What Is Positive Thinking?
Bekhet and Zauszniewski (2013) outlined eight key skills that contribute to positive thinking that can be recalled easily using the acronym THINKING:
- Transforming negative thoughts into positive thoughts
- Highlighting positive aspects of the situation
- Interrupting pessimistic thoughts by using relaxation techniques and distraction
- Noting the need to practice positive thinking
- Knowing how to break a problem into smaller parts to be manageable
- Initiating optimistic beliefs with each part of the problem
- Nurturing ways to challenge pessimistic thoughts
- Generating positive feelings by controlling negative thoughts
You’ll note that this list includes techniques such as relaxation that may or may not be cognitive. Other researchers have explored the different dimensions of positive thinking and have suggested that positive thinking can be understood as a construct with four dimensions (Tsutsui & Fujiwara, 2015):
- Self-encouragement thinking
This involves thoughts about being one’s own cheerleader.
- Self-assertive thinking
This involves thoughts about doing well for others.
- Self-instructive and control thinking
This involves thoughts that guide performance.
- Self-affirmative thinking
This involves confident thoughts.
As you can see, positive thinking can be defined in different ways.
Benefits of Positive Thinking
First, positive thinking about the self tends to be good for wellbeing. For example, when people have confidence in their abilities to achieve, they are more likely to succeed and achieve (Taylor & Brown, 1994). Viewing oneself more positively than others also seems to buffer the effects of stress (Taylor & Brown, 1994). This evidence is mostly consistent with research on self-worth, self-confidence, and self-esteem (Miller Smedema, Catalano, & Ebener, 2010) – processes that may be considered types of positive thinking.
Second, optimistic thoughts are generally thought to be good for wellbeing. It doesn’t seem to matter whether these thoughts are unrealistic or not. Optimistic thinking tends to help people feel better, have more positive social relationships, and cope better with stress (Taylor & Brown, 1994).
Third, positive thoughts or beliefs about control appear to be beneficial. For example, believing that we have control during stressful experiences seems to help us cope better (Taylor & Brown, 1994).
Lastly, a general positive outlook toward life, oneself, and the future is considered so beneficial that it is often considered a part of wellbeing itself (Caprara & Steca, 2005).
Examples of Positive Thinking
So what are some examples of positive thinking? Let’s break positive thinking down a bit.
Past-focused positive thinking
Past-focused thinking that is negative or pessimistic may contribute to greater depression. Shifting these thoughts to be more positive can help us move past bad things that happened in the past.
Here are examples of past-focused positive thoughts that put a positive spin on the past while still acknowledging the difficult situation:
- “I did the best I could.”
- “That job interview went badly, but at least I learned what to do differently next time.”
- “I know my childhood wasn’t perfect, but my parents did the best they could.”
Present-focused positive thinking
Present-focused positive thinking can help us cope more effectively with our current challenges, decrease our stress, and potentially improve our life satisfaction. Here are some examples of present-focused positive thoughts:
- “I’m so lucky to have my friend Jane who really cares about me.”
- “That breakfast was so tasty and beautiful, and I enjoyed it immensely.”
- “Even though I may make mistakes, I always try my best.”
Future-focused positive thinking
Future-focused thinking that is negative or pessimistic may contribute to greater worry or anxiety. Shifting these thoughts to be more positive can help us stay more present and stop generating negative emotions about things that haven’t even happened yet. Here are some examples of future-focused positive thoughts:
- “It’s all going to turn out fine.”
- “I can’t wait to go to that event next week.”
- “I will continue to work toward my goals, so I know that my future is going to be great.”
By focusing positive thinking backward, in the moment, and forward, we can use it to resolve different types of negative thoughts and potentially improve multiple aspects of wellbeing.
Here are some resources to help you get started to build positive thinking skills.
