Positive Thinking - The Superpower of Success
“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right” - Henry Ford
For years, positive thinking has been dismissed by many as new age mumbo jumbo. The term has been thrown around without much grounding in reality causing many of us to roll our eyes and shut off as soon as we hear it. In recent years however, modern science has begun to unravel the link between perception and cognition. We are now finding that positive thoughts do have the power to change your life.
A Stanford University Study published in 2018 was the first to suggest the mechanisms through which positive thinking affects learning. It found that students with positive attitudes increased learning, memory and problem solving skills.
So just how does positive thinking work? How can it improve a student’s results?
Our thoughts determine our reality
In life, we are unable to control what happens to us. Fortunately, we do have control over our interpretation of what happens. A famous 1978 University of Massachusetts study compared the happiness of recent lottery winners and recent victims of catastrophic accident who were now paraplegics. As you may expect, in the short term the lottery winners reported greater levels of happiness. Counterintuitively, in the long term there was little difference between the two groups. In fact, the accident victims reported slightly greater happiness from day to day activities.
What this suggests, is that it is not our circumstance, but how we choose to interpret it that determines our level of happiness. Take this example of two students who recently sat a mock exam and received a lower mark then they had hoped for.
Student 1 is prone to negative thinking. After receiving their result they thought “This is hopeless!” “I can never do it!” They gave up studying and unsurprisingly performed poorly in their exam.
Student 2 understand the power of positive thinking. After receiving a low mark they thought “Ok, this isn’t what I wanted but it's what I needed” “Now I know where I’ve been going wrong so I can fix my mistakes, I’m going to use this failure to motivate myself to succeed” Student 2 went on to pass their exam with flying colours.
Here you see two people faced with the same situation. Their different choices as to how to interpret the event lead to wildly different outcomes.
Positive thinking improves memory and our ability to learn new skills
As suggested in the 2018 Stanford study, simply having a positive attitude towards learning and your own ability can help you retain new information and learn new skills. What has been clear for some time, is the incredibly harmful effects of negative thinking on our brain.
Unfortunately, our brains are unable to tell the difference between real threats and imagined ones. By worrying and projecting imagined negative outcomes into the future you cause your brain to release a chemical cocktail of stress hormones. These have been shown to break down the hippocampus - the area of the brain responsible for forming new memories. Additionally, worrying has been shown to decrease cognitive function and our ability to complete complex tasks.
Positive thinking improves our immunity and resistance to disease.
We’ve all been there. We spend months preparing for an important exam or interview only to be struck down by a cold or the flu. The good news, is that the simple act of thinking positively about our situation improves the function of the immune system. Whilst the mechanism for this is still unclear, a 2010 study demonstrated the clear link between optimism and immunity. A study from Yale university found that people who have a positive outlook, live on average for 7.5 years longer than their peers. The authors of the study wrote - "Our study carries two messages. The discouraging one is that negative self-perceptions can diminish life expectancy.The encouraging one is that positive self-perceptions can prolong life expectancy."
Positive thinkers are more resilient and better able to confront challenges
As shown in the example of the two students, positive thinkers are far more resilient to challenges and adversity. The positive belief that you can overcome a challenge is the most vital part of the recipe for success. Did you know, that NBA hall of fame member Michael Jordan was dropped from his high school basketball team for not being good enough. Jordan went onto become perhaps the best basketball player ever to live. His success and resilience are largely thanks to his positive thinking and deep seated self belief.
How to think more positively
If you’re not practised in the art of positive thinking you may at this point think. “I can’t do it, this is just the way I am, I can’t change!” In some respects, you’re right. Psychologists have suggested that humans have a negativity bias built in. It was more important for our early ancestors to avoid danger then it was to sit around feeling great about themselves. Happy and content Homo Sapiens got eaten!
The positive outlook is that scientists are now confirming the concept of neuroplasticity. This is the brain's ability to develop new neurons and connections leading to new ways of thinking, feeling and acting. This ability is not just found in children and young adults, but instead across people of all ages. With a desire to change and concentrated effort, you are quite literally able to rewire your brain!
1. Make a decision to change the way you think
Without a conscious effort to take control of your own thoughts, your mind is at the mercy of being shaped by those around you and any negative events in your life. As we have seen, your brain more naturally clings to negative experiences and emotions than positive ones, so the firm decision to work consistently on cultivating positive mental habits is vital.
2. Work on your gratitude muscle
If positivity is the superpower of success then gratitude is the muscle that makes it happen. A 2003 study found that young adults who were asked to keep a daily journal of things they were grateful for showed an increase in determination, energy, attention and enthusiasm when compared to their peers. A 2012 study found that high levels of gratitude were associated with better sleep and lower levels of anxiety and depression.
So how can you improve this skill? A daily practice of noting down at least 3 things that you;re grateful for will have a truly profound effect on your life. Soon you will realise just how many more blessings you have then worries. For help getting started, please read “The benefits of a gratitude journal and how to start one”
3. Be mindful of what you “feed” your brain.
Your mental diet is as, if not more important than your physical diet. Just as eaten poor food will lead to poor physical health, a poor mental diet will lead to poor mental health. If you are not careful, the mental junkfood ever present in the modern world can leech its way into your mind and cause real damage to the way you view the world. Fortunately, the internet is filled with positive podcasts, videos and news stories and many amazing authors are just 1 click away on amazon. If you continually expose yourself to positive, uplifting and inspiring messages you’ll in turn become a more positive person.
It’s also worth considering who you spend your time with. It’s said that we’re the sum total of the five people we spend the most time with. Make a conscious effort to befriend and spend time with uplifting and positive people and watch your world change in no time.
Thanks for reading. I hope this blog has been of help and can help you cultivate strong mental habits which will help you succeed in your exams and wider life. As ever, if you need any help, be sure to be in touch.
Jan Ball Founder - Basing Tutors