It sounds too simple, doesn’t it? Fluffy and naïve. “Just be a little more positive and you’re bound to see results.” Healthy scepticism and an eye roll feel a fitting response. And yet the benefits of adopting a positive attitude are increasingly well-documented and steeped in research from leading academic institutions.
Having a positive attitude can transform how we view work and perform in our roles. It also, notably, has drastic impacts on our health and well-being. In fact, John Hopkins Medicine reported that those with a positive outlook on life but with a family history of heart disease were, “one-third less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event within five to 25 years than those with a more negative outlook.”1 All of a sudden that eye roll feels a lot less fitting.
To properly implement this advice of taking a positive approach, we must first understand what it is. And, crucially, what it is not…
A positive attitude
A positive attitude is not the same as a blinkered, fact-denying, all-is-shiny-and-well outlook. It does not mean contorting reality or pretending setbacks and difficulties aren’t real. That much positivity would of course, ironically, be a negative, transporting you into the realm of delusion. Indeed, research shows that people who are excessively optimistic might overestimate their own abilities and take on more than they can handle, ultimately leading to more stress and anxiety.2 That’s not what positive psychology is about. Rather, it’s about perspective.
Believing in yourself, trying to learn from setbacks and constantly improve, and attempting to make the most from a bad situation are obviously advantageous traits. But they’re easier said than done. Positive thinking is the tool you can use to turn them from being nice hypotheticals to actionable practices that impact your life and career.
Positivity in numbers
Research into the power of positive thinking has yielded some striking results. In a landmark paper3 published by The Royal Society, Barbara Fredrickson, a positive psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina, tested the impact of positive emotions on the brain, in which 5 segmented groups were shown different film clips (two groups seeing positive clips, one group seeing neutral, two groups negative) and were then asked to imagine themselves in a scenario in which similar feelings would arise and to write down what they would do, starting with the phrase, “I would like to…”
The two groups who saw positive clips – of joy and contentment, respectively – wrote down a significantly higher number of actions they would take than both the negative groups and the neutral. Essentially, the findings found that positive emotions helped broaden the sense of possibility in the mind and open it up to more options, while negative emotions narrowed the field of possibility.
Research into positivity in the workplace has found its impact to be similarly prominent. A study by Dr. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania found that optimistic sales professionals outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56%4. While Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, found that, “doctors put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis show almost three times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state, and they make accurate diagnoses 19% faster.”5 A separate survey found that optimists were 40% more likely to get promoted over the next year, six times more likely to be highly engaged at work and five times less likely to burn out than pessimists.6
Clearly, then, positive thinking has tangible benefits in the workplace and elsewhere. But for those whose natural disposition is a little less sunny, how do you start thinking on the bright side?
Techniques for positivity
The good news is that our thought impulses are not fixed. The patterns of our brains can be trained and altered until we’re able to wield them more effectively. In other words, if your natural disposition is to think negatively, you can change that – with practice.
There are a variety of practices you can bring into your routine to help make positivity a default. Atomic Habits author James Clear focuses on three7. First, meditation. The aforementioned Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues found that people who meditate daily display more positive emotions than those who do not, as well as displaying increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms.
Second, writing. Clear cites a study in the Journal of Research in Personality8, in which 90 undergraduates were split into two groups, the first writing about an intensely positive experience each day for three consecutive days, the second group writing 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.”
Third, play. Clear advocates for taking time to do some fun activities, even at the expense of work (within reason – don’t skip that big meeting to have a quick go on the swings.) Too often, he argues, we are slaves to our calendars, to the detriment of our merriment and well-being. Stifling our joy stifles our work too. In the long run, taking and making time for more enjoyable activities helps far more than it hurts.
Those are just Clear’s three staples. Advice from others includes starting a gratitude journal9 (documenting some things big or small each day for which you are grateful), adjusting your language to introduce more positive phrasing, or even just smiling. A University of Kansas study found that smiling – fake smiles included – reduces heart rate and blood pressure during stressful situations10.
Broaden and build
The benefits of positive thinking don’t stop at mood enhancement. For anyone looking at the numbers cited in this article and wondering, “how can a simple adjustment in temperament bring all those results?” The answer is that it’s not just about the improved psychology, but all of the other avenues that psychology opens up. This is what Frederickson refers to as “broaden and build.”
Because positive emotions broaden the number of possibilities you consider (as opposed to actively narrowing, as negative emotions do), you are then more likely to use that positive thinking as the launchpad to build more skills, resources and relationships, which then lead to further opportunities. By broadening the avenues you consider, positive thinking opens up a whole world of additional prospects. Essentially, then, positive thinking sets the wheels in motion for further success, which will likely produce further positivity – and so the cycle is born. As Clear says, “happiness is both the precursor to success and the result of it.”11
Bringing positivity to the workplace
The benefits of positive thinking are clear and obvious. And better news still, positivity spreads. Amy Finlay, co-founder of Edinburgh IFA, notes that “Exuding positivity can be infectious and, over time, can influence your co-workers.”12 The same is true for negativity, however, which is why it’s crucial for those in management positions to facilitate a positive workplace culture. If employees are imbuing each other with positive energy, they are more likely to concentrate, improve their productivity, volunteer for tasks, and better manage their time. If management lets a negative attitude set in, it’s bound to lead to worse productivity, sloppiness, and generally make the company an unpleasant place to be.
To cynics, adopting a positive mindset sounds like a frivolous, new age concept, especially compared with more tangible changes one can make to workplace practices. But in reality, positive thinking goes a long way to improving the quality of our work, our creativity, our attitude around the office, and our dealings with others. As well as just being a nicer way to live.
Looking for a more productive, fulfilling, happier work life? Why not give positive thinking a go?