Paying attention to positive events
A common and unfortunate habit is to pay more attention to negative, rather than positive events and experiences. We are often inclined to focus on one item of bad news among numerous other examples of good news, or a single criticism among multiple compliments. When you find your attention singling out or honing in on the negative elements of an incident, make a conscious effort to stop. It may take some effort, but try to draw your attention back to the positive aspects instead. One helpful way to practice your ability to refocus is by making time for a positive experience each day and consciously recognizing the positive aspects of it.
Choose an example positive experience from below to schedule into your day, and brainstorm any more you can come up with:
- Taking a walk in nature
- Listening to your favourite album or artist
- Cooking and savouring your favourite food
- Curling up with a great book
- Catching up with a friend or relative
- Exploring the countryside or the city
- Doing something kind for someone else
- Taking a long bath or going for a swim
I’m Great Because…
Sometimes we are self-critical because we just haven’t spent the time to think about what is great about us. Reflecting on our good qualities can make positive thinking easier.
I’m Great Because Exercise:
I like who I am because…
I’m super at…
I feel good about my…
My friends think I have an awesome…
Somewhere I feel happy is…
I mean a lot to…
Others reckon I’m a great…
I think I’m a pretty good…
Something I really enjoy is…
I really admire myself for…
My future goals are…
Try to include one or more positive experiences into your daily routine and with regular practice, you will build up your ability to focus on the positive.
Our physical and mental states impact on each other – if you’re physically unwell or unhealthy, you’ll have a tougher time regulating your emotions. Use this P.L.E.A.S.E. acronym as a reminder of how taking care of your body will positively influence your mind.
PL– Treating Physical illness
E– Eating Healthy
A-Avoiding Mood Altering Drugs
Our behaviours are usually associated with feelings or emotions that we experience.
When we feel sad, we might become quiet or look for a way to be alone.
If we are feeling annoyed, we might snap at someone or get aggressive.
The physical sensations we feel in response to our emotions can often drive our behaviours, and as such, doing the reverse can play a role in altering that emotion.
If sad feelings generally cause you to retreat inside yourself, try calling a close friend to talk instead.
If you usually snap at a colleague when you feel annoyed, try taking a deep breath and giving them
a genuine compliment about something instead.
My Love Letter to Myself
Exploring our positive qualities and working to better understand how they benefit us can help us value ourselves more. The purpose of this exercise is for you to identify your many great qualities and how they benefit you. You also will come up with ways to practice your strengths in daily life. This self-love exercise will help you to focus on your best traits, abilities and talents. In doing so, you are on your way to becoming a more self-confident and resilient individual.
Step 1: Think about the things you love most about yourself. Focus on qualities of your personality that make you unique, strong or lovable.
- I am: Honest
- I am: Brave
- I am: Creative
Now list your positive qualities below:
I am: ____________ ( list as many)
Step 2: Consider the ways in which these qualities have benefited you or someone else in your life.
- The quality of honesty has benefited me because my boss trusts me to work on important projects independently.
- The quality of bravery has benefited me because I got through a very painful situation in my life and became stronger because of it.
- The quality of creativity has benefited me because I have created artwork that I am proud to display in my home.
Now list the benefits of your positive qualities below:
The quality of _____________has benefited me because _______________________________________________
(add as many as you wish)
Step 3: Next come up with ways to honour these qualities in ways that are personally meaningful to you.
- I will remind myself that I am a good and honest person each day.
- When faced with challenges, I will remember the times I have overcome adversity in my life.
- I will continue to create because doing so makes me feel more fulfilled and content.
Now list the ways you will honour your positive qualities below:
Many more useful resources are available to help people build their positive thinking skills. Overall, the research suggests that cultivating positive thinking in counselling, therapy, or on your own is indeed a worthwhile endeavour. As the philosopher, René Descartes once said: I think, therefore I am. This seems true when it comes to positive thinking; if we think we feel good, then we do.
Enjoy your journey to a more positive path!!
Adapted from the PositivePsychologyBlog