How Positive Thinking Builds Your Skills, Boosts Your Health, and Improves Your Work

Positive thinking sounds useful on the surface. (Most of us would prefer to be positive rather than negative.) But, “positive thinking” is also a soft and fluffy term that is easy to dismiss. In the real world, it rarely carries the same weight as words like “work ethic” or “persistence.”

But those views may be changing.

Research is beginning to reveal that positive thinking is about much more than just being happy or displaying an upbeat attitude. Positive thoughts can actually create real value in your life and help you build skills that last much longer than a smile.

The impact of positive thinking on your work, your health, and your life is being studied by people who are much smarter than me. One of these people is Barbara Fredrickson.

Fredrickson is a positive psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina and she published a landmark paper that provides surprising insights about positive thinking and it’s impact on your skills. Her work is among the most referenced and cited in her field and it is surprisingly useful in everyday life.

Let’s talk about Fredrickson’s discovery and what it means for you…

What Negative Thoughts Do to Your Brain

Play along with me for a moment.

Let’s say that you’re walking through the forest and suddenly a tiger steps onto the path ahead of you. When this happens, your brain registers a negative emotion — in this case, fear.

Researchers have long known that negative emotions program your brain to do a specific action. When that tiger crosses your path, for example, you run. The rest of the world doesn’t matter. You are focused entirely on the tiger, the fear it creates, and how you can get away from it.

In other words, negative emotions narrow your mind and focus your thoughts. At that same moment, you might have the option to climb a tree, pick up a leaf, or grab a stick — but your brain ignores all of those options because they seem irrelevant when a tiger is standing in front of you.

This is a useful instinct if you’re trying to save life and limb, but in our modern society we don’t have to worry about stumbling across tigers in the wilderness. The problem is that your brain is still programmed to respond to negative emotions in the same way — by shutting off the outside world and limiting the options you see around you.

For example, when you’re in a fight with someone, your anger and emotion might consume you to the point where you can’t think about anything else. Or, when you are stressed out about everything you have to get done today, you may find it hard to actual start anything because you’re paralyzed by how long your to–do list has become. Or, if you feel bad about not exercising or not eating healthy, all you think about is how little willpower you have, how you’re lazy, and how you don’t have any motivation.

In each case, your brain closes off from the outside world and focuses on the negative emotions of fear, anger, and stress — just like it did with the tiger. Negative emotions prevent your brain from seeing the other options and choices that surround you. It’s your survival instinct.

Now, let’s compare this to what positive emotions do to your brain. This is where Barbara Fredrickson returns to the story.

What Positive Thoughts Do to Your Brain

Fredrickson tested the impact of positive emotions on the brain by setting up a little experiment. During this experiment, she divided her research subjects into 5 groups and showed each group different film clips.

The first two groups were shown clips that created positive emotions. Group 1 saw images that created feelings of joy. Group 2 saw images that created feelings of contentment.

Group 3 was the control group. They saw images that were neutral and produced no significant emotion.

The last two groups were shown clips that created negative emotions. Group 4 saw images that created feelings of fear. Group 5 saw images that created feelings of anger.

Afterward, each participant was asked to imagine themselves in a situation where similar feelings would arise and to write down what they would do. Each participant was handed a piece of paper with 20 blank lines that started with the phrase, “I would like to…”

Participants who saw images of fear and anger wrote down the fewest responses. Meanwhile, the participants who saw images of joy and contentment, wrote down a significantly higher number of actions that they would take, even when compared to the neutral group.

In other words, when you are experiencing positive emotions like joy, contentment, and love, you will see more possibilities in your life. These findings were among the first that proved that positive emotions broaden your sense of possibility and open your mind up to more options.

But that was just the beginning. The really interesting impact of positive thinking happens later…

How Positive Thinking Builds Your Skill Set

The benefits of positive emotions don’t stop after a few minutes of good feelings subside. In fact, the biggest benefit that positive emotions provide is an enhanced ability to build skills and develop resources for use later in life.

Let’s consider a real–world example.

