You’ve seen inspirational vision boards online. Your bestie swears by manifesting her desires through the universe. Positive thinking is flourishing right now — but does it have real power?
If you’re science-minded, or even skeptical about practices like manifestation, positive thinking still has a place for you. We spoke with licensed mental health experts to learn more about the evidence supporting positive thinking.
How positive thinking works
We live in the world, but our perceived reality is all in our heads. The way we think about and respond to situations can have an effect on the outcome.
According to Carolina Estevez, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist at Infinite Recovery, “When we think positively, our brain releases endorphins — the body’s natural happy hormones. This leads to increased levels of motivation, improved focus and concentration, decreased anxiety and stress levels, enhanced creativity, better problem-solving skills, and improved emotional regulation.”
Jessica Miller, a licensed mental health counselor, added, “While positive thinking may appear overly simplistic or magical, there is evidence that our mindset can influence our experiences and outcomes in various ways.”
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for example, is an evidence-based therapy practice based on the idea that creating healthier thought patterns leads to more helpful behavior choices and helps manage some emotional problems.
Positive thinking: science vs. spirituality
It makes intuitive, logical sense that if you have a big work presentation, visualizing it going well will make you more likely to succeed than if you were to imagine a disaster.
But does that mean your thoughts are really calling a positive outcome into existence from some mystical source of energy in the universe? Or does your increased confidence (and maybe some extra prep time) tip the balance? And if the end result is you knocking your boss’s socks off, does it really matter if science or something more woo-woo made it happen?
“It is important to note that positive thinking has both scientific and spiritual roots,” Estevez said. “From a scientific perspective, we can see how endorphins are released when we think positively, which leads to increased levels of motivation and improved emotional regulation.”
Or, maybe it’s all about energy. “On the other hand, from a spiritual perspective, positive thinking is believed to be connected with good energy or an ability to attract and create positive outcomes in life, Estevez continued.”
Miller added, “While these approaches to positive thinking may overlap, there are also some significant differences. CBT [Cognitive Behavioral Theory], for example, focuses on recognizing and addressing negative beliefs rather than primarily on positive ones. On the other hand, visualization and manifestation may be more concerned with achieving a specific result or reality via the power of positive thought.”
If a spiritual practice feels meaningful and is working for you, you can tap into a real sense of positive energy through vision boards, journaling, manifestation thoughts, mantras, prayer, or any other practice that feels right — even yoga. If you need proof before you can get on board, science has uncovered some connections between a positive mindset and measurable benefits.
Science-backed effects of positive thinking
Positive thinking may not reshape your surroundings, but it can have a real impact on your ability to ease anxiety and thrive, even under stress. A study on nurses found that positive thinking training led to significant improvement in factors like psychological well-being and couple relationship quality.
The experts we spoke to said positive thinking is most likely to have a science-based effect on areas such as:
- Emotional well-being
- Focus at work
There’s also some evidence to support the idea that positive and negative thinking can impact physical health. A positive mindset may be linked to a stronger immune system or a lower risk of heart disease.
When your self-esteem, motivation, and productivity are working at their highest potential, it makes sense that you’d feel more committed to success.
Positive thinking can stimulate positive energy from within. It fires you up to put in the effort, and your thoughts become a self-fulfilling prophecy: You believe you can, so you act accordingly, and those actions propel you toward achieving your goals.
Can positive thinking be harmful?
Science shows that your thought patterns can have a positive impact on important areas of your life, including your mental health and relationships. But that doesn’t mean you need to look on the bright side at all costs.
Positive thinking has some real power but also some real limits. Some researchers warn that overemphasizing positivity could be unethical. If someone’s pushing positive thinking as a substitute for medical treatments or pressuring people with serious diagnoses like cancer to turn their frown upside down, positivity may do more harm than good.
While positive thinking can impact your mental well-being and boost your chances of success, your thoughts don’t fully control your surroundings. Factors like external circumstances, trauma, underlying mental health disorders, medical conditions, and other people’s behavior toward you aren’t problems you can will away with your thoughts.
“One major misconception about positive thinking is that it will magically fix all of our problems,” Estevez said. “Although positive thinking can be an incredibly powerful tool for creating a more optimistic outlook on life, it is important to remember that some areas may require more specialized or practical approaches in order to see successful outcomes.”
Estevez continued, “While being mindful of your thoughts and focusing on positivity can help you reach your goals, it should not be seen as a magical, cure-all solution.”
Positive thinking isn’t the end-all-be-all
Combine positive practices with action and reach out for professional help if you’re struggling to find a way through challenging moments. “Emotions, both good and negative, are natural and normal, and positive thinking doesn’t need us to conceal or dismiss the bad ones,” Miller said.
It’s OK to feel down when you’re going through a difficult time. Reaching out for help and honoring your true feelings can help you get the support you need and find your way back to a positive state of mind.