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Understanding the Psychology of Positive Thinking

Updated on May 20, 2017
annerivendell profile image

Anne has a BSc in Applied Psychology and has qualifications in counselling CBT & mindfulness. She teaches mindfulness workshops and courses.

Being Positive is a choice
• Doesn’t mean ignoring the negative
• Don‘t wallow
• Acknowledge you anger and then move on
• Break the pattern of negativity
• Benefit intellectually, socially and physically
• Recovery from major trauma possible
.•Try Mindfulness Meditation, or any meditation.

It IS a choice

Research has found that Positive Thinking is all about choices.

Most people do not understand that we have a choice as to how we react to situations and events in our life. When an individual is confronted with a situation, they think and act in a way that has been conditioned over time.

However, many people get ‘stuck’ with the same or similar negative reactions.

But we can make a conscious effort to react with positive emotions.

Jessica is disappointed
Jessica is disappointed | Source
Sarah takes another look
Sarah takes another look | Source


Jessica and Sarah have both made applications to universities and both of them get the second choice on their list.


Jessica is disappointed and reacts negatively, complaining and grumbling about how much better her first choice was, how much she wanted her first choice and how the second choice was second rate. She is de-motivated before she even begins at college.


Sarah is also disappointed but after a little while she takes another look at the second choice and decides it’s not so bad. After all, she chose to put it second because it does interest her and it will be a stepping stone to eventually reaching her goals. She begins to feel better.

Both Jessica and Sarah are keeping it real by acknowledging their disappointment but Sarah quickly moves on and finds the positive in the situation.

Try Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness Meditation

Of course, it's not always so easy to move on. The disappointment can hang around, invading our thoughts, even when we're trying to think about something else.

And that's where Mindfulness Meditation can be of benefit: Mindfulness Meditation,and indeed Mindfulness Living, trains us to live in the present moment, and this has more than one benefit.

When we are in the present moment, we're not thinking about past events or disappointments, nor are we worrying or fretting about the future. It gives us the opportunity to step back from our problems so that when we come to look at them again, we often see them with fresh eyes and a different perspective.

Mindfulness Meditation, in fact any meditation, can also reduce stress and anxiety and this in turn reduces the psychical manifestations of these problems.

Negative emotions ARE a reality of course, but...

Thinking positively does not mean ignoring the negative completely but it is about breaking patterns, becoming aware when we’re thinking negatively and not allowing it to become a knee-jerk reaction to every situation.

In fact, a ratio of 3:1, i.e. three positive emotions to one negative emotion per day, results in optimum benefit

Many benefits of positive thinking

What’s interesting about this is that not only will Sarah benefit immediately by feeling better and becoming motivated about college, but by training herself to think positively she will also improve intellectually, socially and physically.

This has been researched extensively by a well-known psychologist named Barbara Fredrickson in conjunction with several colleagues. Fredrickson refers to her theory as the Broaden and Build Theory [1].

Martin Seligman a "founding father" of Positive Psychology

Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program
Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program | Source

Recovery from Major Trauma

Of course, major traumatic events happen to most of us throughout our life, such as the death of a loved one, serious illness or accident or bankruptcy, for example. It's difficult to find positive thoughts about such events.

But Fredrickson and colleagues, along with Martin Seligman (the "founding father" of positive psychology") have also shown that individuals who have already developed a habit of consciously generating positive emotions with positive thoughts recover faster and have less lasting effects from traumatic events [2].

This has been taken on board recently by the U.S. Military Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program.

Lasting effects of positive emotions

The research shows that positive emotions are essential for positive personal growth. The lasting positive effect of positive emotions outweigh any negative effect of negative emotions.This has wider implications for our future well-being:

If we can cultivate a habit of self-generating positive emotions with positive thoughts, then this can result in a more open outlook. A more open outlook will result in us being more open to new ideas, situations and circumstances, something that we cannot avoid throughout life.

This open outlook in turn generates more positive emotions, resulting in more openness, and so on, overall significantly improving well-being [3].

Acknowledge your anger...
Acknowledge your anger... | Source
...and then move on
...and then move on | Source

Keeping it real

So, begin with the small things and work from there:

Next time you stub your toe, your neighbour annoys you or your car breaks down, acknowledge your feeling of irritation or anger and then consciously move on.

Think about what things means in the greater scheme of things. How is this going to affect your life? Perhaps there’s something you can learn from it? This is one area where Mindfulness Meditation is particularly helpful because it gives us the opportunity to acknowledge the present, and see things from a new perspective.

And the one that I always use: This time next week/month/year (depending on the situation) will I remember this? How will I remember it? Is it likely to be life changing? If it IS life changing, what changes are likely to be for the better?

Personal evidence of benefits of positive thinking

Below is a photograph of my daughter on her graduation day. Around it I have built in the four benefits of Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory.

My daughter was diagnosed as being dyslexic when she was thirteen years old. I asked her then how she felt about that diagnosis. She said “First I felt a bit disappointed and scared. But then I thought that at least it means I’m NOT stupid!” She continued to adopt this positive attitude throughout her academic life. My daughter went on to achieve an honors degree in history from the prestigious Trinity College, Dublin.

I did it!
I did it! | Source

Will YOU try it?

Would you be willing to try positive thinking for just one week and see how it works?

See results


[1] Fredickson, B.L., (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden and build theory of positive emotions. American Psychology, 56, 218-226.

[2] Tugade, M.M., & Fredrickson, B.L. (2004). Resilient individuals use positive emotions to bounce back from negative emotional experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 320-333.

[3] Fredrickson, B.L., & Joiner, T., (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science 12, 2


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    • annerivendell profile image

      annerivendell 5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you for your comment, Emily. No, I haven't read it. Must take a look, that you. :-)

    • Emily Cassel profile image

      Emily Cassel 5 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA

      I took at special topics class on Positive Psychology at Chatham University, where I am currently an undergraduate student! Such a fascinating topic. Great article! Have you read "The Social Animal" by David Brooks? I think you'd love it!

    • annerivendell profile image

      annerivendell 5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Thank you for such a kind and punny comment, kashmir56 :-)

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      I'm positive in thinking that this is such and interesting and well written hub. And if we all did more positive thinking every day we would benefit from it more and feel better about ourselves and life .

      I give you a positive vote up and more !!!