William Shakespeare famously wrote, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." And science seems to agree.
The power of positive thinking – itself a famous book title from the 1950s – has been underscored by research that links a sunny outlook to better emotional and physical health.
A few years ago, Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina and author of the book "Positivity," conducted a study in which a group of adults were asked to practice "loving kindness" meditation.
Over time, the mediation produced a boost in the amount of positive emotions that participants experienced each day.
In turn, these emotions helped people feel more mindful, with a greater sense of purpose in life, increased social support and a decrease in symptoms of illness.
The meditators were more satisfied with life and less likely to report symptoms of depression.
"Positive thinking yields positive emotions," Fredrickson says. "It fundamentally changes the way the human brain works."
Positive thinking and its effect on the body
The beneficial effects of positive thinking can spread beyond your mind to other parts of the body.
For example, researchers at John Hopkins University found that people with a family history of heart disease were one-third less likely to have a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack if they also had a positive outlook.
The Mayo Clinic says other research has underscored additional benefits of positive thinking, including:
- A longer lifespan
- Increased resistance to the common cold
- Better ability to cope during times of hardship and stress
People who think more positively may even be able to lower their risk of diseases that affect the brain.
For example, a 15-year study of older people by the Karolinska Institute found that people who have a calmer outlook and a better capacity to handle stress can lower their risk of dementia.
Why positive thinking works
Experts still do not know exactly why positive thinking has these beneficial effects. But they have theories.
According to the Mayo Clinic, some experts believe that a more positive outlook helps people to better cope with stressful situations. That prevents stress from damaging their bodies.
Others say people with positive attitudes are more likely to engage in behaviors that promote health, such as exercise, eating better and avoiding smoking and excessive drinking.
Meanwhile, Fredrickson says that as people think more positively, it expands their awareness and helps them to become more flexible and creative.
"This greater openness fuels resilience, growth, purpose and connection – each of which contributes to mental and physical health," she says.
How to think more positively
So, how can you think more positively on a daily basis?
Fredrickson says one reliable way to experience more upbeat emotions is simply to make it a priority to engage in activities and associate with people who reliably unleash good feelings in you.
"Setting aside time for 'feel-good' activities is hardly just an indulgence," she says. "Evidence suggests that doing so may be as important to your health as staying active and eating your vegetables."
The Mayo Clinic also offers several suggestions for remaining more optimistic. They include:
- Identify ways to turn negative thoughts around. Which parts of your life trigger negative thoughts? If it is a job, a relationship or a money problem, try to approach the subject in a more positive, proactive way. Put a positive spin on negative thoughts.
- Use humor. Laughing at difficult times can reduce the stress you are feeling.
- Follow a healthy lifestyle. Many studies have shown that regular exercise can lift a person's mood. It also may help to learn meditation or another technique that can lower your stress levels.
- Use positive self-talk. Follow the basic rule of never saying anything to yourself that you would not say to another. Rather than criticizing yourself, be encouraging.