• Michael Stern

Can Positive Thinking Change Your Life?



Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash

Note: The original version of this article was published on CredibleMind.

I recently learned that all the windows in my apartment need to be replaced, leaving me to find another place to live before winter arrives. I initially thought, There’s already so much uncertainty, and now I have to figure out moving, too?! I could feel the anxiety and overwhelm creeping up on me.


At the same time, I found myself instinctively looking for the positive in the situation, imagining the possibilities of finding a less expensive place closer to nature. Seeing the ‘silver lining’ helped me feel excited and energized instead of afraid and paralyzed.


With everything going on in the world right now, it seems reasonable to feel anxious, overwhelmed, or exhausted. But it also gives us the perfect opportunity to focus on the good things in life and celebrate the many benefits that come from positive thinking.


Positive Outlook and Emotional Intelligence


As a trained emotional intelligence coach, I understand positive outlook to be a crucial component in the domain of self-management. According to Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, positive outlook is the ability to see the positive in people, situations, and events. It means being persistent in pursuing goals despite setbacks and obstacles.[1]


Research shows that a positive outlook tends to lead to positive emotions,[2] and people who frequently experience and express positive emotions are more resilient, resourceful, socially connected, and more likely to function at optimal levels.[3]


With practice developing your emotional intelligence, you can cultivate the ability to see the positive and the possibility in all situations.


Learned Optimism and Positive Psychology


Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, found that people with a ‘pessimistic explanatory style’ fall into patterns of ‘learned helplessness’ by believing that negative situations are:


  • Caused by their personal faults (Personalization: “Something is wrong with me”).

  • Long-lasting and/or unchangeable (Permanence: “I’ll never be good at this”).

  • All-encompassing and consistent across contexts (Pervasiveness: “This means everything is ruined”).


In contrast, optimists recognize that bad things happen, but they trust their ability to deal with stressful situations, view failures or setbacks as temporary and situation-specific, and believe that bad situations can change for the better.


By noticing when we fall into cognitive distortions, we can learn to adopt a more optimistic explanatory style.


Positive Thinking Is Not Magical Thinking


It’s important to remember that ‘positive thinking’ will not solve all of our problems, and research shows it can actually create more problems.


  • Struggling to suppress or control your thoughts and feelings may amplify their intensity.

  • Delusional positive thinking about outcomes can unintentionally make us feel as if we have already accomplished something we have yet to accomplish.

  • People who use self-affirmations will also use less effective reasoning strategies when presented with information that threatens their affirmations.

  • Untempered optimism can lead us to persist in situations that are actually dangerous, while ‘realistic pessimism’ may be more realistic and safer.

  • Some people use spiritual practices or metaphysical beliefs to avoid dealing with painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs, which is called ‘spiritual bypassing.’


So, we need to be mindful not to confuse ‘positive thinking’ with delusional thinking – thinking that ‘everything is going to be okay’ without any effort or discernment on our part. Instead, we can commit to learning from our experiences, showing up to participate fully in our lives, and finding ways that can contribute to improving our situation. And rather than striving for unconditional optimism in all circumstances, we can cultivate a generally optimistic outlook that is tempered by realistic pessimism.


How to Practice


Here are some simple, effective, evidence-based approaches you can take to develop your positive thinking skills:


Mindfulness practice can help you become aware of your internal dialogue and interrupt any repetitive negative thought patterns. It can also train you to return your attention to the present moment, which allows you to focus on what you can control and choose more optimistic ways to reframe your experience.


Acceptance and forgiveness. Acceptance does not mean giving up or giving in. It means allowing and acknowledging the full range of your experience. Once you have processed your feelings, you can authentically let go and move on.


Gratitude journaling can help you focus on the good things in your life and feel a sense of appreciation for yourself and others.


Positive thinking is an important element of resilience and wellbeing, but don’t beat yourself up for having challenging thoughts or feelings. Instead, remind yourself that life is especially challenging right now, and attend to your experience with curiosity, courage, and compassion. Also, connect with others who can help you reconnect with the good things in your life, and remember that you have the ability to learn, grow, and create positive change.


As we continue to navigate unprecedented uncertainty and disruption, now is the perfect time to remember that we are not alone, that there are people in our lives who love and support us, and that we can ask for the help we need.


[1] Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., Davidson, R. J., & Druskat, V. (2017). Positive Outlook: A Primer (Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence Book 5). More Than Sound, LLC.

[2] Fredrickson, B. (2003). The Value of Positive Emotions. American Scientist, 91(4), 330. https://www.americanscientist.org/sites/americanscientist.org/files/20058214332_306.pdf

[3] Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Positive Emotions Broaden and Build. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 1–53. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-12-407236-7.00001-2

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