Spending time with positive, rather than negative, people isn’t just more enjoyable — the company you keep also has deep implications when it comes to your overall well-being. Both positivity and negativity tend to be contagious, which means surrounding yourself with negative friends, family members and coworkers will tend to worsen your mood and outlook. But even more troubling, the negativity you pick up from others may potentially shorten your lifespan and impact your health in other serious ways too.
On the other hand, if your inner circle consists of people who exude positivity, you’re more likely to experience a boost in both your physical and mental health. Research suggests that benefits associated with positivity include: increased longevity, protection against chronic stress, increased happiness, greater meaning of life and greater connection to others.
What Is Positivity?
The definition of positivity is “the practice of being or tendency to be positive or optimistic in attitude.” (1) People who have a positive character are said to accept the world as it is, look for the silver lining when something unfortunate happens and spread messages of hope to others. (2)
Psychology experts consider the start of the recent “positivity movement” to be the late 1990s, when the field of positive psychology was first developed. (3) Positive psychologists study happiness and positive emotions (essentially what makes life worth living), rather than dysfunction and mental illness, which most fields of psychology have traditionally focused on. Positive psychologists work to uncover habits and attitudes that can lead people to become happier and more fulfilled, including those related to positive thinking.
While more attention may be paid to positivity’s benefits today than in the past, certain populations have long exemplified the power of positive thinking and spending time with uplifting people. For example, in Okinawa, Japan — one of the world’s “Blue Zones,” where the average life expectancy for women is around 90 years, one of the highest in the world — people form a special kind of social network called a moai, a group of several friends who offer social, emotional and even financial support that typically lasts a lifetime.
Many children join moais from a very young age, sometimes even from the time of birth. Adults in the same moais share a lifelong journey together, often working together to grow crops and split gardening responsibilities, to take care of one another’s families, to offer help when a child gets sick and provide emotional support when someone passes away. Because moai members together create an atmosphere of positivity that influences one another’s behaviors, such as by encouraging exercise and a healthy diet, they also have a positive affect on each other’s health.
Author of The Blues Zones and National Geographic writer Dan Buettner tells us that “People in Blue Zones reach age 100 at rates 10 times greater than in the U.S. and spend most of their lives in good health.” Some of the ways they practice positivity, especially by forming supportive relationships, include: having a strong sense of purpose, doing activities that reduce stress regularly, enjoying meals or a glass of wine with friends belonging to a faith-based community, putting family first and choosing friends with healthy habits. (4)
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The Power of Positivity: 6 Benefits of Positivity/Positive Thinking
1. Increases Happiness
What makes us happy? Emerging research suggests people who practice positivity and gratitude together experience multiple benefits, including feeling relatively happier, more energetic and more hopeful and experiencing more frequent positive emotions.
Positivity seems to help us recognize hidden opportunities for enjoyable states like relaxation, playfulness and connection. As it’s described in a recent Psychology Today article, “People who are satisfied with life eventually have even more reason to be satisfied, because happiness leads to desirable outcomes at school and work, to fulfilling social relationships and even to good health and long life.” (5)
2. Buffers Against Negative Effects of Stress and Anxiety
In her book The How of Happiness, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky tells us that “how you think — about yourself, your world, and other people — is more important to your happiness than the objective circumstances of your life.” Positivity seems to be protective against negative health outcomes because it reduces the effects that chronic stress has on your body. A number of studies have found that having strong social relationships, especially with positive people, protects against the damaging effects of disappointments and setbacks.
A 2017 New York Times article points out that “there is no longer any doubt that what happens in the brain influences what happens in the body. When facing a health crisis, actively cultivating positive emotions can boost the immune system and counter depression.” (6) Many studies conducted over the past several decades have found evidence of a link between positivity and improved health markers including: (7)
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduced risk for heart/cardiovascular disease
- Better weight control and protection against obesity
- Healthier blood sugar levels
- Increased life span
- Lower rates of depression and distress
- Greater resistance to the common cold
- Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress
3. Reduces Risk for Anxiety Disorders
Studies have found that depressed and anxious individuals have a decreased ability to identify positive emotional content in the context of competing alternatives — and that these impairments contribute to “ineffective emotion regulation” that is the hallmark of these disorders. (8) In other words, one of the features of mood disorders is pessimistic/negative thinking. People with these disorders generate negative thoughts so automatically that they are unaware that it is happening and that their thoughts can be ignored or altered. (9)
A 2016 study published in Behavioral Research and Study found that positive thinking can help to decrease pathological worry and risk for mental-health conditions like Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). (10) The study examined alternative approaches to reducing worry among people with GAD by having one group of participants practice replacing usual worries with images of possible positive outcomes versus another group replacing usual worries with verbal expression of possible positive outcomes. A comparison control condition group visualized positive images unrelated to worry.
All groups benefited from the positive thinking training, with decreases in anxiety and worry. There were no significant differences found between groups, suggesting that any type of replacement of worry with different forms of positive ideation is beneficial for mental health.
