A Glass Half-Empty or Half-Full?

Positive thinking helps with stress management and can improve health

Is your glass half-empty or half-full? How you answer this age-old question about positive thinking may reflect your outlook on life, your attitude toward yourself, and whether you're optimistic or pessimistic ~ and it may even affect your health.  The good news is that a negative path need not continuously be followed and a change of direction may well prove both satisfying and highly worthwhile.

A number of studies have shown that personality traits such as optimism and pessimism can affect many areas of your health and well-being. The positive thinking that usually comes with optimism is a key part of effective stress management. And effective stress management is associated with many health benefits. If you tend to be pessimistic, don't despair ~ you can learn positive thinking skills.

Positive thinking does not mean that you keep your head in the sand and ignore life's less pleasant situations. Positive thinking just means that you approach unpleasantness in a more positive and productive way. You simply focus on the best that might happen and not the worst.

Positive thinking often starts with self-talk. Self-talk is the endless stream of unspoken thoughts that run through your head. These automatic thoughts can be positive or negative. Some of your self-talk comes from logic and reason. Other self-talk may arise from misconceptions that you create because of lack of information.

If the thoughts that run through your head are mostly negative, your outlook on life is more likely pessimistic. If your thoughts are mostly positive, you're likely an optimist ~ someone who practices positive thinking.

Researchers have found that positive thinking may well provide these health benefits:

  1. Increased life span
  2. Lower rates of depression
  3. Lower levels of distress
  4. Greater resistance to the common cold
  5. Better psychological and physical well-being
  6. Better cardiovascular health
  7. Better coping skills during times of stress

It remains unclear why people who engage in positive thinking experience these health benefits. One theory is that having a positive outlook enables you to cope better with stressful situations, which reduces the harmful health effects of stress on your body.

It is also thought that positive and optimistic people tend to live healthier lifestyles ~ they get more physical activity, follow a healthier diet, and don't smoke or drink alcohol in excess.

Identifying Negative Thinking

  • Filtering:  You magnify the negative aspects of a situation out of all of the positive ones.
  • Personalizing: When something bad happens, you automatically blame yourself.
  • Catastrophizing: You automatically anticipate that the worst is about to come.
  • Polorizing: You see things only as either good or bad. There is no middle ground.

Focusing on Positive Thinking

  • Identify areas to change: If you want to become more optimistic and engage in more positive thinking, first identify areas of your life that you usually think negatively about, whether it's work, your daily commute or a relationship. You can start small by focusing on one area to approach in a more positive way.
  • Check yourself: Periodically during the day, stop and evaluate what you're thinking. If you find that your thoughts are mainly negative, try to find a way to put a positive spin on them.
  • Be open to humor: Allow yourself to smile or laugh, especially during difficult times. Seek humor in everyday happenings. When you can laugh at life, you feel less stressed.
  • Follow a healthy lifestyle: Aim to exercise for about 30 minutes on most days of the week. Follow a healthy diet to fuel your mind and body.
  • Surround yourself with positive people: Make certain those in your life are positive, supportive people you can depend on to give helpful advice and feedback. Negative people may only increase your stress.
  • Practice positive self-talk: Think about things that you are thankful for in life and when a negative thought enters your mind, evaluate it rationally and respond with affirmations of what good has happened.

If you have a negative outlook, don't expect to become an optimist overnight. Making a concerted effort will, over time, reduce the negative self-talk and find that you are less critical of yourself and the world around you.

Credit: Staff at Mayo Clinic