The Power of Positive Thinking
by Rob Schneider
When you’re feeling negative, all those books by self-help gurus about the power of positive thinking can seem more like wishful thinking than practical advice. Is there a scientific basis for the power of positive thinking? Can a positive outlook on life really improve your health? Many recent studies indicate that positive thinking can be more powerful than even the ‘gurus’ often give it credit for.
What Is Positive Thinking?
Critics of the power of positive thinking often say it is a naive world view that refuses to look at the facts. “Life is hard and then you die” is their motto. Psychologists and others who have studied the subject in depth disagree. Truly positive thinkers, far from hiding their heads in the sand, face life’s challenges head-on because they are able to learn and grow from negative experiences and take advantage of existing opportunities. An emerging field of psychology, positive psychology, takes a scientific approach to the power of positive thinking and has come up with some surprising revelations:
• Happiness is the cause of positive outcomes in life, not the result.
• Happy people tend to have deep religious or spiritual beliefs.
• Wealth does not bring happiness, but using one’s wealth to benefit others does contribute to personal happiness.
• Altruism is a surer road to happiness than hedonism.
• Happiness (or positive thinking) is a “skill” that can be learned.
The Neuroscience of Positive Thinking
Recent advances in brain imaging and other tools of neuroscience increasingly agree with the findings of positive psychology. Dr. Dacher Keltner of the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center is one of this growing number of psychologists who believe there is hard scientific evidence that human beings are “hard wired” to be happy and compassionate. For generations, we have equated Darwin’s Theory of Evolution with “survival of the fittest.” In fact, though, according to Dr. Keltner, Darwin argued that “sympathy is our greatest instinct” and is the key to our personal and collective survival. How is this possible?
Brain imaging devices have the ability to pinpoint areas of the brain that become active when we are engaging in a specific activity or feeling a particular emotion. When we are feeling compassionate, a part of the brain “lights up” that is directly connected to cerebral networks that release a powerful hormone called oxytocin. Sometimes called the “love hormone”, oxytocin is associated with our bonding instincts, whether sexual, parental, religious or cultural. More importantly for those who want to cultivate positive thinking in their lives, oxytocin makes us feel happy and can be produced with or without an external object of love.
On the flipside, the amygdala is a small organ in the brain that is responsible for triggering fear. When operating normally, it is an invaluable survival tool that aids in the release of adrenaline and other chemicals that cause us to react appropriately to immediate danger. The problem with the amygdala in modern society is that we are constantly bombarded with frightening news reports. A downturn in the economy, for instance, is cause for alarm, but is also a call to action. When we are unable to take positive action, the result is stress and anxiety. While a good night’s sleep will help (oxytocin, dopamine and other healing chemicals are released in sleep), when we wake up in the morning, we are again reminded of the “crisis” and, if we haven’t cultivated positive thinking, we are plunged into anxiety again. Left unchecked, this can lead to a fatalistic sense of despair.
Cultivating Positive Thinking
Neuroscientists have identified the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain just behind the forehead) as the brain’s “executive center” or “decision maker.” It is the area of the brain that allows us to step back from a situation and analyse it from a distance. Interestingly, brain scans of long term meditators have revealed that when meditating, areas of the prefrontal cortex become extremely active. Not only that, but the sense of happiness and bliss that they experience is partially a result of “feel good” hormones (endorphins) being released when the mind is in a meditative state.
Psychologists and neuroscientists have also studied the affects of “random acts of kindness” on emotional stability and positive thinking. Surprisingly, little things like holding a door open for someone can have a more beneficial affect on the person who performs the act of kindness than it has on the recipient. Kindness and compassion towards ourselves has a similarly positive affect. Studies have shown that “random acts of self-kindness” have the same affect as do those offered others. The simple act of physically giving yourself a hug or pat on the back has been shown to decrease cortisol (a stress hormone) levels and heart rate while at the same time releasing oxytocin.
Affirmations, too, have their place in positive thinking. Henry Ford’s statement, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right” is often quoted by self help gurus. If we are thinking, “I can’t”, we automatically respond with negative self imagery. When we think, “I can”, we are affirming our ability to overcome obstacles. In neurological terms, “I can’t” activates negative amygdaloid activity, while “I can” shunts neurological activity to the positive, creative areas of the prefrontal cortex.
The Power of Positive Thinking on Health
Stress has been identified as the most destructive emotion and there are direct links between stress and heart and other crippling and life threatening diseases. While few long term studies have been conducted on the causal connection between positive thinking and health have been conducted, those studies that have been done and anecdotal evidence confirm that positive thinking strengthens the immune system and assists in healing.
Science has only just begun to change its focus from the causes of mental illness and physical disease to the causes of happiness and health. While the evidence is not all in, the evidence accumulated so far affirms what most of us intuitively know: positive thinking leads to positive outcomes. Perhaps the greatest contribution made by positive psychology and neuroscience is that positive thinking is inextricably linked with virtues like kindness and compassion and is not dependent on material riches. It can incidentally lead to wealth, but more importantly, positive thinking leads to “wellth” of body, mind and spirit.