Does Having a Positive Mental Attitude Really Work?


When you’re in a bad mood and thinking negatively, and people say, “Just think positive,” or, “Be happy,” do you shrug it off as well-meaning but relatively useless advice?  Research is starting to show that you should be more open to how having a positive attitude can help your mental and, by extension, physical wellbeing.  Barbara Fredrickson, a positive psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina, published a paper on positive thinking and how it can impact your life.

Negative emotions can actually be useful in certain situations as they narrow your mind and focus your thoughts.  If you’re in a scary situation that triggers fear, there are probably a few different things you could do to combat that fear, but chances are your brain will probably zone in on one action and ignore everything else to make you focus on that one situation.  This is useful in a life or death situation where you need to be focused and make a quick decision.

The problem is that our brains are still programmed to handle negative emotions the same way no matter what; we shut out everything else and our options are limited.  A few examples of this include: if you’re in a fight with someone, and your anger consumes you to the point of being unable to think of anything else; or when you’re stressed out about how much you have to do at work, and you become paralyzed and overwhelmed at your workload to the point that you don’t get any of it done.

Positive thinking does the opposite; it can actually expand your awareness and temporarily allow you to take in more of your surroundings than you would in a negative mental state.  One of the experiments testing this split people into five different groups and showed each group a different set of film clips.  Group 1 saw clips that created feelings of joy; group 2 saw clips that created feelings of contentment; group 3 was the control group, and was shown neutral images; group 4 saw clips that created feelings of fear; and group 5 saw clips that created feelings of anger.

Afterwards, when participants were asked to imagine themselves in different situations, and write down what they wanted to do, people from the groups that were shown fear and anger wrote down the fewest responses, while the other groups were able to think of more things they could do in those situations.  Fear and anger limited people’s responses, while joy and contentment opened up people’s minds to different options.

Positive thinking opening your mind to more options isn’t the end of it; the longer you keep thinking positively, the more you’re able to open your mind and think of different possibilities for your life.  Negative emotions make building skills for the future irrelevant because of a perceived immediate threat or danger, but positive emotions allow you to build new skills and resources that can help you later in life.

Visit to take Fredrickson’s Positivity Self Test, to learn more about positivity, and to find tips on how to create more positivity in your own life.