity. Individuals with a positive outlook are easier to be around while those with a negative attitude repel others. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. One of the common characteristics of individuals with a pessimistic attitude is the tendency to focus on the negative. And focusing on the negative tends to make that area grow.
One of my friends often referred to this as feeding the black dog. Whichever dog you feed – either the positive one or the negative one – is the one that is going to grow.
If we feed the black dog we create social alienation for ourselves. And we know from the research that social isolation can lead to depression and cognitive decline.
Positive emotions also have an impact on the growth of Intellectual resources. When we believe that we can understand information we tend to tackle more complex ideas and learning. Individuals with an expert knowledge base who thrive on intellectual complexity need a positive outlook on their own capacities.
Finally, a positive outlook creates several psychological resources to call on in times of stress, including resilience, optimism, and creativity. These psychological resources can have a multiplier effect on other areas of your health.
Research has found that the personal resources we accrue through positive emotions are durable. They stay with us through our lifetime. Positive emotions are a key driver in the building of cognitive resilience. [See my previous blog post]
So how can you create a positive attitude?
Positive thinking can be a learned trait. Here are four ways to increase your ability to be a positive thinker:
- Check-in with yourself through the day to evaluate how you are thinking—is it positive or negative? Correct your thinking if required.
- Find the funny in situations. Seek out and surround yourself with humour—read a funny book, watch a funny movie, enjoy laughter with a friend.
- Surround yourself with positive people.
- Practice positive self-talk. Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to another human being.
If you are suffering from a cognitive impairment, like dementia, it is very easy to fall into negative self-talk. Levels of frustration, anxiety and anger will already be elevated by the impairment. This is where cognitive coaching can make such a difference to an individual’s outlook.
Fit Minds provides cognitive stimulation therapy through our Interact Individual cognitive coaching program. We have seen a marked improvement in the outlook of individuals who participate in our program.
It is common for individuals with a cognitive impairment to have a lot of negative self-talk going on inside of their head. They are experiencing a real loss of ability and the usual response is to withdraw. This withdrawal reinforces social isolation and the view that the individual is no longer able to do things. With cognitive coaching the focus is on working on exercises that are achievable. When an individual is stretched, but not frustrated, they surprise themselves and start to see that there are things they can do. They start to re-engage with the people around them, and communicate more often. This leads to a significant improvement in the quality of life.