Maybe you know someone who always seems to have a gloomy disposition, or perhaps you tend to lean more toward pessimism. For those who have difficulty adopting a rosy outlook on life, are there ways to train the brain to be more positive?
Dr. Brian Miller, a psychiatrist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital, and Dr. Suhair Erikat, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) and doctor of behavior health (DBH) with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, share their thoughts.
What are traits of positive people vs. negative people?
Dr. Erikat: Positive people tend to show gratitude for the small things in life; are willing to donate time and energy; are interested in other people; tend to surround themselves with other positive people; are not influenced by others’ skepticism or negativity; practice forgiveness; and smile.
Negative traits tend to include negative self-talk and assumptions; negatively comparing oneself to others; catastrophic thinking; fear of failure; dwelling on past mistakes or failures; tendency toward self-blame or blaming others; and feeling powerless to change.
Do genetics play a role in whether a person sees a glass as half empty or half full?
Dr. Miller: The current school of thought is that our genes are set, but they may or may not be activated given certain circumstances. For instance, some clinicians propose that those who have a genetic predisposition to depression, if they are exposed to certain life or physical stressors, then there is a chance depression will be expressed. However, if these stressors can be avoided, then depression may never be triggered.
Dr. Erikat: Environment also plays a role that can affect positive and negative traits. A 2015 study of more than 850 pairs of twins found that a nurturing family environment played a major role in increasing optimism, while decreasing pessimism. For example, researchers suggest a family environment may be a natural system for people to learn how to process positive and negative events. Such an environment may influence one’s level of resiliency — a trait of positive psychology.
Are there benefits to being positive or being negative?
Dr. Miller: There is evidence that people who have more resiliency, optimism and larger social networks tend to be healthier and live longer. So this is something that not only enhances your day-to-day life, it can actually improve longevity, and reduce the burden of physical and mental illness. The healthier your brain is, the healthier your body is going to be.
Dr. Erikat: From an evolutionary perspective, the advantage of negative thinking is that it may allow a person to be cautious before taking risks. However, while this is a great advantage, if an individual is too pessimistic many decisions may be hindered. There must be a balance.
Can we reprogram our brains to be more positive?
Dr. Miller: The brain is an organ similar to the heart or other organs in the body. Just as there are things you can do for your heart, such as exercise and a good diet, there are things you can do to benefit your brain. In addition to diet and exercise, you can train your brain to function in an enhanced or different manner than what it is used to.
For instance, cognitive behavior therapy is based on the idea that how we think affects how we feel. You can work with a therapist or other mental health expert to help you stop and recognize negative, automatic thoughts and challenge them. This is done by weighing the evidence that negative thought is accurate versus the evidence that it’s not accurate. With practice, it becomes easier to recognize and challenge negative thoughts and replace them with something that is more realistic. It is natural for people to be in a habit of negative thinking. Just like any bad habit, it’s hard to break, but it can be done.
Drs. Miller and Erikat offer these six tips to cultivate more positivity in life:
- Practice mindfulness. By being in touch with your thoughts, emotions and physiological states, you can better identify negative, distorted thoughts and moods when they occur, and address them with more positive or realistic thoughts and behaviors.
- Create a gratitude journal. At the end of each day, write down three things for which you are thankful. This will shift your mind’s focus to positive events and make you feel better.
- Use daily affirmations and mantras that elicit positive emotions and motivation to continue different coping strategies.
- Increase daily physical activity, such as walking your dog; completing chores; or going for a walk, bike ride, swim or run.
Incorporate relaxation techniques as part of your daily routine.
- Engage in pleasant activities to renew energy.
Learn more about Sharp’s mental health programs and services for children, adolescents and adults; including day programs, inpatient and outpatient care.