There are countless benefits to being positive and if you are fortunate enough to be blessed with an optimistic disposition, then you will likely find that it makes almost every aspect of your life that much easier. The amount of evidence backing this up is huge and impossible to ignore.
Did you know for instance that those with positive emotions are more likely to live longer (1)? People who are positive are also more likely to be liked by their groups. That’s because people who are positive will say positive things and smile more when they are socialising. Facial feedback, mirror neurons and other mechanisms ensure that people feel positive around positive people and that makes them want to spend more time with them.
Marriages last longer when one or both parties have positive personalities. Positive work environments outperform negative ones. People with positive outlooks tend to be more open minded. People who exhibit positive outlooks are more likely to deal better with stress and adversity.
Positive thoughts can even improve your health and boost your immune system. Neurotransmitters and hormones associated with stress and depression actually blunt your immune system and leave you open to attack – they even suppress your ability to digest and absorb nutrients from your food.
Even more surprising is that positive thoughts make us more creative (2). The more negative emotions we feel in a given scenario, the more we focus on the things we’re worried about. This effectively shuts out alternative options as far as our thought process is concerned and this prevents us from coming up with creative solutions to problems or generally being inventive. This is also why introducing a time limit to a task encourages ‘functional fixedness’ – a fancy way of saying we get flustered and can’t think outside the box anymore.
Positivity may also lead to the oft-quoted ‘law of attraction’. This is an idea that essentially states that what we expect generally dictates what we experience. If you think you are important and successful, then you become important and successful. If you think everything will work out okay… often it will.
There are many logical reasons for this. For one, if you believe that there will be a positive outcome, then you will be more likely to take action and to take risks. This in turn means you at least create the possibility that you will be successful – versus giving up and accepting your fate. Positive people smile more and act in a more carefree way, which means that others will respond in kind – giving them a happier experience in the workplace and among friends and relatives. What’s more, is that positive people will interpret events as being successful more readily than negative people. The more positive they are, the more positive feedback they get from the world and from others.
Does this mean that pessimism has no value at all though? Not at all – and there are points where being too positive can be maladaptive. Being overly positive for instance can make someone less likely to recognize potential threats and dangers and can prevent them from preparing for negative eventualities.
For instance, someone positive might assume they are never going to get ill and thus be less likely to take out health insurance. Likewise, someone positive might be more likely to get involved in a bad investment, or to trust someone who eventually turns out to be untrustworthy.
Conversely, the pessimistic individual is more likely to have contingency plans and to take more measured risks.
We evolved to exhibit pessimism because it has clear survival benefits. Being pessimistic encourages caution, which means we’re less likely to take dangerous risks or to approach potential threats. Pessimism increases your likelihood of experiencing the ‘fight or flight’ response, which is essentially an extreme form of stress.
The only problem is that we are no longer at as much risk of physical threats. We don’t tend to encounter predators anymore and are rarely under physical attack from other humans. The dangers we face today tend to be more ‘long term’ and this is what can result in chronic stress and a more depressive outlook.
Overtime, this can lead to hypertension, increased likelihood of illness, worse sleep, poor digestion and a range of other serious issues.
So what is the best thing you can do? As is so often the case, the key is to find balance and moderation – to recognize the benefits of a little bit of pessimism but not let it rule your head. Practice seeing the best in people, seeing the best in the situation and trying to find the silver lining when things don’t go your way and learn to let go of stress. But likewise, try to assess situations with a little detached logic and think about the ways things can go wrong.
Plan for the worst but expect the best!