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Positive Thinking: What a Positive Attitude Is (and Isn’t) and How to Develop One

“Think positive!” If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times. But despite so many messages telling us to be more positive, it’s incredibly difficult for some people to achieve this state of mind and even harder to hang onto it. As if that wasn’t enough, not everyone agrees on what it means to be positive OR negative. With all this confusion, it’s no wonder there are so many unhappy people.

Positive vs. Pollyanna

Part of the reason some people aren’t attracted to positive thinking is that we live in cynical times. People today are more likely to err on the side of negativity than risk appearing foolish to their “realistic” friends. However, you cannot build mental strength without some degree of positivity.

For many out there, positive thinking brings to mind Pollyannaism, which is a delusional tendency to ignore the negative in favor of the positive. Individuals who subscribe to this view believe that they will find whatever they expect to find. By this logic, they believe that if they look for only the good in a person, that is all they will experience. Conversely, if they look for negativity, they will miss out on all the good that person has to offer and probably judge them harshly.

From the perspective of the average Joe, it would seem as though the Pollyannists are in a state of denial. However, they do have a point, since everyone has good and bad points. It does indeed make sense to look for whatever good might exist in each person, as well as every situation in which you might find yourself. But the other side of the coin is that none of us are perfect and neither is life. Even the most good-hearted souls can be unfairly fired from a job, treated poorly by others, or become victims of violent crime.

Negative vs. Realistic

Another sticky point for some is what it really means to be negative. I can’t count how many times I’ve advised others to “think positive” about something they’re convinced is going to be a disaster, only for them to insist that they were merely being “realistic.” It’s hard to argue with someone like that, because they’re thoroughly convinced of the realism of their negativity, due to their own past experiences.

Take a person who’s considering a new career. If they’re the type who has never finished anything they’ve started, has had several failed careers already, didn’t do well in school, dropped out, or has low self-esteem, they’re unlikely to get fired up enough to get past the first step. Sure, they might initially feel some excitement. But when they encounter that first hurdle, they’ll look back at that poor track record and conclude that this will also fail.

Try as you might, you’ll have a tough time convincing them that their negativity is at the root of their problem. As far as they’re concerned, the only points of reference they have are their past experiences. This is why they feel that their prediction of failure is valid and realistic.

If there’s one thing they’re missing, it’s that they don’t have to keep doing the same things that led to their past failures. Remember that each day you’re alive can be a new start! You CAN learn from your mistakes, build new habits and BECOME the type of person who can accomplish your goals. There is NO valid reason why you can’t, but there are lots of excuses for not trying.

Tips for Developing a More Positive Attitude

It’s not easy to change your attitude and it’s definitely not going to happen overnight. Fortunately, there are ways to help lay the groundwork for a more positive mindset. Here are some tips for improving areas of your life that have more to do with your state of mind than you might realize.

1.) Avoid Negative People

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the attitudes of those you spend time with can easily rub off on you. While you can’t do much about difficult coworkers and immediate family, your choice of friends can make a huge impact on the way you see the world.

This doesn’t mean you should never talk to them again, of course. Just cut back on the amount of time you spend with these toxic individuals and seek out new friends that are more in line with who you’d like to become. Remember, if you’re a chronic complainer, you’re probably not the only one in your circle and it’s hard to get away from negativity with everyone adding fuel to the fire.

2.) Learn to Embrace Failure

Bad things happen to everyone and you will eventually fail at something. But these minor failures don’t mean that you have failed at life. On the contrary, they provide an opportunity to examine the path you’re on and the choices you have made. Maybe you failed a class in school or got fired from a job for repeatedly showing up late. This doesn’t mean you suck at life! It just means you need to reexamine your priorities, possibly rearrange them, and step up your game.

You can take that class again and hit the books harder than before. Maybe all you need is to set aside an extra half-hour per day to go over key concepts you’re having trouble with. You can always get another job, too. Just don’t make the same mistake again. Get a louder alarm clock, if you must. Have your work clothes ready the night before, so you won’t struggle getting out the door. It won’t be easy, but that’s all the more reason to get your shit together now. Make failure an opportunity to rebuild a better “you,” instead of an excuse to wallow in your sorrows.

3.) Exercise Regularly

There are many reasons why you should exercise, but one of the least mentioned is the positive effect it can have on your attitude. Scientists have long been aware of how effective exercise is at elevating the mood, relieving anxiety and improving self-esteem. A research team from Columbia University found that exercising just 2.5 to 7.5 hours each week can have significant positive effects on an individual’s mental health, helping relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety. While physical improvements in a person’s body undoubtedly help them feel better about themselves, it’s equally important to note the role of endorphin release during exercise.

Exercise is also a great way to practice challenging yourself. Learning how to face challenges is one of the best ways to increase your self-confidence, which can lead to a more positive attitude toward life and its difficulties. Each mile you run or rep you crank out is another hurdle you have jumped over. While these victories might seem trivial, they add up in your subconscious and can help change the way you approach your problems.

4.) Eat the Right Foods

At some level, we all know that what we eat affects our moods. It’s a shame we don’t think about this when we’re feeling down. Of course, it’s easier to blame outside circumstances than to make important lifestyle changes. The most important thing to remember is to reduce the amount of sugar and saturated fats in your diet. Blood sugar swings can leave you feeling tired and cranky. Foods high in saturated fat can also leave you sluggish.

