Positive thinking does nothing to improve physical and emotional well-being.
“Just think positive,” they say.
“It will all work out for the best,” said someone who wants to be helpful but doesn’t know what to do.
“If you see it and believe it, you can achieve it.”
How many times have you said any of the above, or heard them hundreds of times? There’s a reason these statements are clichés: it’s because they’re meaningless and unhelpful.
What about the person who tries hard to think positively about something they want to accomplish? How do they feel when they fail miserably, criticizing themselves for not having thought positively enough and blaming themselves — as if there is something inherently wrong with who they are.
“You just need to think positive.”
What exactly does that mean? What is the practice, specifically? And what, exactly, are positive thoughts?
Positive thinking will not lead to transformational change that improves well-being. Specifically, positive thinking doesn’t affect the neuroplasticity of your brain which will have a positive effect on behaviours and feelings.
There are no positive or negative thoughts.
Similarly, there are no positive or negative emotions. Our emotions are action programs that are generally triggered by external stimuli that are perceived or remembered. Action programs are software that works to maintain homeostatic balance in the body, like breathing and hormonal release.
What we label as positive or negative thoughts are simply descriptions and judgements. Action programs are a physiological response to our environment to restore and maintain a healthy, fully functioning system. (1)
Appreciate the experience of the feeling.
The assumption with positive thinking is that when you practice it, your life will improve. There is something to be said about what we think, as in the quality of our thoughts or putting a positive spin on situations as they arise, instead of constantly seeking the negative.
However, if you want to improve your well-being and experience more peace of mind, calm, and happiness, you need to focus on your feelings and emotions. More specifically, you have to appreciate the experience of what you are feeling — as it is happening — relating to positive experiences as they happen in your life.
Emotions have duration and durability
Thinking about something is fleeting. Our thoughts come and go. If you have ever sat in mediation, you can attest to the truth of this. In one moment, your mind seems clear, and in the next you catch yourself lost in disconnected thoughts, only to remind yourself to come back to your breathing.
Have you ever had a great idea, and made a mental note to not forget it, only to forget the idea? This is the problem with thoughts: they are fleeting, and thoughts alone do not affect how we feel.
The Alternative Practice to Positive Thinking that Actually Works.
Focus on and extend the duration of your preferred emotions and feelings.
To improve your well-being and the quality of your thoughts, you need to continually reinforce empowering, compassionate, calm, and joyful feelings in response to positive moments in life. The more you practice this as it happens, you will continually alter the neural plasticity of your brain for the better. (2)
In other words, focus on the daily practice of deeply feeling positive experiences, instead of thinking positively.
How to practice appreciating empowering emotions and feelings.
What grounds this process is mindfulness. Being aware of what’s happening inside your body as well as what you’re sensing raises inner awareness. If you’re aware that you’re sad, upset, or angry, you can then consider what to do to change your emotional state for the better.
Start with your breathing.
Like meditation, take a few minutes to let go of what’s happening in the world and pay attention to your breathing. Sit somewhere that’s comfortable and with good posture, or do this while walking somewhere peaceful. Just notice each breath as it comes in and goes out. Focus on the quality of your breathing without judgement. Pay attention to what is happening within your body while you are breathing. Notice how focusing on your breathing pattern slows things down. How does that make you feel?
Find the emotional responses and feelings that make you feel well, like calmness and peace of mind. Whichever one, embrace that feeling for 15 to 20 seconds. If you get distracted, that’s okay. Come back to the feeling and seek to feel it for its quality, tone, and how the sensations and emotional state make you feel.
Additional practices to improve feelings of well-being.
One of the benefits of most sporting or athletic activities, like cycling, weightlifting, yoga or dance, is that you can get lost in the moment of doing. You may experience a wonderful state of mind or even peak experience during the flow of being physically active.
When you realize you are having such an experience, deeply appreciate these positive sensations for 15 to 20 seconds. Go deep into holding on to the qualities of those feelings and how you experience them in your body and mind. Enjoy the physical sensations after completing your workout and the emotional satisfaction of having taken care of yourself. And remember to appreciate that feeling of satisfaction for 10 to 20 seconds to improve your neural plasticity toward happiness.
In your day-to-day, practice focusing on the moments that make you feel good. Take 10 to 20 seconds to appreciate the compliment that someone gives you. Take 10 to 20 seconds to appreciate the joy or happiness you experience listening to a bird chirping in a tree, or how your favourite piece of music moves you into an emotional state of pleasure or joy.
This practice of appreciation is easy, and it doesn’t take much effort or time. Practice with frequency throughout your day — this is definitely a case of more is better. Remember to notice the positive experiences and events as they happen in life and appreciate the positive emotional response you’re experiencing for 10 to 20 seconds.
Thinking positively doesn’t create lasting change in the brain.
Thinking positively is abstract because it doesn’t put into play a strategy, a habit, or behaviour that will make you feel the way you want to feel. Nor does it rewire your brain to that effect.
The more you focus on lived positive experiences and associate those experiences with the positive feelings relating to them, you can change your neural plasticity. A significant benefit of this practice is that over time, the part of your brain called the insular cortex starts to thicken. As the insular cortex thickens with more synapses, this part of the brain develops the capacity for experiencing more empathy.
The benefits and impact of having more empathy.
The more you focus on appreciating at a physical level the feelings that bring you happiness, peace of mind, and calm, the more you develop the capacity for empathy. The more empathy you are capable of feeling, the greater connection, acceptance, and caring you will have for other people.
More empathy leads to a greater understanding of others. Have you ever been around someone who was highly empathetic at a time when you were struggling emotionally? How did they make you feel? Did you feel seen, heard, understood, and accepted? If so, did you move from feeling sad or upset to feeling better about yourself?
Imagine the world if we practiced and experienced more empathy.
For the universal common good, we need to adopt more humane practices like empathy and understanding for each other. These are core practices that cultivate humility, impartiality, and harmony — all antidotes to prejudice, hatred, and oppression.
We have to pay attention to and practice appreciating more moments of happiness and joy. As we continue to develop empathy, this feeling will lead to greater acceptance, connection, respect, and love for the dignity of other human beings.
With human dignity, there is no “other” in the pejorative, dehumanizing sense. Instead, there is only “another person,” someone not unlike yourself, just as deserving of peace of mind, happiness, and freedom.
- Damasio, A., Carvalho, G. The nature of feelings: evolutionary and neurobiological origins. Nat Rev Neurosci 14, 143–152 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3403
- To learn more about the science behind this practice, see “Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom” by Rick Hanson.
Darren is a certified MindMap Mastery Coach, specializing in the areas of behavioural and change science relating to lifestyle and transformational coaching. Darren empowers LGBTQ+ creatives and thought leaders to become more skillful at making a difference in the world. Semiweekly, I host a live Community Forum on Zoom where you can ask me anything.