It’s nearly the next decade, which means you’re probably thinking about some decade-level New Year’s resolutions. Y’know — positive goals to ring in the new year on a happy note that’s surely going to disappoint come January 8th. Nonetheless, we persist because, in a wellness world, positive thoughts and positivity in general are basic means of survival. Without them, we’d be left to confront the truth of reality — that all roads, even the paved ones, are dirt.
But enough negativity! 2020 is all about the good; looking at the cup-half-full and such. There are so many folks peddling positive thoughts that it almost seems ignorant not to acknowledge that maybe these weirdos are onto something… right?
Are they really, though?
They are! In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic, though it’s unclear why, research suggests that positive thinking leads to myriad health benefits. Per their report, the benefits include, “Increased life span, lower rates of depression, lower levels of distress, greater resistance to the common cold, better psychological and physical well-being, better cardiovascular health and reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease, better coping skills during hardships and times of stress.”
Those all sound a bit general — is there a specific study that confirms positive thoughts are good for my health?
Yes! Research from Johns Hopkins found, “People with a family history of heart disease who also had a positive outlook were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event within five to 25 years than those with a more negative outlook.” “The mechanism for the connection between health and positivity remains murky, but researchers suspect that people who are more positive may be better protected against the inflammatory damage of stress,” reports HopkinsMedecine.org. “Another possibility is that hope and positivity help people make better health and life decisions and focus more on long-term goals. Studies also find that negative emotions can weaken immune response.”
Does everyone believe in the positive-thinking movement?
Not exactly. In 2016, writer Alex Balk notes that not all positive thinking is actually beneficial. In his article on why it’s a lie, Balk reports that one 2012 study undertaken at the University of Queensland and published in the journal Emotion “found that when people think others expect them to not feel negative emotions, they end up feeling more negative emotions.”
“A 2009 study published in Psychological Science found that forcing people to use positive statements such as ‘I’m a lovable person’ can make some feel more insecure,” reports Balk for The Awl.
Additionally, per another study from New York University, researchers found that while positive thoughts lead to greater happiness in the immediate future, they could also lead to depression down the road. “As The Secret would have you believe, students who ended their scenarios on a more positive note presented fewer signs of depression, but only in February,” reports Pacific Standard. “A month later, exactly the opposite was true: The more they concocted positive endings to their scenarios, the more depressed they were in March, relative to how they felt in February.”
That seems terrifying. Where did all this positive thinking come from, then?
In his book, One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life, author Mitch Horowitz actually looks back at the modern origins — beginning in the early 20th century — of positive thinking. “A French hypnotherapist, [Emile] Coué was the target of endless mockery for prescribing anxious modern people with a simple daily affirmation: ‘Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better,’” reports BoingBoing.
But even before Coué, Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus was known for his contribution to the positive-thoughts movement. Famously, he said, “The thing that upsets people is not so much what happens, but what they think about what happens,’” reports Get Self Help. In fact, the basis of all ancient stoic philosophy is founded on the power of positive thinking.
Fine — if the ancient Greeks believed in it, it’s good enough for me. How do I get started?
There’s a seemingly endless number of ways to start forcing your brain to lean into more positive thinking than it currently does. By and large, however, it all starts with identifying your inner dialogue and noting every time it’s riddled with negative thoughts. “As you notice yourself saying something negative in your mind, you can stop your thought midstream by saying to yourself (or in your head), ‘Stop!’” reports Inc. “Saying this aloud will be more powerful, and having to say it aloud will make you more aware of how many times you are stopping negative thoughts and where.”
In that way, the power of positive thinking is about conceding that all thoughts, the good ones and the bad ones, are irrational and therefore worthless. Welcome to 2020 — the decade of brain nihilism.