Use these 5 strategies to build a positive thinking habit and increase happiness
When you harness the power of positivity, it’s amazing the impact it has on your life. It can decrease stress and make every moment worth experiencing. By thinking positive, you just can’t help but be optimistic, even when everyone around you is miserable. As a result, you are happier, less depressed, and more satisfied. The benefits of positive thinking are vast. So how do you train your brain to think positive?
1. Strengthen your memory for positive information
Did you know that you may be able to increase your positivity just by memorizing lists of positive words? It’s because when you force your brain to use positive words frequently, you make these words (and their basic meaning) more accessible, more connected, and more easily activated in your brain. So when you go to retrieve a word or idea from your memory, positive ones can come to the top more easily.
Not sure which words are positive? Psychologists have painstakingly measured thousands of words to determine how positive and negative they are. If you’re struggling to think positive, try this strategy first. It can help develop your brain in ways that may make the other positive thinking strategies easier to implement.
2. Strengthen your brain’s ability to work with positive information.
Once your brain has built strong neural networks for positive words, try to extend these networks by asking your brain to use positive information in new ways. For example, you could memorize positive words and set an alarm that reminds you to recall these words, in reverse order, an hour later. Or, you could print out positive words on cards, cut them into two pieces, shuffle them all together and then find each card’s match. For example, the word “laughter” would be cut into “laug” and “hter.” To match the word pieces, your brain has to search through lots of positive information to find what it’s looking for. This positive memory recall task may make it easier when you try to think positive.
Are you one of those people who notices the bad stuff—like when someone cuts you off in traffic or your food doesn’t taste quite as good as you wanted it too? Then you likely have trained your brain to focus on the negative, and your brain has gotten really good at it. It can be really challenging to undo this training. So instead, train your brain to be even better at focusing on the positive.
Just routinely focus on positive information and direct your attention away from the negative. Need help paying attention to the positive?
Did you know that you can condition yourself for positivity? If you’ve ever taken an intro to psychology course, you’ve probably heard about the study of Pavlov’s dog. Here is a quick refresher:
Pavlov had a dog. Pavlov would ring a bell to tell his dog that it was almost feeding time. Like most dogs, Pavlov’s dog would get really excited when he was about to get fed. So he’d drool all over the place. What happened? Well, suddenly Pavlov’s dog started getting excited just by the sound of that bell, even when food wasn’t present. Eating food and the sound of the bell became linked in the dog’s brain. Something as meaningless as a bell was now making the dog excited.
This effect is called classical conditioning. It’s the idea that when two stimuli are repeatedly paired, the response that was first elicited by the second stimulus (food) is now elicited by the first stimulus alone (the bell). This happens all the time without us even realizing it. For example, the favorite food for many of us is something that we ate as a child with our families. What likely happened was the positive feelings of being with family and the particular food got paired in our brains. As a result, we now get the warm-fuzzy feelings that we got from spending time with family just from eating the food alone, even if our family is not currently present when we eat it.
Although your environment is conditioning you to react in particular ways all the time, if you know what you’re doing, you can use classical conditioning to boost your positivity. You do exactly what Pavlov did. You just repeatedly link boring things (like a bell ringing) with positive thoughts and feelings over and over again. Pretty soon, these boring things will generate positivity automatically. That’s classical conditioning at work. This can help you think positive because when you are going about your life, maybe even feeling bummed about stresses or challenges, you’ll have these little positive moments that keep you energized and in a good mood.
Of course, thinking positive has its benefits. But thinking positive isn’t always the best response. Negative thoughts sometimes have benefits, too.
When we are sad or grieving, thinking negative thoughts and showing the emotions that these thoughts create helps us communicate to others that we need their support and kindness. When we are treated unfairly and get angry, our thoughts can help motivate us to take action, make changes in our lives, and change the world. Casually pushing these negative emotions aside without seriously considering their origins can have negative consequences. So when you focus on the negative, ask yourself, is this negative emotion resulting in action that improves your life? If so, then keep it. If not, then work on changing it.