When you’re totally stressed out, the last thing you want is someone to cheerily remind you to, “think positive!” But it turns out that this reminder might be exactly what you need. According to a 2012 study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, people who are able to maintain a positive outlook while experiencing acute stress have a lower incidence of inflammatory activity in the body and future depressive symptoms. Basically, maintaining a cheerful outlook while stressed helps regulate your body’s physical reaction to anxiety.
If you’re not naturally chill and chipper, don’t worry. Scientists have long been tracking a phenomenon called neuroplasticity, where the brain actually changes its physical structure as a result of behavioral changes. In short, it’s possible to train your brain to have more positive responses. (You can learn more about neuroplasticity and positive thinking here.)
According to Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “individuals who are able to savor positive emotions have lasting activation in the ventral striatum. The longer the activation lasts, the greater his or her feelings of well-being.” What’s the ventral striatum, you ask? It’s a part of the brain that elicits feelings of reward. Activation of the ventral striatum has been linked to lower levels of stress hormone.
In a series of studies done by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, after six weeks of meditation focused on compassion and kindness, patients experienced an increase in positive emotions, and improved vagus nerve function (a key factor in heart rate.) Fredrickson’s research posits that practicing compassion and kindness makes it easier for your body to physically cope during stressful moments. As Dr. Fredrickson put it in a newsletter for the NIH, “the results suggest that taking time to learn the skills to self-generate positive emotions can help us become healthier, more social, more resilient versions of ourselves.”
Want to learn how to be more positive? Start with baby steps like the ones outlined in this post, and remember: negative emotions have a purpose. Becoming more positive isn’t about suppressing feelings of anger, sadness, or worry; it’s about training yourself to appreciate, notice, and seek moments of positivity.