Have you ever started to complain and then stopped yourself mid-sentence? Perhaps you tried to let go of the complaint by reminding yourself of something you’re grateful for. But that gratitude list may feel more like an admonishment than a blessing: “I shouldn’t be so negative when I have lots to be thankful for, like my health and the fact that I have food to eat. What’s wrong with me?”
At least once a year on Thanksgiving, Americans young and old recite gratitude lists. But it can be hard to feel visceral gratitude—your body suffused with warmth, your heart swelling with love for the world around you. These pleasant moments pass quickly, and in their wake negative thoughts often rush back in.
If this sounds familiar, there’s no reason to blame yourself. Our brains are hardwired to notice the negative more than the positive; it’s how we survived during hunter-gatherer times. Imagine our ancestors in the middle of nature, their lives devoted to finding food and protecting their young. The men out hunting would be on the lookout for threatening animals or other humans competing for the same food. The women left behind were vulnerable and the children they cared for even more so. It’s easy to see why focusing on negative possibilities and actively looking for threats kept these early humans alive. The concept of positive thinking would have baffled them.
Today we’re learning more and more about the power of positive thinking. In an article about the work of positive psychology researcher Barbara Frederickson, James Clear explains that positive emotions create a sense of possibility in our minds. Think of the last really good time you had, maybe a dinner with friends or a fun afternoon with your family. Afterward, did you find yourself flooded with a happy feeling that the world was open before you with good things waiting on the horizon? That’s how positive thinking, which creates positive emotions, benefits the brain.
Subsequently, positive thinking makes it easier to learn new skills and accumulate resources for the future. Now think of the worst time in your life, the grief-stricken aftermath of losing a loved one or a traumatic experience like divorce or job loss. You probably struggled just to get out of bed in the morning and make it through an average day. It wasn’t a time to realize your dream of speaking French or training for a marathon. Taking risks and learning new skills happens when we feel secure, happy, and hopeful about the future. This is the power of positive thinking.
Positive thinking may sound appealing, but how can one actually put it into practice? The simplest way is to think of what brings you joy—a hobby, time with loved ones, a walk in nature—and do more of it. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by your busy schedule, focus on finding small increments of time when you can be present to enjoy a favorite activity. Later, tell friends and family about the nice time you had, or record these happy moments in a journal. The more you focus on the good things in life, the less you’ll think of the bad.
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