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?
Dublin is an inspirational setting. Past and present stories of resilience are written into the city’s fabric and carried by its people. In Merrion Square, there is a unique totem to hopefulness that stands out more than most, the Oscar Wilde memorial monument honouring one of Ireland’s lauded poets and playwrights. Memorably, in Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde wrote, ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’ The power of these lines goes beyond their poetics, positivity, or universality because they touch upon something more profound, the hidden strength of the human psyche.
Optimism is a source of scientific inquiry and has been studied extensively to ascertain its physical and psychological benefits. These studies are ongoing, but optimism supplements better health. Research shows that it is associated with contributive behaviours such as being physically active and not smoking (Boehm et al., 2018), a healthy diet score (Hingle et al., 2014), better sleep quality (Sims et al., 2019), and higher composite cardiovascular health scores (ibid, see also Hernandez et al., 2015, 2018). We still need to find out how and why optimism scientifically influences these diagnostics, but we know it yields clear-cut results with empirical certainty.
Other points of influence that may not affect you daily but are impacted by optimism include high capacities for surviving a disease, particularly heart disease (Tindle et al., 2009). Studies also correlate optimism with improved recovery from surgery, broader immunity, positive cancer outcomes, positive pregnancy outcomes, increased pain tolerance, and more stability amid other health concerns. In all of these metrics, those with an optimistic outlook had better results than those who were pessimistic.
Even more impressive is optimism’s association with overall health and longevity. Having a positive outlook is predictive of a greater quality of life (James et al., 2019) and a lower death rate (Rozanski et al., 2019). Optimistic people—whether by disposition, purposeful mindset, or praxis—lead healthier longer lives. Although living better or ageing gracefully does not determine success, health is essential if we approach success as a web of holistic factors related to achieving maximum performance. The evidence is unequivocal; having a positive outlook can boost your physical robustness and provide the platform from which you will most likely achieve consistent success.
What is more, optimism is blind. The data suggests that optimism is a boon regardless of demographic factors such as income level or general health. Maybe this should be less surprising since the positive thinking associated with optimism is also attributed to effective stress management. Stress may not be equal, but it is universal.
Mental health and mentality
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as a ‘state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realise their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community. It is an integral component of health and well-being that underpins our individual and collective abilities to make decisions, build relationships and shape the world we live in.’ Critically, WHO’s definition includes this addendum, ‘Mental health is more than the absence of mental disorders.’ It is more variable and directly assists our health continuum, which, by extension, aids our self-maintenance and performance.
Optimism is intersectional within the body and mind realms it inhabits. It supports psychological well-being, especially during uncertain times when the risk of deteriorating mental health rises. As recently as last year, a statement made by the American Heart Association (AHA) declared, ‘Positive psychological health is also multifaceted and may be characterised by a sense of optimism [my italics], a sense of purpose, gratitude, resilience, positive affect (i.e., positive emotion), and happiness.’
Moreover, mental health’s positive emotional and social dimensions help us foster productive relationships personally and professionally. Being aware of the many unseen components of mental health can help us generate empathetic responses to problems that arise with staff. None of this comes as intuitively as you might presuppose.
Our most recent 1% podcast with Dr Libby Sander identified some gaps in professional culture regarding expectations, an overemphasis upon certain kinds of productivity, boundary setting, burnout, the role of emotional intelligence in leadership, and even the physical space that we work in. I must reiterate Dr Sander’s points. Ultimately, everything is a possible component of our successes and our failures. It is up to us to harness them for our means rather than leave them to become something to be dealt with later.
Pushing out pessimism
Optimism’s counter-force is a balanced critical perspective, not pessimism. The AHA statement outlines that pessimism may be understood as ‘the tendency to expect negative outcomes or by the tendency to routinely explain events in a negative way.’ Just as optimism engenders varied physical and mental health benefits, pessimism is linked to unwanted outcomes such as cardiovascular risk and hopelessness (Pänkäläinen et al., 2019).
Optimism is an active process. Harvard Health Publishing explains that optimism is divided into ‘dispositional’ or ‘explanatory’ modes. Regarding the latter, being optimistic does not mean ignoring less pleasant situations. Accept them and approach unpleasantness more positively and productively. Imagine the best or at least the best possible scenario, not the worst. Be confident you can make it happen. Reconfiguring your visions to even moderately desirable outcomes is beneficial. On these terms, optimism is often a form of honest appraisal and reframing when unexpected or unwanted events occur.
