Can the way you think make you happier and healthier? Experts believe positive thinking can boost your health as well as your wellbeing. But if you tend to have negative thoughts, it can have the opposite effect.
Pessimists – or negative thinkers - have been shown in studies to suffer from more depression and lower psychological and physical wellbeing, not to mention having a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease and even the common cold.
But can you really change the way you think if you're a glass-half-empty person? Experts believe there are ways to change negative thinking to positive. Here are five ideas to get you started:
1. Identify your targets
First, work out which areas of your life you have the most negative thoughts about – such as work issues, for instance, or a relationship. Make a list or keep a diary of your negative thoughts for a few days. Then try to change the way you think about just one of those things – don't try to approach them all at the same time.
Whenever you think about it, ask yourself if your thoughts are negative or positive. If they are negative – as they are most likely to be at first – challenge them and try to come up with ways of making them more positive.
For instance, if you are convinced your employer thinks you're not doing a good job – even when your work is of a good standard – remind yourself that you're doing the best that you can, and that you won't be undermined by any unfair criticism.
As soon as your thinking one area has become more positive (and don't forget, it's not realistic to avoid negative thinking all of the time), move on to the next area. Most importantly, keep practising by checking yourself regularly. Overcoming negative thinking takes time, but it's a habit well worth cultivating.
2. Avoid generalising
Negative thinkers tend to generalise. Making a single mistake at work, for instance, means they're bad at their job. Or when they have to cancel a social appointment, it means they're not a good friend.
People who think more positively avoid this type of thinking. Like everyone else they still make mistakes at work and have to cancel catch-ups with friends. But instead of thinking, "I'm bad at my job", they may simply tell themselves, "I made a mistake". Or instead of, "I'm a terrible friend", they may think, "I wasn't a good friend today".
If you don't find it easy to overcome this type of thinking, try to imagine you're someone else giving you advice – a mentor or someone you admire, for instance. Imagine what they might say and how they would advise you to challenge your negative thoughts.
3. Spend time with positive people
If the people around you are negative thinkers, chances are this will affect the way you think too. So whenever possible, spend more of your time with people who are less likely to think negatively.
This isn't always as easy as it sounds. Few people can choose who they work with or even who their family members are. But if you do have to spend a lot of time with a work colleague who's cynical and negative, try not to let their mood affect you personally. You may even find that trying to improve your own thinking patterns will benefit the pessimistic people around you too.
4. Crack a smile
Many scientists have researched whether there's a link between facial expressions and mood. After decades of studies on the subject, the overwhelming evidence is that even faking a smile may make you feel more positive as well as reduce stress. But too much fake smiling could worsen your mood, say researchers from Michigan State University. So try to conjure up a genuine grin now and then by thinking about something that makes you laugh.
Imagining someone is smiling at you may help reduce negative thinking too. In tests carried out for the British Dental Health Foundation a few years ago, volunteers were asked to imagine someone they loved smiling at them while they were being told they'd won a cash prize. At the same time, researchers measured their brain activity. What they discovered was the mere thought of a warm smile made the volunteers feel more optimistic and positive.
5. Get healthy
Eating a healthy, balanced diet and getting plenty of exercise – at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week – will help boost your mood as well as reduce stress. And when you're more relaxed and in a good mood, you'll be less likely to have negative thoughts. Adopting a healthy lifestyle has numerous other benefits too, including better health, better sleep and better energy levels, all of which may help you to adopt a more positive mindset.
For lots more useful advice about looking after yourself, visit our wellbeing area.