A child who runs around outside, swinging on branches and playing with friends, develops the ability to move athletically (physical skills), the ability to play with others and communicate with a team (social skills), and the ability to explore and examine the world around them (creative skills). In this way, the positive emotions of play and joy prompt the child to build skills that are useful and valuable in everyday life.

These skills last much longer than the emotions that initiated them. Years later, that foundation of athletic movement might develop into a scholarship as a college athlete or the communication skills may blossom into a job offer as a business manager. The happiness that promoted the exploration and creation of new skills has long since ended, but the skills themselves live on.

Fredrickson refers to this as the “broaden and build” theory because positive emotions broaden your sense of possibilities and open your mind, which in turn allows you to build new skills and resources that can provide value in other areas of your life.

As we discussed earlier, negative emotions do the opposite. Why? Because building skills for future use is irrelevant when there is immediate threat or danger (like the tiger on the path).

All of this research begs the most important question of all: if positive thinking is so useful for developing valuable skills and appreciating the Big Picture of life, how do you actually get yourself to be positive?

How to Increase Positive Thinking in Your Life

What you can do to increase positive emotions and take advantage of the “broaden and build” theory in your life?

Well, anything that sparks feelings of joy, contentment, and love will do the trick. You probably know what things work well for you. Maybe it’s playing the guitar. Maybe it’s spending time with a certain person. Maybe it’s carving tiny wooden lawn gnomes.

That said, here are three ideas for you to consider…

1. MeditationRecent research by Fredrickson and her colleagues has revealed that people who meditate daily display more positive emotions that those who do not. As expected, people who meditated also built valuable long–term skills. For example, three months after the experiment was over, the people who meditated daily continued to display increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms.

Note: If you’re looking for an easy way to start meditation, here is a 10–minute guided meditation that was recently sent to me. Just close your eyes, breathe, and follow along.

 
2. Writingthis study, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, examined a group of 90 undergraduate students who were split into two groups. The first group wrote about an intensely positive experience each day for three consecutive days. The second group wrote about a control topic.

Three months later, the students who wrote about positive experiences had better mood levels, fewer visits to the health center, and experienced fewer illnesses. (This blew me away. Better health after just three days of writing about positive things!)

Note: I used to be very erratic with my writing, but now I publish a new article every Monday and Thursday. I’ve written about my writing process and how you can stick to any goal in a more consistent manner in the articles here, here and here.

 
3. Play — schedule time to play into your life. We schedule meetings, conference calls, weekly events, and other responsibilities into our daily calendars … why not schedule time to play?

When was the last time you blocked out an hour on your calendar just to explore and experiment? When was the last time you intentionally carved out time to have fun? You can’t tell me that being happy is less important than your Wednesday meeting, and yet, we act like it is because we never give it a time and space to live on our calendars.

Give yourself permission to smile and enjoy the benefits of positive emotion. Schedule time for play and adventure so that you can experience contentment and joy, and explore and build new skills.

Note: for more ideas on the importance of play, read this article on how one man cured his anxiety.

Happiness vs. Success (Which Comes First?)

There’s no doubt that happiness is the result of achievement. Winning a championship, landing a better job, finding someone you love — these things will bring joy and contentment to your life. But so often, we wrongly assume that this means happiness always follows success.

How often have you thought, “If I just get ___, then I’ll be set.”

Or, “Once I achieve ___, I’ll be satisfied.”

I know I’m guilty of putting off happiness until I achieve some arbitrary goal. But as Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory proves, happiness is essential to building the skills that allow for success.

In other words, happiness is both the precursor to success and the result of it.

In fact, researchers have often noticed a compounding effect or an “upward spiral” that occurs with happy people. They are happy, so they develop new skills, those skills lead to new success, which results in more happiness, and the process repeats itself.

Where to Go From Here

Positive thinking isn’t just a soft and fluffy feel–good term. Yes, it’s great to simply “be happy,” but those moments of happiness are also critical for opening your mind to explore and build the skills that become so valuable in other areas of your life.