Positivity often begins with self-talk. The thoughts within us can uplift or inhibit us. Much self-talk comes from logic and reason; listen to it. Equally, self-talk comes from misconceptions we create from doubt, if not fear, a lack of information, impossible or unrealistic expectations, and preconceived ideas of what will happen to or against us. These thoughts are not reasonable. Quiet them. Cynicism and downbeat steadfastness are not virtues and spread quickly in a pressurised workplace. If you tend to be pessimistic, you can still learn positive thinking skills. Optimism is part mind state, part mental practice. Identify negative thinking, and try to reduce it. Examples include filtering out what is going well and emphasising what is not, personalising setbacks or making them your fault when they are not, blaming others when it is your fault, expecting the worst possible outcome as opposed to planning for it, magnifying minor setbacks, setting impossible standards so that disappointment becomes a fait accompli, and adopting a polarising view of things as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ whereby leaving no room for nuance. Envision what you want to happen next or understand what remains possible and focus strictly on actualising it.
I began this article with a personal flourish intentionally. We are human, and success is not mechanical or natural. It is earned and does not typically follow a linear or smooth path. Similarly, goals require commitment, and so does our physical and mental health. If these elements in any way become a hindrance, our long-term professional performance will likely dip. Without question, our ability to reach and maintain maximal performance levels will be diminished.
In a piece fittingly titled, ‘The Optimism of Uncertainty, Howard Zinn reminds us that ‘To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, and kindness. What we choose to emphasise in this complex history will determine our lives.’ If nothing else, science backs up that very last point incontrovertibly. Zinn continues, ‘The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory.’
At this moment in time, the global context is bleak. War, economic, and energy crises loom overhead. More things are more uncertain than they have been for a while. All of which impact our work and our lives. We must take nothing for granted and care for our bodies and minds. We may not know why, but optimism significantly helps us do so.
Boehm, Julia K., et al. “Is Optimism Associated With Healthier Cardiovascular-Related Behavior?” Circulation Research, vol. 122, no. 8, Apr. 2018, pp. 1119–34, https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.117.310828.
Harvard Health Publishing. “Optimism and Your Health.” Harvard Health, 1 May 2008, https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/optimism-and-your-health.
Hernandez, Rosalba, Hector M. González, et al. “Association of Dispositional Optimism with Life’s Simple 7’s Cardiovascular Health Index: Results from the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos (HCHS/SOL) Sociocultural Ancillary Study (SCAS).” BMJ Open, vol. 8, no. 3, Mar. 2018, p. e019434, https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2017-019434.
Hernandez, Rosalba, Kiarri N. Kershaw, et al. “Optimism and Cardiovascular Health: Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA).” Health Behavior and Policy Review, vol. 2, no. 1, Jan. 2015, pp. 62–73, https://doi.org/10.14485/HBPR.2.1.6.
Hingle, Melanie D., et al. “Optimism and Diet Quality in the Women’s Health Initiative.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vol. 114, no. 7, July 2014, pp. 1036–45, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2013.12.018.
James, Peter, et al. “Optimism and Healthy Aging in Women.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, vol. 56, no. 1, Jan. 2019, pp. 116–24, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2018.07.037.
Levine, Glenn N., et al. “Psychological Health, Well-Being, and the Mind-Heart-Body Connection: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association.” Circulation, vol. 143, no. 10, Mar. 2021, pp. e763–83, https://doi.org/10.1161/CIR.0000000000000947.
Pänkäläinen, Mikko, et al. “Pessimism and Risk of Death from Coronary Heart Disease among Middle-Aged and Older Finns: An Eleven-Year Follow-up Study.” BMC Public Health, vol. 16, no. 1, Nov. 2016, p. 1124, https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-016-3764-8.
Rozanski, Alan, et al. “Association of Optimism With Cardiovascular Events and All-Cause Mortality: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” JAMA Network Open, vol. 2, no. 9, Sept. 2019, p. e1912200, https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.12200.
Sims, Mario, et al. “Optimism and Cardiovascular Health among African Americans in the Jackson Heart Study.” Preventive Medicine, vol. 129, Dec. 2019, p. 105826, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2019.105826.
Tindle, Hilary A., et al. “Optimism, Cynical Hostility, and Incident Coronary Heart Disease and Mortality in the Women’s Health Initiative.” Circulation, vol. 120, no. 8, Aug. 2009, pp. 656–62, https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.108.827642.
World Health Organisation. Mental Health: Strengthening Our Response. 17 June 2022, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response.
Zinn, Howard. “The Optimism of Uncertainty.” The Nation, 2 Sept. 2004, https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/optimism-uncertainty/.