Mind

Ben Squires

Can positive thinking improve your mental health?

Can positive thinking improve your mental health?

When times are tough, how often have you been told to “find the silver lining” or “focus on the positive side”? You’ve probably even doled out this advice too – after all, happiness is all about attitude, right?

Not necessarily. Firstly, the benefits of positive thinking have largely been undemonstrated by actual research and secondly, research suggests the constant refrain of positive thinking might actually be detrimental.

“What people should be practising is ‘healthy thinking’ rather than positive thinking and certainly not negative thinking. Janice Killey, principal psychologist at Life Resolutions Kogarah in New South Wales, Australia tells Over60. “Wearing rose coloured glasses can be just as irrational and problematic as negative thinking,”

For most people, practicing positive thinking is about positive affirmations, focusing on the good in bad situations and putting a smile on your face, even though you may be feeling quite the opposite. But trying to be permanently optimistic about life is not only highly unrealistic but can make you worse off in the long term.

“If you believe everything will be okay, why worry when a major upheaval or misfortune is happening in your life? You may not take the necessary steps to control the situation which allows it to become worse,” says Janice, adding, “There are times we need to be concerned or worried so we can take appropriate action.”

Life inevitably throws us challenges, like illnesses and injuries, and denying “negative” emotions – sadness, anger, grief – means we may not properly deal with difficult situations.

Instead of always accentuating the positive, Janice is a proponent of “healthy thinking”. Healthy thinkers “look at the facts and make decisions that are realistic – decisions that are not surrounded in negative fears or blind optimism.”

She explains, “Healthy thinking can teach you to know what thoughts of yours are both helpful and not helpful. With practice you can learn to use accurate thoughts that encourage you instead of negative thoughts that discourage you.”

Like many things in life, it’s not about choosing between a side of positive thinking or negative thinking, the healthiest option lies somewhere in the middle.

As Janice says, “Healthy thinking gives you long term positive outcomes to seek better mental and physical health.”

Related links:

How happiness changes with age

7 ways to banish negative thoughts

People are happier when they do good