OK: I’m a snob.

For years I’ve shaken my head at the “just think happy thoughts and everything will be fine” people.

My usual comeback has been, “I don’t believe sitting in my office and thinking happy thoughts is going to make my phone ring with new opportunities.”

Do you, too, need to do something about your judgments on positive thinking?

It turns out there is something in how brain reacts to positive versus negative thoughts.

Negative Thoughts Limit Your Reactions

We tend to classify emotions as positive and negative. (Here’s the truth. Emotions really aren’t either. It’s our reactions to them that are.)

I can understand this from a biological perspective. Negative emotions send a signal to our autonomic nervous system that something is wrong. This triggers the parasympathetic division, which prepares the body for stress or crisis. Our brain urges us to take action to avoid some real (or perceived) danger:

  • Anger encourages us to attack
  • Fear encourages us to run away
  • Disgust encourages us to spit out whatever we’ve eaten

In his book Elastic, Leonard Mlodinow, a theoretical physicist, says these reactions automatically narrow the options your brain will consider.

He cites a study in which people watched film clips of tragedies. The negative emotions they experienced led them to perform poorly in a creative challenge that followed: coming up with novel word associations.

When you’re focused on anger, fear or disgust, it’s hard to address issues or build something better.

Positive Thoughts Expand Your Options

Mlodinow mentions Barbara Fredrickson, a University of Michigan psychologist. She notes that positive emotions don’t have activities associated with them. Fredrickson believes that allows us to widen our range of thoughts and actions. She mentions some examples that positive emotions can trigger:

  • Develop new relationships
  • Increase our network of support
  • Look around our environment
  • Be open to new information

These choices increase our resilience and decrease our stress. They also mean our brains let in a wider range of possibilities and next steps.

Positive moods allow many more original ideas to move from our subconscious to our conscious minds. This is particularly helpful when it comes to solving problems.

And when we act on these novel ideas—and they work out—this stimulates the reward centers in our brains. Which improves our moods!

A Good Lesson Taught by Nuns

Scientists studied a group of 180 nuns. This started by analyzing essays these women wrote in 1930, determining if their attitudes were more positive or negative. Then scientists did longevity research on them 60 years later.

They discovered that the women who were classified as more positive lived an average of 10 years longer than the ones who were more negative. (Considering all the “whack your knuckles with a ruler” nuns I had, I know which group was teaching at my school.)

When you create a positive atmosphere—inside your head or your workplace—more good things happen. (I still believe that just sitting in my office won’t do the trick.)

Since moods are contagious, this can have a wonderful ripple effect.