Finding ways to build happiness and positive emotions into your life — whether it is through meditation, writing, playing a pickup basketball game, or anything else — provides more than just a momentary decrease in stress and a few smiles.

Periods of positive emotion and unhindered exploration are when you see the possibilities for how your past experiences fit into your future life, when you begin to develop skills that blossom into useful talents later on, and when you spark the urge for further exploration and adventure.

To put it simply: seek joy, play often, and pursue adventure. Your brain will do the rest.

49 Comments

  1. Stuart says:

    Thanks James for your insight. A bit of morning motivation for a daily contemplation. So much to learn :)

    • James Clear says:

      Thanks Stuart! We’ve all got a lot to learn. :)

      I appreciate you taking the time to read and share your thoughts. Have a good day!

  2. Peter Chabanowich says:

    These very things are my experience of late, and I concur with your thoughts.

  3. Jon says:

    Great writing James. This is so true. I’m at my happiest when I’m creating/writing and helping others. I love a good sweat as well – endorphins are addicting! Working out for me is such an important part of my psychological state. Good stuff.

    • James Clear says:

      Yep — I feel the same way. Thanks for reading, my man. It’s great to have you in our little community!

  4. Nugget: “Negative emotions prevent your brain from seeing other options and choices in your life.” Obvious, yet I’ve so totally missed that! Job search/opportunities sandwiched between self-doubt and anger result in far fewer observed options. And the resulting demeanor that’s displayed limits as well, in the eyes of those who could provide opportunities. It’s a horse and cart issue where both are required: positive pre and post for opportunities to be seen, acted on and realized. Good thought provoking info as usual James!

    • James Clear says:

      Garry — I think this is something we all struggle with from time to time. It’s obvious that negative thoughts hold us back, but it still requires a constant effort to live positively, see opportunities as they arise, and pour ourselves into exploration and adventure.

      As with most things, being happy is a process not an event.

      Thanks for reading!

  5. Robin Thomas says:

    Great article James. I have been contemplating this for a number of years now, ever since I heard Shawn Achor talk about his own research on happiness and success. Have you had the opportunity to read Dr. Achor’s book “The Happiness Advantage” I recommend it highly.

    Just a few months ago I was asked to help Beta test a new online program called Happify. It assigns daily tasks that help us think more positively. I found it a bit artificial, though, and prefer the methods you suggest. Simply writing down 3-5 positive statements at the end of the day takes little time but changes our whole perspective.

    Thank you again for your insight. I don’t always comment, but I always read your posts. So thankful to have had the chance to meet you at the Raleigh Indyconf this past year.

    • Sudhir K says:

      Thumps up for “Happiness Advantage”. Good read. But there can be a positive thinking trap as well. We need to have the ability to see the world as it is. Not clouded by our perception. Whether positive affirmation or negative reinforcement, it could have an impact that will be away from reality. I didn’t read it, but there is another recommended read (Ben Casnocha’s blog) “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking”, by Oliver Burkeman.

      I guess positive visualization and affirmation is a fine line, we need to tread with care.

      • James Clear says:

        Sudhir — good points. I’m not big on the fluffy, everything-is-rosy view of positive thinking either, which is one reason I wrote this article. I like the idea that positive thinking allows us to build valuable skills, which come in handy even when we’re not “feeling positive.”

        I haven’t read Burkeman’s book, but thanks for pointing it out. I appreciate you taking the time to read and share!

    • James Clear says:

      Robin — it’s great to hear from you! IndieConf was fun. I’m glad (and surprised) that I’ve been able to hold your attention since then. :)

      I have read Happiness Advantage and I actually have a few ideas from that on my list of things to write about — thanks for the reminder.

      Finally, I’m like you: I prefer simple strategies for living well and forming better habits. Most of the apps, tracking devices, and games are unnecessary for real change.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and share your thoughts!

  6. Joan Nemeth says:

    Hi James,

    It is and has been a delight to be a part of this community of supportive and intentionally enlightened individuals.

