How Can Positive Thinking Improve Health?

What you feed your brain grows in your brain, so cultivate happy thoughts.

People can improve their physical, mental, and spiritual health by maintaining a positive mind-set—but what exactly does that mean?

“People with a positive mind-set approach life with an intention to notice the good things around them,” explains Amy Segerstrom, Coordinator of The Healing Place: A Center for Life’s Journeys at HSHS Sacred Heart and St. Joseph’s hospitals. “That doesn’t mean ignoring bad things or denying they happen. Instead, someone with a positive mind-set puts those challenges into a  framework that acknowledges both good and bad without judgment, fear, or attachment to a particular outcome.”

Happy = Healthy

Many studies suggest a link between an optimistic outlook and improved mental and physical health. The landmark longitudinal survey of 70,000 nurses reported significantly

lower risk of early death from several major diseases in the most upbeat versus the least positive participants. Recent neuroscience research into the connections between mental state and health used imaging technology to identify the different parts of the brain activated by positive or negative emotions and the hormone changes each of them triggers in the body. Decades of psychological studies focused on why, rather than how, the association works. Theories include that optimists tend to engage in healthier behaviors and, when facing adverse health challenges, cope more effectively and feel more supported by others.

“People with a positive mind-set are also less likely to experience anxiety or depression,” Segerstrom says. “They have a healthier immune system and so are less prone to stress-related illnesses.”

While more research is necessary to fully understand the health benefits of optimism, a growing number of studies link attitude with well-being. 

The Pursuit of Happiness

You may find that optimism does not always come to you naturally, and that’s OK. Developing a positive mind-set takes practice, like learning a new language. Teaching your mind to actively seek out positive aspects of your surroundings and reframe negative situations means learning a new skill set, and Segerstrom advises paying close attention to your self-talk during this process.

“Whenever you catch yourself saying, ‘I wish this had happened,’ or ‘I have to do that,’ stop and reevaluate,” she says. “Try adding to those thoughts by saying, ‘I wish this had happened instead, and I’m grateful for what did happen,’ or ‘I don’t have to do that, and I get to do this.’ Little changes in the way you talk to yourself can make a big difference.”

Segerstrom also recommends forgiving yourself as you learn your new language of optimism.

“When you fall short of your goals, offer yourself compassion,” she says. “Learn to go with the flow. That practice is important to a positive mind-set.”

Some people find keeping a gratitude journal helpful. It provides an opportunity to look back on the day and find things that were enjoyable.

“I recommend people have some kind of daily gratitude practice,” Segerstrom says. “A journal is a great option because it can help teach your brain to look for positive aspects of a situation, even if it’s only to write them down later.”

For more daily practices to cultivate optimism, see “5 Habits of Positive People.”

Change Your Mind

Another activity that can help cultivate a positive mind-set is connecting with others. The Healing Place at HSHS Sacred Heart and St. Joseph’s hospitals offers several classes and meetings that teach the benefits and methods of positive thinking. Whether through

meditation, mindfulness, support groups, or classes, The Healing Place provides an opportunity to encourage others in their journey—and receive encouragement in return.

“Positivity begets positivity,” Segerstrom says. “We’ve all had the experience of being around someone who makes us smile and leaves us feeling good. As you learn more about cultivating a positive mindset, you become that person for others.”

 Call 715.717.6028 to learn more about classes and meetings at The Healing Place.

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