Thursday, November 22, 2012

Positive Thinking

The mind is a funny thing. It's amazing what power our thoughts can have. Repeatedly, studies have shown that the way people think about a problem or situation contributes immensely to whether the outcome is positive, negative, or neutral. Positive expectations, interpretations, and remembrances strongly influence coping and resilience.

Thoughts serve as a filter for information, filtering in information that is consistent with our thoughts, and filtering out information that is inconsistent with them. As a result, our expectations shape how we perceive an experience. Expecting positive things to happen means that we are primed to notice positive things as they occur. Similarly, expecting positive outcomes makes us more likely to act "as if" those outcomes were going to happen...and that, in turn, actually makes our desired outcomes more like to occur. Negative expectations are more likely to fuel avoidance and procrastination.

Interpretations are the meanings we give to circumstances and experiences. We take in the "raw material" of life, and our minds automatically seek to make sense of it - to fit it into the mental story we have about ourselves and our lives. There are invariably multiple possible interpretations of any one event or experience. The interpretation we use shapes our emotional and behavioral responses, and also tends to filter out aspects of the situation that are inconsistent with that interpretation. When we interpret things in a positive light, we feel more positive emotions, and respond with more positive behavior.

Finally, the way we remember things shapes how we feel about our experiences, how we cope with them, and whether we rebound or even grow from difficult experiences. Our thoughts serve as filters that determine what aspects of a situation (positive, negative, neutral, or a mix) are remembered and recalled when we think about the experience. While remembering negative things can be helpful in learning from them, remembering predominantly negative things contributes to discouragement, depression, anxiety, and avoidance.

While nobody thinks positively all the time, thinking more positively than negatively fosters better mental health. In fact, even when a positive perspective is less "realistic" than a negative or neutral approach, research shows that positive thinkers feel and function better. So, practice positive thinking: expect positive things to happen, look for more positive ways to interpret your experiences, and be sure to remember the positive aspects of those experiences!

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