Challenge Eight: Be Positive

Through the years, my mom has given me the same advice whenever I’m facing trying times: “Things always have a way of working out for you, Joe.”

Though I appreciate the sentiment, I admittedly chalk it up as something moms just say to provide a pick-me-up to their kids. Affectionate and caring, but not exactly practical advice for improving a bad situation. I’m all for being optimistic, but to think that a positive outcome is somehow preordained strikes me as Pollyanna thinking – too idealistic to be realistic.

But then a surprising thing happens. Mom’s message that “everything will work out” lodges itself in the recesses of my mind, like a seed of an idea planted by one of the characters in Inception. It becomes a call-to-action, more than a Hallmark expression. I tell myself that things will work out because I will make them work out. I pick myself up and start to focus on how I can overcome the problem at hand. I look for ways to create opportunities and make the most out of the situation. Simply put, I start thinking positively.

Positive thinking isn’t about seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses. It means tackling life’s challenges with a positive outlook by focusing on actions you can take to create positive change in your life rather than dwelling on things outside of your control. Positive thinking is proactive thinking.

The long-term benefits of positive thinking are astounding. A number of studies have found that a positive approach to life can help to relieve stress, boost immunity levels, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, lessen the risk of depression, and generally enhance physical and mental health. A positive outlook can also help you live longer. One landmark study of over 500 nuns (fittingly called the Nun Study) found that sisters with a more positive perspective on life lived, on average, a decade longer than their counterparts who had a less positive attitude.

Why is positive thinking such a panacea? One hypothesis is people who think positively are better able to cope with life’s challenges and, therefore, less affected by stress. Another theory is positive thinkers live healthier lives in general – they have better diets and exercise more often, and avoid unhealthy behaviours like smoking or drinking excessively. However, this doesn’t explain the findings of the Nun Study, where the women studied had similar living conditions, diets and daily routines. In other words, the observed health benefits were linked solely to the nuns’ emotional disposition since other environmental factors were “controlled” in the study.

This is good news for those of us who naturally have sunny dispositions. But what about folks with a more cynical outlook to life? It turns out that anyone can foster a more positive perspective by making small, regular changes. Examples include spending time with positive people, going for walks and exercising, reading inspiring stories and quotes, listening to uplifting music, keeping a “gratitude journal,” and visiting places that boost your energy and make you happy.

The payoff from nurturing positivity is significant. In addition to the aforementioned health benefits, cultivating a more positive outlook can help to improve performance on the job, increase the chances of financial success, improve self-confidence, boost energy levels and promote overall well-being. Not a bad return on a simple investment in yourself.

Here’s the truly remarkable thing about positivity: it’s infectious. Being positive with others – by sharing positive words and actions – has the effect of releasing the chemical Oxytocin into the recipient’s bloodstream. This chemical reaction floods their body with positive feelings of love, joy and connection.

To test the power of positivity first-hand, I challenged myself to be positive in all my interactions for one month. What does this mean in practice? As much as possible, I used positive, affirming language rather than negative words in my communications. I acknowledged people and expressed gratitude for their accomplishments, and offered words of encouragement where appropriate. I gave compliments to people and spoke highly of them when they were not present in a conversation. I smiled a lot, laughed and was playful.

Doing this challenge made me reflect on my mom’s own words of encouragement: “Things always have a way of working out for you.” I had always tried to extract some sage advice from her words. But the true gift of her message wasn’t in its literal meaning but in its positive spirit – a germ of a spirit that would take root and help to inspire me to tackle whatever challenge I was facing at the time.

Nurturing a more positive disposition, and sharing it with others, is a simple yet effective way to lift up the people around you. In short, be more like mom.