There's new science on the power of positivity—and it's not all about mind over body

By Cassie Shortsleeve
January 18, 2016
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We've all heard the powerful stories of positive thinking: The people who say a glass half-full attitude helped them do everything from power through the last few minutes of spin class to overcome debilitating diseases like cancer.

Some research supports the idea too. People who experienced heart failure were far more successful in recovery if they were considered optimistic, according to a recent study from Massachusetts General Hospital in BostonOther science has found that optimists have a better biological response to the stress hormone cortisol than pessimists. And one study from 2000 that analyzed nuns' journals found that a cheery attitude, as seen through the sisters' writing, to be strongly linked to longevity. (Check out The Health Benefits of Being an Optimist vs. a Pessimist.)

But could it really be that simply having happy thoughts can help you overcome the negatives in life?

Better Understanding Optimism

Unfortunately, that's not the whole story. While, in general, research confirms that optimistic thinkers live longer, see more work and relationship success, and enjoy better health, such a mindset also makes us more likely to take appropriate action: to follow doctors' orders, eat well, and exercise.

"The word 'optimism' gets thrown around a lot as just thinking positively, but the definition is the belief that when faced with a negative, we expect a good outcome-and we believe that our behavior matters," says Michelle Gielan, the founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research and author of Broadcasting Happiness.

Say the challenge is a disease diagnosis. Optimists will be more likely to believe that there are actions you can take to better your odds-and those behaviors (keeping up with doctors appointments, eating right, adhering to medications) can lead to better outcomes, Gielan says. While the pessimist may do some of those behaviors, with a more fatal view of the world, they may also skip key steps that could lead to a better result, she explains.

Mental Contrasting and WOOP

In her book, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, Gabriele Oettingen, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, explains this idea of happy daydreams not being sufficient: Simply dreaming of your desires, more current research suggests, doesn't help you achieve them. To reap the benefits of happy thoughts, rather, you have to have a plan-and you have to act.

So she developed something called "mental contrasting": a visualization technique that consists of envisioning your goal; picturing the good results associated with that goal; visualizing any challenges you may face; and thinking about if you're presented with a challenge, how you'll overcome the setback.

Say you want to work out more-you may picture your results as being more toned. Focus on that outcome and really imagine it. Then, start thinking about your number one obstacle in getting to the gym-maybe it's that your way too busy. Think about that challenge. Then, set up your challenge with an "if-then" statement, such as: "If I get busy, then I'm going to do XYZ." (And How Much Exercise You Need Totally Depends On Your Goals.)

This strategy, coined by Oettingen, is called WOOP-wish, outcome, obstacle, plan, she says. (You can try it for yourself here.) WOOP only takes five minutes per session and is a conscious strategy that works through non-conscious associations, Oettingen says. "It's an imagery technique-and everyone can do imagery."

Why does it work? Because it brings you back to reality. Thinking about possible setbacks and behaviors of your own that could inhibit you from reaching a goal provides real insight into your day-to-day-and hopefully enlightens you to tweaks you can make to bypass roadblocks.

WOOP is supported by a slew of data too. Oettingen says that people who do WOOP with respect to healthy eating consume more fruits and vegetables; those who work on exercise goals through the technique workout more; and recovering stroke patients who practice are more active and lose more weight than those who don't. (We've got more Therapist-Approved Tricks for Perpetual Positivity too.)

You Can Learn to Become an Optimist

Pessimistic by nature? Beyond WOOP-and making sure to focus on good-for-you behaviors-it's important to know that your outlook on life is malleable. Changing it is possible, says Gielan. Start with these three habits of highly-optimistic people.

  • Be thankful. In a 2003 study, researchers broke people into three different groups: one that wrote down what they were thankful for, one that wrote down struggles of the week,and one that wrote down neutral happenings. The results: In just a couple of weeks, the people who jotted down the things they were grateful for were more optimistic and even exercised more than the other two groups.
  • Set small goals. Optimists may be more likely to reap the health boons of happy thinking, but they also take small steps that show them that their behavior matters, says Gielan. Running a mile, for example, may not be a huge goal for some people, but it's something that's manageable and that you can see results from-motivating you to continue training or hitting the gym.
  • Journal. For two minutes a day, write down the most positive experience you've had in the last 24 hours-include everything you can remember like where you were, what you felt, and what exactly happened, suggests Gielan. "You're getting your brain to relive that positive experience, fueling it with positive emotions, which can release dopamine," says Gielan. Take advantage of this high by hitting the pavement post-journaling sesh: Dopamine is closely linked with motivation and rewarding behaviors. (P.S. This Method of Positive Thinking Can Make Sticking to Healthy Habits So Much Easier.)