4. Contributes to Greater Meaning of Life
A 2010 study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry found that people with high levels of positive thinking report feeling that their lives have more meaning following stressful events. The study, which included 232 students and community-dwelling adults, intended to test whether positive automatic cognitions (thoughts) moderated the relationship between event stressfulness and meaning in life. The researchers found that those who said they practiced positive cognitions associated stress with higher meaning in life, while those with low levels of positive thinking associated stressful events with lower meaning in life. (11)
5. Increases Your Connection to Others
Practicing positive thinking helps us to maintain mental clarity, perspective and a bird’s eye view of the circumstances in our lives, allowing our vision to expand and helping us to form more accurate connections … Some researchers refer to this as “the broaden effect” of positivity. Positive emotions have also been shown to increase our sense of oneness with others and the world around us.
Positivity can help us when it comes to connecting to people in our community, at work and in religious organizations. This is important because studies have found that our connections to other people build meaning and purpose and are a major factor in what makes life seem like it’s “worth living.”
6. Reinforces Healthy Habits
Positivity tends to build upon itself, meaning when we experience more positive emotions, it’s easier to build health-promoting habits that contribute to our ongoing happiness. According to Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “As we make a habit of seeking out pleasing states, we change and grow, becoming better versions of ourselves, developing the tools we need to make the most out of lives … The benefits of positive emotions obey a tipping point: When positive emotions outnumber negative emotions by at least 3 to 1, the benefits accrue. (12)
8 Positivity Exercises
So how do you focus on the positive and shift your attention away from the negative? The positivity exercises below can help you inject more positivity into your own life, as well as the lives of those around you:
- Identify negative self-talk. Start paying attention to ways you engage in negative self-talk, such as: magnifying the negative aspects of a situation and filtering out all of the positive ones, automatically blaming yourself, always anticipating the worst and seeing things only as either good or bad with no middle ground. Identify areas of your life you usually think negatively about and then focus on one area at a time to approach in a more positive way.
- Repeat positive affirmations. Find positive words or positivity quotes that you can repeat to yourself daily or put somewhere that you see often (such as your computer or refrigerator).
- Keep a gratitude journal. The practice of gratitude involves a focus on the present moment, on appreciating your life as it is today. Try keeping a journal that you write in briefly each morning or night, jotting down things that made you feel happy and appreciative. This helps you learn to “think in terms of abundance” and savor pleasurable experiences and serves as an antidote to negative emotions, including jealousy/envy, regret, hostility, worry and irritation.
- Incorporate body positivity practices. Instead of always focusing on your weight or things you wish to change about your body, look for things that your body already does perfectly well, such as allowing you to exercise, go about your day, work and engage with others. Focus on your behaviors rather than the outcome. For example, establish an exercise routine and eat a healthy diet filled with mood-boosting foods because these have a positive affect on your outlook and stress levels, not because they might lead to weight loss.
- Avoid social comparison. Rather than focusing on what other people have that you don’t, think about things you’re thankful for in your own life. Find things about yourself that make you unique and valuable, and consider writing about your own strengths in a journal. Treat yourself like a friend by practicing self-compassion, and don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to anyone else.
- Carve time out for fun and relaxation. Make time for calming, stress-relieving activities — or those that make you smile or laugh. Seek out humor in everyday life and give yourself permission to take breaks.
- Be mindful. Practice mindfulness or meditation, which teach you to focus on “the here and now,” rather than the past or future. This is helpful for thinking of emotions/thoughts as only temporary and less overwhelming, since everything is always evolving and changing.
- Help others and volunteer. How can you spread positivity? One way is to focus on benefiting the lives of others, which also has the added benefit of boosting your mood too. Helping others gets you “out of your own head” and can make you feel connected, grateful and proud.
Are there any downsides to being positive?
Some argue that constantly striving to be positive when you really feel the opposite can mean you’re denying how you really feel, potentially leaving you feeling closed off from certain emotions. The goal of practicing positivity shouldn’t be to deny or ignore the fact that sometimes you feel sad, annoyed, irritated or disappointed. Instead, it can be helpful to first accept how you feel and then recognize that everything is temporary. You can’t always control your circumstances or how things will turn out, but you can try your best to learn from experiences and find something to be grateful for even when things aren’t perfect. (13)
- Positivity is the practice of being positive or optimistic in attitude. Being around other people who exude positivity is contagious; however, the same can be said of being around negative people.
- Practicing positivity is good for both your mental and physical health. Benefits associated with positivity include: increased longevity, protection against chronic stress, increased happiness, greater meaning of life, greater connection to others, decreased depression, improved heart health and much more.
- You can boost positivity by practicing positivity exercises like:
- Positive affirmations
- Keeping a gratitude journal
- Body positivity practices
- Avoiding social comparison
- Carving time out for fun and relaxation
- Being mindful
- Helping others and volunteering