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There is no question that positive people are happier, more successful, and healthier than negative people. Several studies have established the role of positivity and optimism on health—essentially, the power of positive thinking. People who are optimistic have a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, even after taking into account other important risk factors, such as obesity and smoking. There is also evidence that people who experience a high level of positive emotions are less susceptible to the cold virus and have a reduced risk of dying from any medical cause.
A positive approach can also foster success. One study showed that use of more positive words during company meetings is associated with financial success. Similarly, by looking at the proportion of optimistic versus pessimistic comments made by sport team members in the press, researchers were able to predict with high accuracy which National Basketball Association teams were able to come back from defeat and which would crash and burn.
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Proponents of the Power of Positive Thinking
The notion that positive thinking can be beneficial was a key element in the work of Rev. Norman Vincent Peale. In his many lectures and writings, including the 1952 bestselling book The Power of Positive Thinking, Peale advocated the use of confirmations and visualizations to help build a positive attitude. Standing in front of the mirror and saying something like “I am good enough” or “I deserve to be happy” is the kind of activity Peale recommended.
While it was popular for a time, Peale’s approach came under criticism for failing to address the reality of people’s situations or providing any practical tools for helping people overcome their real-life challenges. Peale also failed to provide any concrete evidence that his techniques worked.
The Positive Psychology Movement
Positive thinking has morphed into a more evidence-based approach called positive psychology, with Martin Seligman as the movement’s key founder.
To really understand the difference, it helps to recognize what positive psychology is not. It is not denial of reality, of “seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, or of “faking it ’til you make it.” It is not pretending to be happy when you are not, and it is not forced cheerfulness in the face of difficult times. To have an impact, positive emotions need to be authentic.
Positive psychology is actually about helping people to be more realistic in their worldview and learning the tools needed to face adversity, overcome challenges, and enhance well-being.
Humans have evolved to the point of being highly attuned to danger in the environment. Those who came before us and survived wild animal attacks, floods, earthquakes, and other adversity by being constantly wary of danger in their environment passed their genes onto subsequent generations. In today’s world, however, a constant underlying fear that disaster may strike at any time is actually counterproductive.
Our author, an award-winning journalist specializing in health, lifestyle, and medicine, wrote the forthcoming University Health News book Positive Thinking. Available in late 2018, the special report covers the benefits of a positive attitude, how to remain positive, and such traits as self-esteem, self-control, gratitude, forgiveness, and how to cope with change.
PERMA and the Theory of Positive Psychology
Dr. Seligman and his team have broken down the sense of well-being into five measurable elements that can be remembered through the acronym PERMA:
- Positive emotions: This includes happiness and life satisfaction.
- Engagement: Participating in activities that absorb your full attention, thus creating a positive state known as “flow.”
- Relationships: Nurturing strong, positive connections with loved ones.
- Meaning: Finding a deep purpose to your life beyond simply gaining material wealth.
- Achievement: Working toward achieving meaningful goals.
Tools of Positive Psychology
The tools of positive psychology focus on fostering each of the features of PERMA. Note that they promote well-being rather than try to simply eliminate negative emotions, which Dr. Seligman says can leave people feeling empty rather than happy.
Some of these tools include:
- Identifying your strengths: Take the “Values in Action Signature Strengths Test” survey, available on the University of Pennsylvania’s Authentic Happiness webpage (registration is required).
- Learning how to use your strengths in the face of adversity: Purposefully use your strengths in new ways at home, at work, and during your leisure activities.
- Noticing the positive: Every night for a week, write down three things that went well that day and why they went well.
- Cultivating gratitude: Write a short but concrete letter of gratitude to someone in your life, deliver it in person, and read it aloud to them.
Evidence of Benefits of Positive Psychology
Dr. Seligman and his team have used the tools of positive psychology to develop the Penn Resiliency Program, which they implemented in several high schools. It has been shown to reduce and prevent depression and anxiety, reduce hopelessness, and enhance optimism and well-being among the students. There is also evidence that the students’ health and behavior also improved. Importantly, it was effective for children of differing racial and ethnic backgrounds.
They are also working with the U.S. Army, using the tools of positive psychology to help soldiers emerge from adverse events with post-traumatic growth instead of post-traumatic stress disorder. Their successes so far demonstrate the power of positive thinking even in the face of severe trauma and adversity.
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