There are many claims about positive thinking. People who search the term on the Internet will find numerous books, articles, and sites devoted to the subject. Advantages of positive thinking sometimes appear overwrought and the claims about it may seem too good to be true. Sometimes they are, especially when people ignore negatives in their life to the point where they don’t deal with real problems that require their attention. On the other hand, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that thinking positively may be beneficial in many respects.
There are studies that suggest that positive thinking can help in the treatment of and recovery from illnesses. However, it isn’t a magic bullet. Thinking positive thoughts doesn’t cure everyone of cancer or make every recovery perfect. However it can elevate mood and reduce upsurges in hormones and other chemicals produced in large volume when people are stressed. The main thing seems to be that positive thinking has an advantage over negative thinking, because there are definitely causal links between negative thinking and production of stress hormones that make people feel worse.
There are a number of ways in which positive thoughts are introduced in therapy. Two key therapy concepts that use thinking as a means of recovery from mental illness are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). In particular, ACT can focus in part on how to interpret events in their best light, instead of interpreting them as a personal affront. It attempts to keep people from going negative and using negative self-talking by changing the way they perceive a situation, and by evaluating the different motivations that can drive other people.
CBT can evaluate how people get into destructive thinking patterns based on core beliefs that are really not true. People can move from these old destructive beliefs into ones that are more modulated and realistic. Both ACT and CBT are considered legitimate means to help in the treatment of mental illnesses and they have been shown to improve outcome, even when used with severe conditions.
Positive thinking isn’t just for those suffering from mental illness. There are many methods that employ such thoughts in every day life. Athletes can use positive visualizations in order to “see” achieving a goal or executing a perfect move. Students may visualize great test scores and then achieve them by reducing test anxiety and by studying. Many people adopt optimism as a life strategy. Even in bad times, they try to find the silver lining or use tough times to commit to helping others.
There can be some disadvantages to positive thinking too. People can become overly optimistic, a condition called optimism bias. They believe that they are immune to bad times or they simply believe that likelihood of good things occurring is greater than the likelihood of bad things occurring. This might lead to a smoker believing he or she won’t get lung cancer, for instance. Optimism needs to be tempered with realism, which isn’t the same as being negative. A favorite quote among many Christians is "act as if everything depends upon you; pray as if everything depends upon God.” In other words people shouldn’t use faith in the divine or optimism to substitute for living in positive ways that will likely improve their chances of having positive outcomes.
Bottom line, positive thinking does yield benefits. It appears to potentially influence people physically and mentally. It isn’t a cure-all, but it clearly is of little harm, especially when paired with positive action. It doesn’t have to be unrealistic at all, but it looks for the good in any situation or anticipates that the good will come.