The idea that positive thinking leads to positive outcomes is an old one – dating back to the 1950s and Norman Vincent Peale’s best-selling book, The Power of Positive Thinking. The basic idea is that an optimistic attitude and positive thoughts can lead to better outcomes and greater life satisfaction.
Fast-forward to 2006 and Rhonda Byrnes’ book, The Secret, popularized by Oprah Winfrey, that claims that positive thinking alone can lead to positive life outcomes. Byrnes suggests that simply thinking about positive outcomes will lead to them (wish hard enough for good fortune, and it will come to pass!). But can positive thinking alone actually make our lives better? What does psychological research have to say?
Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, and others, have researched the role that positive emotions play, not only in improving your mood, but in leading to healthy physical and psychological outcomes.
How does this work?
Fredrickson calls it the “broaden and build” theory. Positive emotions lead people to be more active – to engage in more social behavior, to think about positive possibilities, to try new things and be more creative. This leads the individual to build better skills – social skills, creative skills, and, if your positive emotions lead you to go hiking or engage in outdoor activities, you can develop physical skills that are related to good health. According to Fredrickson, it is these skills that lead to positive outcomes, not the positive thoughts and emotions themselves.
Here’s another way that positive thinking can lead to positive outcomes, but in this case, it’s about how holding positive thoughts about other people can lead THEM to achieve positive outcomes.
The lifelong work of psychologist Robert Rosenthal led to something called “the Pygmalion Effect.” In short, if you hold positive expectations about another person, you can actually bring about a positive change in their behavior. In his famous study of students in elementary schools, Rosenthal led teachers to believe that some of their students would show an intellectual “growth spurt” over the school year. Actually, those students were randomly chosen. At the end of the year, the students identified as “intellectual bloomers” actually scored higher on tests of academic skills. It wasn’t that the teachers’ positive thinking/expectations alone caused the positive outcome. It was the way the teachers behaved toward their intellectual bloomers. The teachers spent more time with them and challenged them more than the other students.
What conclusions can we draw from this research on the role of positive thoughts and emotions on producing beneficial outcomes?
First, it is important to be positive and realistically optimistic – to believe that we can succeed. But it also takes effort and constructive behaviors in order to achieve positive outcomes. Moreover, it is not enough to believe in ourselves, but having supportive others who encourage us and believe that “you can do it” also goes a long way to achieving success.
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Fredrickson, B.L. (2009). Positivity. New York: Harmony.
Rosenthal, R. & Jacobson, L. Pygmalion in the Classroom. Norwalk, CT: Crown House.