A lot has been written about positive psychology, the power of positive thinking, and neural plasticity. There is a lot of great advice available on what sort of exercises can help you to feel more optimistic and stay positive, even on social media – that land of compare and despair.
What pops into my head when I hear the question, “How does your life change when you focus on the positive regardless of the situation?” is an ancient Chinese proverb that I learned when I studied abroad in Taiwan as a junior in college: “The old man lost his horse….”
In Chinese, you can get away with just starting the proverb. As everyone knows the story, you don’t even need to finish the line, but it ends “…and who can tell whether that is a blessing or a curse?” (As an aside, the beauty of classical Chinese is that the entire proverb fits into eight syllables!)
If you read the backstory of the proverb, you’ll learn that no matter what happens, the old man calmly takes the stance, “Meh, who knows whether this happened for good or ill?” while the villagers rapidly swing from unbounded joy to bottomless sadness to deep dismay and anger.
In recent years, scientists have started to study the more far-reaching effects of being positive. It turns out that it influences not only our brain and our emotions, but our bodies, our skills, our longevity…A great (and somewhat dense) example is Barbara L. Fredrickson et al., “Open Hearts Build Lives”, for which a simplified explanation appears in James Clear’s “The Science of Positive Thinking.”
As an integrative nutrition health coach, I have seen the far from “fluffy” power when we focus on the positive – both in my own and my clients’ lives:
What happens when you focus on the positive side of life:
Stress levels plummet and physical health improves.
Chronic stress is one of the most negative forces in our contemporary high-octane lives. And its effects on our bodies, minds, and spirits are getting a lot of attention these days. As stress levels drop, sleep improves, positive changes in immune system function are noticeable, and health markers such as weight, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and lipid levels can decrease.
When you focus on the positive, you tend to remove the instinct to react off the cuff and make room for more considered responses that take into account the other’s situation, emotions, and motivations. In an interesting twist, it can feel as though NOT taking things personally actually improves intimacy.
Realizing that a lover, child, parent, or friend is coming from his or her own “stuff” allows us to be less judgmental and more sympathetic. It also makes us more aware of when we are acting or speaking from our own “stuff”, rather than from the situation we find ourselves in at the moment.
Emotional peaks and valleys smooth out.
In general, emotions tend to hover above the “neutral” line. Far from being on a Pollyanna-ish constant high, there is a steadier feeling of emotional well-being that encompasses narrower high/low variations that are more manageable. An ability to bend rather than break develops when you choose to focus on the positive.
Creativity is sparked.
When the fight-flight-freeze state engendered by negativity is removed, we suddenly re/discover our creative powers and re/turn to projects we never dreamed we would have time for.
I like to say that positive thinking makes space for us to discover and claim our superpower—and interestingly, that superpower is often one that benefits others as much as (if not more than) the self. Eckhart Tolle would say that we become one who is cleaning up the mess rather than being one who is causing the pollution.
When you decide to focus on the positive, it has the effect of simultaneously living into the now and viewing past and future as much more neutral, manageable phenomena.
Those are a whole lot of positive results from a practice that is 100 percent FREE! A little positive thinking goes a long way, and a lot will have people saying, “I’ll have what s/he’s having!” – wondering where they can get some.