Editor's note: This story was updated on August 2, 2019.
Research shows that positive thinking can be learned with practice and used to protect against stress and depression, Jane Brody writes for the New York Times.
The 'plastic' brain
According to Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, fear, sadness, and anxiety are normal emotions everyone can experience from time to time. However, Davidson in his research has found that always giving into those feelings can have detrimental effects on a person's mental and physical health. People who recover from emotional setbacks slowly face a higher risk for several health problems, compared with those who recover quickly, Brody writes.
But Davidson and another researcher, Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, have found that the brain is "plastic" enough to generate new cells and pathways that could enable the brain—even one used to focusing on the negative—to foster positive responses.
And over time, according to the researchers, a brain retrained to focus on the positive can lower individuals' risks for a variety of health problems.
For instance, Fredrickson found that after six weeks of compassion and kindness meditation training, participants not only reported an increase in positive emotions and greater social connection, but they also had improved function in one of the main nerves involved in controlling heart rate. Separately, Davidson found that after just two weeks of training in kindness and compassion meditation, there were changes in brain circuitry linked to an increase in certain positive social behaviors, such as generosity.
"The results suggest that taking time to learn the skills to self-generate positive emotions can help us become healthier, more social, more resilient versions of ourselves," Fredrickson said.
8 steps to positive thinking
Based on research from Fredrickson and others, Brody suggests the following ways to boost positive thinking:
- Do good deeds for others. Brody writes that not only will this bring happiness to other people, but it can help brighten your day too.
- Build and nurture relationships. Strong social bonds with family or friends can improve a person's feeling self-worth. These connections are also associated with better health outcomes and longer lives.
- Set attainable goals. By setting out to achieve realistic goals, you can avoid the stress of falling short.
- Embrace who you are. Learning to love your strongest qualities and attributes can help keep sadness at bay.
- Practice resilience. Made a mistake? Don't sweat it. Instead, consider it an opportunity to grow and learn.
- Let go. Don't let the past get in the way of your future. Stay focused on the present.
- Learn something new. Taking up a sport or trying to learn a new language can help build self-confidence and resilience.
- Appreciate your surroundings. Take a moment to look at the world around you and begin to appreciate all it has to offer.
As Fredrickson put it, "Well-being can be considered a life skill. If you practice, you can actually get better at it." She added that sharing that positivity can have even more health benefits. "Shared positivity—having two people caught up in the same emotion—may have even a greater impact on health than something positive experienced by oneself," she said (Brody, New York Times, 4/3).
Next, here are 4 ways to be a less-stressed leader
Stress is endemic in today’s health care workforce, but the good news is that leaders have much more control over their stress levels at work than they might think. The most effective leaders take steps to proactively keep their own stress in check—while modeling healthy habits for their teams.
Use this infographic to review effective stress management strategies that can help you become a less-stressed leader.