Decoding The Mind: Here’s The Difference Positive Thinking Can Make

Mar 21, 2019

Dr. Ashley Margeson

Dr. Ashley Margeson



It’s common knowledge that having a positive attitude feels better than having a negative one. But while the concept of positive thinking is something that is known to everyone, not all of us are aware of exactly how we can be optimistic every day and how to see the good in every situation. In fact, positive thinking isn’t just about having “happy” thoughts; it’s can actually create real value in your life and help you build skills that last much longer than a smile.


The true impact of positive thinking on your work, your health, and your life is being studied by people like Barbara Fredrickson, and her work is fascinating. She published a landmark paper back in 2004 that provides some pretty interesting insights about positive thinking and its impact on your skills.

What Negative Thoughts Do To Your Brain:

Researchers have long known that negative emotions program your brain to do a specific action. Like when you’re walking in the woods and come across a bear, for instance, that negative emotion (fear) signals your brain to complete a very specific reaction; run.

This is a useful instinct if you’re trying to save life and limb, but in our modern society we don’t really have to worry about stumbling across bears 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. In medicine we call this your fight or flight response.

Let’s bring you into the modern day world… when you are stressed out about everything you have to get done today, you may find it hard to actually start anything because you’re paralyzed by how long your to-do list has become. Maybe you feel bad about not exercising or not eating healthy, all you think about is how little motivation you have, how you’re lazy, and how there’s no point in trying because you’ll just fail anyway.

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 bear. Negative emotions prevent your brain from seeing the other options and choices that surround you. It’s your survival instinct.

So where does positive thinking come in? Enter Barbara Fredrickson.

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. Groups 1 and 2 were shown clips that emoted positive reactions. Group 4 and 5 were shown clips that emoted negative reactions and Group 3, the control group, were shown clips that emoted neutral reactions.

She then gave her subjects a task and asked them to list as many things they could think of that they would complete. To no-one’s surprise the groups who were shown negative clips came up with far fewer responses than the groups shown positive clip. Those in the positive clips group wrote down a significantly higher number of actions that they would take, even when compared to the neutral group.

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

The Broaden-And-Build Mindset:

Fredrickson refers to something known 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.

Think of a child who runs around outside, swinging on branches and playing with friends. That child 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.

It is 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.

Today’s Applications:

What you can do to increase positive thoughts 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 piano. Maybe it’s spending time with a certain person. Maybe it’s gardening, maybe it’s building a fire… point is, there’s no perfect thing that you have to do. You just have to do it.

Research also shows that mindfulness meditation and writing are critical in helping to build that positive thinking. Focusing on the positives with meditation for even just a few minutes a day can have lasting benefits, and consistently writing builds a positive reinforcement with that habit.

But while meditation and writing are great, my favourite way to build positive thinking habits into your life is to play. Do what kids do. Explore, get messy, make mistakes. 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?

Let your creativity unleash.

Your brain, your body and even your future will thank you.

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