    It takes practice and willingness to move toward the things that enrich our lives. We always have a choice to be where we are. Sometimes we need the contrast of “darkness to light”, so that we may appreciate the evolution of us. Being able to see through to the benefits is enough incentive to follow through to positivity, and sometimes we need to hit bottom in order to look up.

    This piece is a illumination of what we can choose to feel hopeful, delightful and wonderful. Thank you so much for your continuing gifts of insight!

    • James Clear says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Joan! It’s great to have you in our little community.

      You bring up a good point about the contrast between negative and positive. Sometimes we need the valleys to appreciate the mountains. :)

      As always, thanks for reading!

  7. Esther L. says:

    I already knew a bit about positive thinking being good for you, but that post set up things in a great way! Thanks for the time you spent looking for info and writing!

    And I think sport is a great way to introduce happiness in your planning ;-) Enjoying my kungfu lessons so much!

    • James Clear says:

      EVERYBODY WAS KUNG-FU FIGHTING!!!

      (Sorry. I had to.) Seriously, that’s awesome though.

      Thanks for taking the time to read, Esther. It’s great to have you in our little community!

  8. Nadja says:

    Have no time to comment. Must go to play. ;-)

  9. Ula says:

    James, thank you for this awesome article!

    The “broaden and build” theory proves happiness is essential to building the skills that allow for success” — I’ve met countless number of people saying “I’ll be happy if this/that happens..”

    From the bottom of my heart I’ve always known that this goes a bit other way round, but they’ve always tried to tell me I’m wearing pink glasses (if you know what I mean), that “this can’t be done because I can’t be happy beause this/that didn’t happen” etc.

    I knew I was right :)

    I may not be the richest, fittest, prettiest, wisest but I am so willing to achieve it walking on my upward spiral!

    Thank you again — this is so inspirational!

  10. Steffen says:

    Since you can be happy without being successful, I would say happiness is the foundation of a successful life. Success makes happy on a short-term basis, but postive thinking is more like an attitude and is long-term.

    Really great post (as usual).

    • James Clear says:

      Thanks Steffen! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      I agree with you. I like the idea of happiness being the foundation of the “upward spiral.” We start by seeing the world as a good place, living open-minded and positive, and then we build skills that allow us to succeed and enjoy more happiness in the future.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  11. Kim Bova says:

    Great post…..thanks. There is an interesting idea triggered from this very positive article. I wonder, our thinking minds are such powerful tools we just need to decide HOW we think! Which means that there is some other mechanism we humans use to change our minds. Is it our hearts?

    • James Clear says:

      Hmm… this is a great (and deep) question, Kim.

      I think what you’re getting at is: “Is there something inherent in each of us that can drive our mind in a particular direction? Is there a deeper quality to us than simply how we think?”

      Perhaps the heart. Perhaps the soul. Perhaps something else. I’m not sure.

      Regardless of what the true answer is, I think you’re spot on with this: “We just need to decide HOW we think.” Ultimately, living happy and healthy is a choice — it starts with how we think and the stories we tell ourselves and it ends with the actions we take and the habits we form.

      As always, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  12. Wonderful article! I speak about positive thinking and the things you share are simple, straight forward, and practical. Thank you for taking the time to blog about this.

  13. Heather-mae Celins says:

    Hi James,

    Thank you for your wonderful article on positiveness, it certainly is good to read such positive articles in a world that seems to be drowning in negativity. I look forward to your next email.

    • James Clear says:

      Thanks Heather-mae! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’ll do my best to keep sending useful ideas your way.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and share. Your thoughts are welcome here anytime.

  14. Mike says:

    Perhaps it is more of a give and take sort of thing, that fluctuates with our successes and failures. Great considerations, as always.

  15. Mark says:

    Awesome article. When you’re in a positive state, others will feed off your positive energy, circling back to you, making your day even better. Trying to stay positive at all times is the key to happiness, success and life-long relationships (at least I like to think that!). Keep the great posts coming.

  16. Rahul says:

    Great article … I will try to follow :)

  17. Julius says:

    Wow, great ending. Your call to action summarizes the article very, very well. Seek joy, play often, and pursue adventure. That could very well be a motto that defines my life.

