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After the economy took a major battering a few years ago, the concept of “positive thinking” took a pasting as well. Critics said companies promoting positive thinking wanted to improve employee morale while denying them raises and overburdening them with the tasks of their laid-off co-workers.

Positive thinking

Positivity is more than “feel good” jargon.

However, there is actual research backing up the beneficial effects of positive thinking on business. A 2004 study found that teams with a more positive attitude earned higher profits and had happier customers. A 2001 study found that people experiencing joy think more creatively. And a study from 2005 found that people with a positive outlook miss less work. Here are some more reasons positive thinking makes executives more effective.

Fear Makes You Perceive Fewer Options Than You Actually Have

Humans have built-in psychological mechanisms for coping with immediate danger, whether it’s a bear in the wild, a frightening person in a dark alley, or a bus careening toward you out of control. When situations like these happen, your brain shuts off everything else and focuses on saving yourself. That’s great for real danger, but many people have this reaction to situations that aren’t nearly as serious.

A minor spat over a parking space, or the sight of an overly-full schedule first thing in the morning can trigger this fight-or-flight response, and can cause you to tune out to where you don’t see the options you actually have. The converse is true as well. When you experience positive emotions, you see more possibilities.

Other Ways Negative Thinking Adversely Affects You

In addition to giving you a limited view of your options, negative thinking affects you adversely in several other ways:

• It squashes your creativity and dampens the creativity of those you interact with.
• Negative thoughts takes longer than positive thoughts to “wear off.”
• Persistent negativity can hurt job performance and cause you to miss opportunities.
• Chronic negativity drives people away and damages relationships.
• It drives up stress levels and can contribute to chronic health problems.

Changing Perspective: Privilege vs. Duty

Many things we complain about “having” to do look to others like things we “get” to do. If you’re a stay-at-home parent of three young children, you probably won’t have much sympathy when your spouse complains about “having to” fly to Vegas next week. Most of us are not victims who are forced to take on these responsibilities against our will.

No, you don’t “have to” exercise regularly, but you get to because you’re healthy enough and have time to do so. You don’t “have to” attend every conference, but you have the privilege of doing so because you present information that people want to hear. You don’t “have to” stop by the supermarket on the way home. You probably won’t starve. You get to do so to have something delicious and convenient for supper rather than having to hunt and gather.

Positive thinking attitudes

How you frame your responsibilities shapes your attitude toward them.

Who You Were Is Not Necessarily Who You Are

Another thing persistent negative thinking can do is keep us locked in the person we used to be. Maybe you failed one calculus quiz in college and although you rallied and passed the class and subsequent mathematics classes, you nonetheless couldn’t stop thinking of yourself as being “bad at math.”

The people who didn’t know you then might be astonished to know you think of yourself that way, because your calculations of boundary layer thickness (for example) have always been right on. Many of us have something in common with the Ugly Duckling. We may not realize just how far we’ve come, and that’s a shame.

Ways to Increase Positive Thinking in Everyday Life

Increasing positive thinking involves practicing things that generate feelings of contentment, joy, and love. These things obviously differ for different people, but you have to make time for them rather than thinking of them as “extras.” Meditation and writing are two popular methods people use to increase positive thinking.

Play is also important, but when was the last time you scheduled something playful into your life? “Play” may be structured, like carving out time to learn a new song on your ukulele. Or it may be completely unstructured free time, where you figure it out as you go along. But giving yourself “permission” to play helps you experience joy, and entertain new ideas.

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