Does positive thinking feel impossible? 5 practical strategies for finding the bright side of life
Nobody’s happy all the time. Happiness is a mood state that fluctuates. But positive thinking is a mental attitude that can be stable. You can learn to maintain a positive attitude because it’s all about decision-making.
So, how does positive thinking work? It’s not about everything being great. It’s about moving forward with the notion that, even though things can be difficult, you will find the best solution. You’ll take small steps every day to focus on the bright side and change your life.
So, what can you get out of it? The evidence supporting its health benefits is very strong: people with positive mindsets are said to recover faster from surgery and feel less pain when experiencing chronic conditions.
My experience comes mainly from hospital work. I’ve worked with patients facing everything from lung transplants to chronic disease. They might have clinical depression related to their medical condition. They get diagnosed, can’t accept it and create a psychological barrier.
That leads to other problems, like not attending consultations or not taking medication. The way you think has a huge knock-on effect, but you’d be surprised by how a person’s mindset can be transformed.
Negative thinking is not all bad, either. It’s a survival mechanism in our brains and why we made it as a species! However, if it gets out of hand and when you feel like nothing is going to get better, positive thinking can make a real difference.
Whenever you need help moving towards a more positive frame of mind, or just need to talk, there are a lot of supports you can lean on.
Here are some verified, practical strategies that can also help you to think positive:
- Take control of ‘learned helplessness’
When we repeatedly face stressful situations, it can reinforce negative thought patterns. We feel incapable of change and unable to control our circumstances. A voice in your head says: ‘I can’t do this, I’m not strong enough.’
Where did that voice come from? At some point in your life, you heard it and started to believe it. It might have come from a teacher after you received a poor exam result, or your grandmother when you were not playing the violin well, and so on.
Whatever it was, that voice became your voice. You kept repeating it and internalised it, creating behaviours to sustain that narrative. We like to prove ourselves right, so if you think that you are no good, you find something in your head to back it up.
If you can identify where that narrative comes from, you can start loosening its grip.
2. Challenge negativity with self-compassion
Self-compassion can help us when our mind plays tricks. People say, “I never get anything right” but what’s the likelihood of you always being wrong? To start with, it’s likely you do plenty of things well throughout the day – you drive your car and you cook meals. Focus on these.
You need to challenge your thoughts every step of the way. If you catch yourself saying you’re no good, ask yourself: ‘Would I say that to a friend or somebody in pain?’. What you will find is that we are very compassionate to other people, but very harsh on ourselves.
3. Develop ‘psychological flexibility’
We all find ourselves in challenging situations at times but try to remember that it won’t last forever. In order to do that, you need to connect with the present moment, however difficult, and pivot emotionally to handle it.
Let’s say I’m walking along the canal, a cyclist flies by and I’m pushed into the water. A negative-focused person would dwell on what’s already happened and the cause of it. As they start to sink, they’re holding onto anger and roaring at the cyclist: “Where do you think you’re going!?”
In contrast, a positive mental attitude is: ‘Okay, what’s the best thing to do now? I should get out of the canal and put my safety first.’ That’s where mindfulness can help; it teaches you to bring your thoughts to the here and now in a constructive way.
4. Train your attention to manage concerns
I had a patient who described himself as a worrier. So, we worked up a strategy, he was only allowed to worry between the times of 11 and 1. After a while, he said: “I look forward to my worry time and sometimes I actually stop worrying as a result.”
He also used distraction throughout the day to stop ruminating, which was keeping him in a circle of anxiety and depression. This may help you too, perhaps you can put on your favourite song or use a massage ball.
I work a lot with attention and know that it’s a brain function that can be trained. Take people in cardiac rehabilitation, for instance. The moment they start thinking they will have another episode, the stress response activates so they feel like they are. The only way to break this thought is by deviating their attention. It can be as simple as tapping on their hand or counting five items, such as something they can see, taste, hear, feel and smell.
Think of depression or anxiety as a wolf and attention as another wolf. Which one is going to survive? The one that you “feed” with your focus the most!
5. Find reasons to be grateful
Practicing gratitude doesn’t need to involve keeping a journal. You can practice it within your mind, when getting up in the morning or going to bed. It could be landing on three things that you are grateful for. These positive thoughts may be:
‘I am grateful today because my children are all healthy. I am healthy. My house is warm.’
As you practice this technique, you should start to notice fresh colours and shades in things. Those little things that make your day and your life.
You will also learn to reframe things that seem negative at first. You might think: ‘I’ve been so busy I didn’t even get to have my cup of coffee today. But now I’ve realised how much I love that cup in the morning. So, I’m grateful that I didn’t have it. If I hadn’t encountered that situation, I wouldn’t know.’
In a very practical way, it’s exercised attention. You’re creating a tap in your brain that you can turn off and on.
The importance of savouring small victories
Nobody gets from step 1 to step 5 in a day. Achieve little gains and learn to rejoice in those gains. If you don’t do well one day, that’s okay. You have tomorrow, so what can you do to improve?
In that way, the power of positive thinking lies in how it gives you a clear plan and an attitude where you embrace who you are. Just remember to give yourself chances. Speak to yourself with kindness, care and acceptance – as you would a loved one.
This content is for information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek advice from your GP or an appropriate medical professional if you have concerns about your health, or before commencing a new healthcare regime. If you believe that you are experiencing a medical emergency call 999 / 112 or seek emergency assistance immediately.
Meet our Vhi Verified Expert
Micheli Romao Vhi Health Coach
Psychologist and Psychotherapist