  18. Stephanie says:

    “Seek joy, play often, pursue adventure”. This reminds me of my two year old, so happy and always wanting to learn. I think I should follow him by his example. I hope to use theses skills daily. So my baby can stay happy, along with the rest of the family.

    • James Clear says:

      Stephanie — there is probably a lot that we can learn from children, and a positive attitude and playfulness is a great place to start.

      Thanks for reading!

  19. Nakul says:

    Hi James,

    Just wanted to tell you that read so many blogs on such topics, but yours are by far the best because they provide a unique view towards the solution, not just the problem. They also provide a scientific approach. They show you the steps through which you can solve your problems. Nice. Keep Going. :)

  20. Do not overly positive thinking, and do not over-aggressive, you will come to a dead end.

  21. Hi James – not sure how I came across this article – probably by skimming HuffPost – but I’m glad I did!! Excellent article and very well written!! As someone who has suffered from debilitating depression off and on for years, I know firsthand, the destructive nature of negative thinking!! And I understand why they call it “fighting depression” – you really have to BATTLE the negative thoughts which just have the spiraling down effect! Your piece is uplifting and inspiring to me and I’m going to print and put in a significant place in my office!! I also just signed up for your newsletter, which I am looking forward to!! Thanks, truly, for sharing your insight and positive energy. As you surely know, it has the ripple effect…..and I feel better now than I did earlier!! Cheers!

    • James Clear says:

      Rachel — thanks for saying hello. It’s great to have you in our little community!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I’ll do my best to keep sending positive energy and useful ideas your way. Thanks for reading!

  22. Hey James, just stumbled across your work on the Buffer blog, and I love the perspective you bring to each of your posts.

    Do you have any suggestions on how to think more positive thoughts when suffering from chronic pain & illness?

    Keep up the insightful work and all the best!

  23. By being happy there are a lot of benefits in our life. We can be successful, healthy, stress free, confident and more. So one must be able to cultivate a positive attitude towards life so that he can be successful in life.

  24. Carlos Tarazon says:

    Hi James-

    I enjoyed reading your article on the benefits of positive thinking. Elements of the content reminded me of work from Martin Seligman (Positive Psychology), Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (Flow) and Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence). You put together a thoughtful set of observations and guidelines in your article. Far from the crass “PMA = OPM”(positive mental attitude = other people’s money) type of unilaterally beneficial hardcore sales tactic the ideas from Barbara Fredrickson convey an enlightened self-interest that can only be actualized by accounting for one’s impact, benefit and service to others. Nurturing your positivity traits enhances your capacity to produce and maintain progress and mental well being. Thanks for sharing the article.

    Carlos Tarazon

  25. حسین says:

    Hi James.

    Now you can read this article in Persian :D

    http://iranata.com/2013/08/positive-thoughts.html

  26. Tomas says:

    Hi James, I have just stumbled across your site through Stumbleupon and read your article on “The Power of Positive Thoughts” which had a link through to this article. Both articles are great reads and I look forward to your future writings. I was reading one comment you made about us “trying” to change certain things and it brought a smile to my face as it reminded me of a little quote a friend once shared with me from Yoda of Star Wars which you and your readers might be amused by likewise, it’s to do with our use of the word “try”…

    No! Try Not. Do, or Do Not. There is no Try”…

    Food for Thought!
    Tomas

  27. Ray says:

    Great article James. That’s a really interesting point on writing about happy thoughts and experiences. I’m currently making notes on how my anxiety waxes and wanes to understand triggers better and what are effective coping strategies but I’m now going to include happy thoughts. There’s plenty of occasions I enjoy day-to-day: a conversation about … with … in which we were laughing really hard, the awesome workout I did, fun things planned for the weekend, the money I donated to charity. I will include all these things in my notebook and plant the seed for happy thoughts.

  28. Rohit Portel says:

    For one month every day I counted ten blessing. I was so happy, I realized suddenly my outlook about life has been changed. So this article is so true. Thank you, James.

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