On the other hand, Omega-3 fatty acids are known to affect your mood in a positive way. Fatty fish like wild salmon, freshwater trout and sea bass are loaded with these compounds, which can be instantly utilized by the body. Salmon is also rich in vitamin B6, which is essential to the formation of dopamine and serotonin. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to migraines and depression. Fiber rich foods like spinach, kale and other vegetables can also help stabilize blood sugar levels, preventing those unwelcome spikes and drops.

5.) Get Enough Sleep

A huge factor in maintaining a positive attitude is actually feeling good to begin with. If you’re carrying around a sleep deficit, you probably feel like crap each morning. How positive do you really think you can be when you’re starting out your day in such a low-energy state?

While you’re sleeping, your brain is removing toxic proteins that accumulate during your waking hours. This can’t happen while you’re awake, so losing out on sleep forces your body to hang onto these toxins, impairing your brain’s ability to think clearly. If you’re having difficulty going to bed at a reasonable hour, don’t attempt to fix it all in one night. Instead, try shutting it down 15 minutes earlier each night, until you arrive at an ideal time.

6.) Meditate

Another thing you can do to help stay positive is to devote a few minutes each day to meditation. If you’re wondering how this could possibly help, remember that having a positive attitude doesn’t mean you have to walk around in a constant state of cheerfulness. Instead, it means there’s an absence of negativity in your thoughts and emotions, which translates to a state of inner peace. When you’re at peace inside, you’re not fighting off negative thoughts and your natural tendency to think positive takes over by default.

Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing mysterious about meditation. You don’t even have to sit in a particular position for it to be effective. The simplest way to meditate is to just sit comfortably in a chair. As you turn your focus to your breath, your mind begins letting go of stressful thoughts. Don’t struggle to chase intruding thoughts away or you’ll defeat the purpose behind meditation. You’re supposed to sit there in quiet observation, not obsess over your inability to clear your mind.

Focus on each breath, both when you inhale and when you exhale. Inhale to a count of “4” or “5,” if that makes it easier. The point is to breathe fully and deliberately, focusing on each breath. When other thoughts intrude, simply acknowledge them and return your focus to your breath. You’d be surprised at the effect this can have on your state of mind, just by repeating this practice for 5 to 10 minutes each day. While the effect is not likely to be instantaneous, consistency is key.

7.) Focus on Gratitude

One of the most powerful strategies for maintaining a positive attitude is to focus on what you’re grateful for, rather than whatever might be going wrong. No matter how hard you try, you cannot control everything that happens in your life, so there’s no sense in dwelling on the negative.

If you woke up this morning, you have a tremendous advantage over those who did not. If you have all your limbs (or at least most of them), a working brain, a healthy heart, and your other organs are in good shape, you have the only tools you need to tackle anything life can throw at you. Those are the bare essentials you came into this world with and everything else constitutes an advantage. If you haven’t lost those, you’re still in the game and it’s up to you to keep moving forward.

Thinking positive isn’t meant to be a denial of reality. It’s about developing a view of the world that recognizes both its positive and negative aspects, without losing yourself in either one. While you can’t afford to ignore things you don’t particularly like, you also don’t have to seek them out or allow them to cripple your state of mind. Learning to be grateful for the good that comes into your life while learning from any bad experiences that come your way is what “positive thinking” is all about. Remember that to be strong minded requires a positive attitude.

Mark Abbott

10 Comments

  1. Excellent posy, Mark!

    Your take on “Positive vs. Pollyanna” is right on point. Embracing positive thinking is not about ignoring the issues or challenges in your life, that would be unhealthy. But rather, it’s a way of refocusing your energy. Instead of focusing on how much weight I’ve gained over the years, I can shift my focus to being grateful that my body and all my organs are still functioning, and that I can make the necessary adjustments any time.

    That last paragraph is powerful! Keep sending your positive vibes our way, Mark!

    • Absolutely, Veronica! We all have something to be grateful and at times it’s easy to take the basics for granted. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment!

  2. Hi Mark,
    I am so happy I have stumbled upon your site as it is exactly what I needed to read at this point in my life.

    I especially like the part about meditation as I have recently started to meditate for just a few minutes each day, by concentrating on my breathing, and repeating the words “breath in” as I inhale and “breath out” on exhale. It really works and with a little practice all the stresses of the day seem to disappear.

    I will make a note to visit your site again for more tips on a positive mind.
    Thank you,
    Debs

    • Anytime, Debs! I wish more people realized how powerful meditation is. Sometimes it makes all the difference. Thanks for stopping by and hope to see you on here again!

      Mark

  3. Hey Mark:

    I enjoyed your article very much. You are right that very often “positive thinking” has a bad rep because of a disconcerting tendency by its proponents to ignore things that are not so positive about some situation or other.

    However, I do agree that letting yourself lose focus and give up on the changes you want to accomplish just because there are obstacles and challenges that might make the outcome less than certain is self-defeating.

    There’s a thing somebody once said that points out a truth that might be worth repeating: You’re poor for real when you’re convinced that you can do nothing to change your own circumstances.

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