Happy Thoughts That Change Lives: The Impact Of Positive Thinking

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated June 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

For some people, it can sometimes seem like life simply won’t allow for any happiness. While choosing happiness may seem daunting, there are proactive steps you can take today that may help you start feeling better. Almost every journey toward meaningful change starts with small, deliberate steps, and happiness is no exception.

When people become happier, they often begin by focusing on positive thinking. The positive psychology field has much to say about positivity's impact on happiness. Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes people thrive, and researchers in the field have dedicated thousands of hours to understanding where happiness comes from and how it can be achieved.

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Trouble staying positive?

How positivity impacts your happiness

Positivity, optimism, and happiness are closely related concepts. Evidence suggests that prioritizing positivity is an effective way to pursue happiness, personal growth, and personal security. Of those three terms, happiness is arguably the hardest to define.

What is happiness?

The main focus of positive psychology, according to the International Positive Psychology Association, has been to “relieve human suffering.” However, "relieving suffering" does not always equate to flourishing or thriving.

Does someone need to flourish to be happy? Possibly, but to someone experiencing significant challenges, like managing depression, the mere relief from “suffering” may seem like the pinnacle of happiness and joy.

Personal and cultural factors influence the definition of happiness, and each person defines happiness differently. In research settings, where it is important to be able to define what is being studied, happiness receives the broad definition of “a person’s subjective well-being.”

When discussed among psychologists and other scientists, happiness tends to be split into three categories:

  • Evaluative happiness refers to how satisfied a person feels with their life.
  • Affective happiness refers to how much a person tends to experience positive emotions over negative ones.
  • Eudaimonic happiness refers to a person’s sense of meaning and purpose.

The happiness paradox

Another definition of happiness might read something like “a feeling of satisfaction and contentment combined with a feeling of self-worth and meaning.” While that definition may be slightly more descriptive than "subjective well-being," it may not be a blueprint a person can follow to achieve their happiness goals.

The lack of a consistent definition of happiness reveals an important clue about pursuing happiness: it isn't always helpful. The act of trying to achieve happiness can, in some cases, lead to a person becoming less happy. 

Called the happiness paradox: the more a person strives for happiness through direct means, the less happy they are likely to be. The happiness paradox applies when someone directly pursues happiness but disregards happiness entirely, and focusing on other goals bypasses the barrier.

How happiness and positivity work together

If you focus on developing skills related to happiness rather than happiness itself, your results will likely be favorable. One place to start is by making use of positive thinking. The benefits of positive thinking are well-documented; thinking positively is associated with greater success, higher contentment, stronger social relationships, and higher goal attainment.

A positive attitude is not the same as happiness, but those who put effort into positive thinking are often significantly happier than those who focus on negative emotions. 

At best, negative thinking is unhelpful, and in some cases, it can be a significant barrier to success. On the other hand, a positive outlook can enhance your chances of success and achieving your goals. Increased goal attainment is often an especially important effect of positivity.

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Benefits of positivity

In addition to helping you achieve your goals, becoming more positive will likely introduce other constructive effects. Positivity is associated with a reduced risk of challenging mental health conditions like depression or anxiety. 

Positive people are also more likely to address problems in their life in a head-on, proactive manner rather than responding reactively. A proactive approach to problem-solving is associated with reduced stress and a better overall outlook.

Confidence and resilience are also commonly boosted through positivity. If you become more positive, you're likely to believe in yourself and your abilities more than if you engage in negative thought processes. In addition, you'll likely become more resilient, meaning you’ll often find that it is easier to recover from missed goals or complex challenges.

A positive mindset has physical health benefits, too. It is associated with better heart health and less effort needed to maintain healthy habits. It can also help protect against the harmful effects of many health conditions; evidence indicates that positivity leads to better outcomes in cases of traumatic brain injury, stroke, and brain tumors.

How to think more positively

Getting yourself to engage in more positive thinking will likely require time and conscious effort. In the beginning, introducing positivity can be challenging, but it often gets easier as time goes on. 

When you start, remember that the goal is to increase positivity, not avoid negative aspects of life. Dismissing negative thoughts or pretending they don't exist isn't helpful positivity; it's toxic positivity.

Here are a few strategies you can use to begin harnessing the impact of positive thinking:

Practice self-compassion

If you love and care about someone, you probably speak to them with kindness, respect, and empathy. We are often much less kind to ourselves than to our loved ones. One of the fundamental components of developing positivity is recognizing that you owe yourself the same forgiveness and understanding that you would give a friend or loved one.

As you work on positivity, take time to notice your negative self-talk. Self-talk is like your "inner voice," comprised of your conscious and unconscious beliefs about yourself. If you regularly put yourself down or treat yourself without kindness, consider consciously replacing some negativity with positive self-talk. Compliment yourself often, forgive yourself when necessary, and don't discount your positive traits.

The “three good things” exercise

Noticing positive events that happen in your life is often an important part of improving a negative outlook. One of the simplest ways to take note of positive events is to record them in a journal. For the ”three good things” exercise, creating a physical record can be helpful.

Follow these steps:

  1. Each day, for at least one week, write down three things that went well and explain why they went well.
  2. Give each event a title (e.g., "I was recognized for my hard work at my job" or "I received a compliment on my new outfit").
  3. Write down what happened with as many details as possible. Include who was involved, where you were, and what was said during the interaction.
  4. Write down your feelings surrounding the event.
  5. Write down an explanation of why you think the event occurred.

A physical record of positive events can let you think, process, and understand when, why, and how positive events occur. You'll also have an opportunity to reflect on happy, positive feelings rather than pushing through negative ones.

Mental subtraction of positive events

This exercise requires a journal and about 15 minutes each week. Mental subtraction of positive events helps highlight how special positive moments are in your life.

Do the following once per week:

  1. Think about a positive moment in your life (it doesn't have to be from the past week; it could have occurred at any point).
  2. Consider the circumstances that made the event possible.
  3. Write down the possible events and decisions that could have prevented the event from happening.
  4. Imagine what life would be like if the positive moment had not happened.
  5. Shift your focus, remind yourself that the event did happen, and allow yourself to feel grateful that things happened as they did.

A 2008 study found that those who did mental subtraction of positive events felt more gratitude and positivity about past events than if they had simply imagined the event without considering what their lives would be like if it hadn't happened.

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Trouble staying positive?

How can online therapy help?

An online therapist can often help you become more positive by offering new strategies, providing encouragement, and helping you address underlying feelings that may make it hard to be happy. If you find it challenging to be happier or more positive, a therapist might help you become unstuck and continue your journey.

Online therapists have the same training and credentials as traditional therapists and use the same evidence-based techniques. You can access comprehensive therapy services without traveling to an office or being restricted to therapists in your nearby area. Although the services are delivered online, evidence indicates they are just as effective as in office settings.

Takeaway

Increasing happiness takes time, effort, and dedication, but it is doable. One of the most effective ways to increase happiness is by introducing positivity into your thought process. Pursuing happiness itself is often ineffective, a principle known as the happiness paradox. 

Pursuing alternate goals, like positivity, has a greater chance of increasing happiness. You may start increasing positivity by practicing self-compassion, journaling about positive things that happen each day, and imagining your life without the positive events that have occurred to increase gratitude.

Improve your outlook on life
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