Optimism improves not only physical health, Kurtz said, but also our relationships, energy and finances.

In an era dominated by social media and ideological polarization, finding happiness can be hard if you’re frequently caught up in disagreements — for example, arguing with internet strangers about if LeBron James or Michael Jordan is the better all-time NBA player. Separating from these conflicts and instead focusing on thinking more positively has been found to carry large implications regarding our overall health. 

A 2012 study conducted by Sarah Pressman, assistant psychology and social behavior professor at UC Irvine, found that people who smile more get sick less. The study proved smiling’s ability to lower your blood pressure, which rises during stressful situations and suppresses the immune system. Even when receiving acute pain stimuli like a shot or stubbing your toe, Pressman found that smiling can reduce needle injection pain by over 40%

Through thinking more optimistically and reinforcing healthy behaviors, Pressman’s study results can become a reality for you. 

Building blocks of thinking positively 

Not only can an optimistic, glass half full mindset help keep illnesses away, but it can lead to better social relationships, increased energy and improved finances, JMU psychology professor Jamie Kurtz said. 

Kurtz, who specializes in savoring and happiness research, said extroverts tend to have better social relationships than introverts, but that doesn’t mean shyness is always sacrificed for happiness. Deeper, intimate connections, Kurtz said  — though they take more intention — can be the source of happiness for less socially active people.

“If being at a large party or being in a large group doesn't work for you, that doesn't mean you can't find happiness and connection elsewhere,” Kurtz said. “You might be better off in a one-on-one conversation with trusted friends.” 

Additionally, Kurtz said your source of happiness shouldn’t be reliant on others, even though positive emotions are usually cultivated more easily by extroverts. She said it’s important to have career goals, creative pursuits or personal projects that pique your happiness through a sense of ownership. 

Despite the fact that most people score above average on happiness scales, Kurtz said, people tend to focus on negative instead of positive emotions and stimuli. JMU psychology professor Bryan Saville said this is because through biological and evolutionary history, “bad things” have killed us — therefore, we pay more attention to negative events in our environment. It’s a protective benefit that has prolonged human existence even if it doesn’t necessarily make us feel good, he said. 

“The problems that we have tend to loom really large in our minds,” Kurtz said. “They kind of take center stage, and all the good things that we have going on — our relationships, our health, our opportunities — can kind of fade into the background as we focus more and more on the stresses and the problems.”

Interpreting situations more optimistically can help curb negative emotions, Kurtz said. For example, instead of thinking, “What did I do wrong?” or, “They’re cheating on me,” when your significant other doesn’t text you back, she said to use a more favorable interpretation like, “They just got busy.”

“One secret of happiness is learning how to have that more optimistic, positive interpretation,” Kurtz said, “and one real way to destroy your happiness is to think pessimistically.”

Lucy Hone, Auckland University of Technology associate professor and resilience researcher, said in her 2019 TEDx Talk that negative emotions tend to “stick to us like velcro,” while positive emotions “bounce off us like Teflon.” To mitigate our brain treating every bit of negativity as a “saber-tooth tiger,” Hone said resilient people practice benefit finding — making an “intentional, deliberate effort to tune into what’s good in your world.” 

Habits that can promote positive thought

Along with benefit finding, there are a plethora of other ways to instill positive thinking and emotions. One way is to keep a gratitude journal

Saville, who specializes in the psychology of passion and has previously studied self-control and impulsivity research, said keeping a gratitude journal involves writing down three to five positive things that happen to you every day. He said this activity can have a positive impact on your happiness for “several months” after three to four weeks of practice. 

If you’re in a bad mood, Kurtz said, one of the best things you can do for a short-term mood boost is doing something nice for someone else. She said it’s harder than it sounds because many people isolate themselves when they’re feeling down, but breaking a negative mood cycle can also be done by going on a quiet walk in nature or doing something “outside yourself” to get out of your head’s thought patterns, like yoga

There’s another way to boost your mood, not for the foreseeable short- or long-term, but by projecting your future — the “Best Possible Selves” activity. This involves imagining your life going as well as it possibly could and achieving all your goals through writing out what it’d look like years down the road. Kurtz said multiple studies displayed a link in the activity to greater optimism. 

A commonly touted mood booster is listening to and repeating positive affirmations, but Kurtz said there isn’t reliable science to back up its efficacy. People often don’t believe the affirmations they’re saying, which can make the practice feel “disingenuous,” she said. 

Enhancing positivity through reinforcement

Thinking positively isn’t the end-all-be-all for unlocking a happy and fulfilling life — Saville said while having positive thoughts can be useful, positive behaviors are often independent of thoughts. Saville said we can have negative thoughts and still take positive action. 

“The thing that matters when it comes to improving your health is changing how you behave,” Saville said. “You can have positive thoughts all day long, you can have positive emotions all day long, but if you're not eating well and exercising and getting sleep and taking care of yourself in other ways, those positive thoughts and positive emotions are not going to do anything.”

In addition, behaving in certain ways can actually change our thoughts and emotions, Saville said. For example, when you smile, it can often make you feel better and think more positively as your mind goes, “I must be in a good mood, why would I be smiling, otherwise?” 

Reinforcing good behavior, like working out, is critical also to sustaining a community of positivity, Saville said. Too often, he said, we unintentionally reinforce negative behaviors when we say, “You’re not a horrible person, you’re awesome,” in response to your friend calling themself a horrible person after doing a negative behavior. 

When we do so, the friend’s mind subconsciously internalizes that when they’re negative, positive consequences are received, Saville said. Doing the opposite is what helps sustain positive behaviors, Saville said, which helps people focus on the positive rather than on negative things that happen to them. 

“Instead, we want to catch people being positive,” Saville said. ”If you hear somebody go, ‘I'm feeling really good today,’ [you should say], ‘All right, good — tell me all about it. Why are you feeling good? What made your day good?’”

Even if we consistently practice positive habits and make a continuous effort to think positively, negativity can still seep into our minds through the media and experiences we take in on an everyday basis. Saville said just because these negative thoughts entrench our mind doesn’t mean we have to listen to them, kind of like a “radio playing in the background.” But usually, making choices that are good for our health will lead to natural consequences like better-fitting clothing and more energy, he said. 

“Just get out and start doing the positive behaviors,” Saville said. “Very often, the positive emotions and positive thoughts will follow.”

Contact Grant Johnson at breezecopy@gmail.com. For more health & wellness content, stay tuned for the “A Wealth of Health'' column every other Thursday, and follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.