All Articles Leadership Inspiration Make the science of positive thinking work for you

Make the science of positive thinking work for you

A positive thinking mindset, when used wisely, can help leaders reframe circumstances and arrive at more creative solutions, writes LaRae Quy.

9 min read


positive thinking

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COVID-19, a troubled economy and a violent rise of nationalism worldwide have ushered in a modern version of the Dark Ages. Doom and gloom scenarios assault us at every turn. There are days when we need to be Pollyanna-on-steroids to remain positive. A lot of research has been conducted since the days of Norman Vincent Peale’s seminal book, “The Power of Positive Thinking.” While the tenets remain the same after all these years, we now have science to help us better understand how to be positive amidst a relentless negative stream of news and headlines. 

LaRae Quy

If you’re like me, you need more than frothy platitudes to keep you motivated to seek out the good in a crappy day. You can try to pretend everything is OK, or stay in denial instead of facing the truth, but sooner or later reality will hit you:

Life is hard.

Pain is inevitable.

Growth is optional.

Our mindset and how we keep motivated to find the positive is formed early in life. How we deal with not getting the red ball in the second-grade playground can set the pattern for how we’ll deal with disappointments later in life. 

Not to worry, though! If the pattern you’ve adopted over the years is no longer working for you, science gives us lots of tips on how to be more positive.

What is positive thinking?

Positive thinking requires our emotions and mental attitude to focus on the good stuff. It also anticipates how the good things in life will bring us happiness and fulfillment. Positive thinking is not a naïve approach to life that refuses to examine the negative that shows up and hopes it magically goes away. Nor is it a cure-all that promises a life without problems. Instead, it’s the ability to look at every situation, both good and bad, without losing hope.

For example, optimists believe that everything will turn out OK in the end. Pessimists think everything will end up in a sinkhole. But positive thinkers don’t expect their circumstances to change. Instead, they change themselves to overcome their circumstances. 

How to benefit from positive thinking

Here is how to make the science behind positive thinking work for you:

1. Overcome negativity bias

Have you ever wondered why you fixate on your mistakes and shortcomings? Everything else in your day purrs smoothly but you can’t forget that one mistake you made in a presentation or a conversation with a colleague.

We even have more negative words in our language than positive ones! Word patterns fall into three categories: positive, negative, or neutral. A study found that, across all age groups, people use 50% negative words, 30% positive, and 20% neutral words. 

People seem to be busier and more stressed than ever before, so it’s easy to blame our environment. However, it is not the root cause of our negativity.  The culprit is your brain because it is wired to be negative. Humans have a negativity bias that kept our ancestors safe from saber-toothed tigers. The negativity bias still plays a vital role in life today because it acts as an alarm bell and warns us of negative aspects of our environment.

Criticisms are taken to heart more than compliments. Bad news gets more attention than good. Unlike our ancestors, however, not everything new or different is considered a threat to our survival today. Since our brain constantly looks for bad news, it fixates on the one negative event in your day — the one you can’t forget!

How to make it work for you: Heighten your awareness of how your brain reacts to physical and emotional threats. Being aware that your mind seeks out the negative from your day will help you look at events with more clarity. In addition, be mindful of those around you who always sound the alarm bell. Always evaluate whether the alarms are exaggerated and how they are pouncing on your insecurities.

2. Embrace both negative and positive emotions

When making arrests, the FBI trains agents to assume the worst because there are two kinds of mistakes to make: 1) You assume the suspect will pull a gun and fire it, but is compliant and raises their hands, or 2) You assume the suspect will comply, but they are waiting with a gun. Each mistake produces very different consequences. The first one makes you anxious and stressed, but the second one gets you shot. That is why your brain would rather you make the first mistake a hundred times to avoid the second mistake even once.

Anxiety is often seen as a negative emotion, but it’s necessary to spur us to action. It can be difficult to respond to situations without anxiety but it’s also important to keep it in check. In your life you will experience a full range of emotions which can generate a need to respond to various situations. It’s important to remember that all emotions have a purpose and a place in your life, even the crappy ones.

When we begin to understand and explore each emotion, we can understand the purpose behind it. When we do, we can respond in ways that promote our wellbeing. It can take mental toughness to uncover the purpose of crappy emotions, like the ones that embarrass us or cause us to make poor decisions. 

How to make it work for you

  • Put effort into identifying the good and positive aspects of your life so that you are not overcome by the negative. 
  • Even if you face a multitude of genuinely negative situations, take the time to appreciate and be grateful for the positive aspects of your circumstances, even the small ones. 
  • Replay each positive moment of your day in your mind for 20-30 seconds.

3. Choose words with care

Our words have an impact; they have consequences. Words can literally change our brain. 

As previously stated, our language has more negative words than positive ones. Studies show the negative words you use release negative hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain. What’s more, it happens not only in your brain but also in the person to whom you are speaking. 

Negative words trigger increased activity in the fear center of the brain called the amygdala. When this happens, researchers have found that it triggers a shutdown of certain parts of the reasoning and logic centers of the brain. Negative words can make people feel stressed, nervous or fearful as they gauge how to respond to them. The words you use can cause people to feel defensive or angry. Negative comments often trigger conflict and breed a contentious environment. Bottom line: You make things more difficult for your listeners when you use too many negative words.

Conversely, positive words stimulate areas in the brain’s frontal lobes and make you feel good. Hostile language can disrupt specific genes that play a key part in the production of neurochemicals that protect us from stress.

How to make it work for you: Hold a positive word in your mind so that you stimulate the right areas of the frontal lobes. The longer you focus on positive words, the more you affect other brain areas. What’s more, when you have a realistic and positive view of yourself, you start to see the good in others. 

4. Change your mindset

Your mindset is in control of how you think. If your mindset is negative, everything around you will make you feel like you’re drowning in a sinkhole. When circumstances are challenging, it’s your choice to remain fixated on the hassles of your day. If you choose to run down that rabbit hole, you’ll find yourself attracting more negative situations. People won’t be as friendly and your personal relationships may take a hit because there’s a limit to how much negativity anyone wants to endure just to be near you.

When we reframe the way we perceive our obstacles, it shifts our perspective. Reframing your situation doesn’t mean you’ve chosen to bury your head to the facts; it’s simply a different way of interpreting them. If we define something as negative, that’s the message our brain receives.

Most of us have a mindset that our outlook is the only way to look at a problem.  Reframing asks, “Is there another way to look at this situation?” “What else might be going on?” Questions like these can provide an alternative perspective to help us look at things from another view. By stacking up positive interpretations of your situation, you become the author of your own success story.

How to make it work for you

  • Notice your thoughts when you’re in a negative situation.
  • Challenge those thoughts. Are the things you’re telling yourself true?
  • Look for the the hidden opportunities in each case (you may have to look hard).
  • See yourself in a positive way so you can scrap negative emotions.


LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years, during which she exposed and recruited foreign spies and developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty and deception. Find out if you’re mentally tough with Quy’s FREE, evidence-based Mental Toughness Assessment. Quy’s new book is “Secrets of a Strong Mind (2nd edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles.” Follow her on TwitterFacebookInstagram and LinkedIn.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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