How to practise positive thinking and be more optimistic
Affirmations are great as wall art or on statement tees, but do they actually work? The key is choosing the right one for you
Maybe you have a favourite motivational phrase or saying, maybe you simply tell yourself to think positively from time to time, but does repeating an affirmation actually work?
Research has shown that it does – that just by thinking positively we can massively boost our mood.
Made popular in the 1980s by American social psychologist Claude Steele, self-affirmation theory studies how well we adapt to information or experiences that threaten how we perceive ourselves – in other words, how being forced outside our comfort zone affects our confidence and self-esteem.
A study published in the Journal of Health Psychology in 2017 found that self-affirmation leads to “better mental and physical wellbeing, including greater happiness, hopefulness, optimism and health, and less sadness and anger.”
“When people self-affirm, they focus on the ‘big picture’ and appreciate the context of the threat as well as approach it more effectively,” says co-author, psychologist Amber Emanuel.
The study found that personal affirmation statements can help to improve our self-image by acting as triggers to help us remember how strong/calm/confident we really are, giving us an internal mechanism for coping with external situations we would otherwise find threatening.
Psychiatrist Norman Doidge takes this theory a step further in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, arguing that our thoughts can actually change the structure and function of our brains – an idea called neuroplasticity.
Doidge recommends practising positive thought patterns (or affirmations) repetitively, as the key is to “flood your brain with the positive thought”.
Choose your own affirmations
Finding the right affirmations for you is about acknowledging the situations that you find difficult or challenging. So, for instance, if meeting new people makes you feel anxious, your affirmations could include: ‘I am interesting’; ‘I am creative’; and ‘People enjoy my company’.
If you tend to stress about trying something new, try: ‘I am self-confident’; ‘I can deal with all circumstances’; or ‘I can remain calm under pressure’.
The wonderful thing about self-affirmation is how easy it is to incorporate into your daily routine. Whether you create wall art, write your affirmations into a diary or position a positive quote near your front door, it’s whatever works for you.
The most important part of this practice is that you repeat your statement, and repeat it often – out loud if you can!
So give yourself a pat on the back – by taking a few moments each day to tell yourself how amazing you are you’ll be helping to make every day a good one.
How positive are you?
For most of us it is far easier to think positive on some days in comparison to others. However we could all stand to be a bit more optimistic on the bad days as well as the good – that there are sure to be less bad day!
Take our quiz to see just how positive you are, then read on for our tips on how to develop a sunnier outlook and find the right affirmation for you.
9 ways to develop positive thinking skills
Ask yourself what elements of your life cause you to feel down. It could be something as simple as washing up left until the next morning which means your day starts with a bout of anger and frustration, a tv show you watch or even a friend who is a source of negative energy. Next, question how you can reduce their impact on you. What can you do to spend less time with, or get rid of, these negative influences.
Seek out silver linings
As the old saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining. Practice looking for positives in even the most negative situations and more often that not you will find one. Even when something in your life goes a little off plan, there is usually an upside and actively seeking them out trains us to have a more positive outlook all the time, not only when something goes wrong.
Keep a gratitude journal
Pack a notebook in your bag or keep a pen and paper beside the bed. Find time a few times every week to write down things which you are thankful for. These can be as broad as having a family who loves you or far more personal and specific. It may seem strange at first, but thinking about and writing down things you are grateful for helps to bring all the most positive features of your life to the foreground and therefore makes us better at prioritising those things which are most important.
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Help someone else
If you're struggling to see the positives in your own life, go out and help someone else instead. Whether it's popping round to a friend's house when they're in need of a pick-me-up, visiting a lonely neighbour or getting involved in a community project, helping other people feels great. By having a positive impact on someone else's life you'll start to feel better about your own too!
Repeat positive affirmations
The benefits of repeating positive affirmations are seemingly endless. Confirming, out loud, all the things we can do and be improve our self-image and can help us to achieve our goals. Read on for a few of our favourite affirmations.
Establish goals to give you motivation
Everything becomes easier with a set goal in mind. Remember not to stretch yourself too far when setting goals as laying out ones which you cannot achieve have the exact opposite of the desired effect. Instead, think carefully about what you want from life and set goals which you will work to achieve. When trying to think more positively, it is good to start small – set a goal to combat negative thoughts or face a specific fear.
Read inspirational material
Our thinking and state of mind is heavily influenced by what we choose to read. Close the websites that make you feel bad about yourself, even if you feel like it'll leave you behind on the latest gossip, and pick up an inspiring book or magazine. Ask friends for recommendations and discover something new together.
Take time for yourself
It is extremely difficult to keep positive if you are entirely burnt out. Make time for yourself and slowly build up a self-care routine which restores you. Remember that sometimes saying no to other people means saying yes to yourself.
Rome wasn't build in a day and your mindset won't be changed in one either. Even naturally positive people have bad days so we should all expect a few every now and then. Changing how we think is a big, but rewarding, undertaking so make sure to practice every day.
Our favourite affirmations
The affirmations we all make should be personal to ourselves – the more time you take to think about what you want to achieve, the easier it is to pick out the right affirmations for you. However, sometimes we all have the same problems and need a similar push to get in a more positive place. We've compiled a few of our favourite affirmations for all sorts of situations.
When you can’t stop scrolling through Instagram
If you find yourself mindlessly scrolling through Instagram and begin to compare your life to the perfect visions online, try 'I will not compare myself to stranger on the internet', 'I’m free to create the life I desire' or 'I am calm, happy and content'.
If you need to make time for yourself
Making time in which you care only for yourself and your own needs is an important step in thinking more positively. Start your affirmations with 'I matter. I am allowed to say no to others and yes to myself', 'I have the power to make me happy' or 'I choose not to criticise myself and those around me'.
When you need a bit of body positivity
We all have days when we don't feel quite so positive about ourselves. If this is starting to happen more and more often, incorporate 'I am comfortable within my own skin', 'My body is healthy, and I am grateful' or 'My imperfections make me unique' into your daily affirmations.
Before that big presentation
Speaking in front of others is a challenge for a lot of us, so if you need that extra push to do a good job, reinforcing your skills out loud is a brilliant way to start. Try 'I will speak with confidence and self-assurance', 'I am allowed to take up space' or 'I can do anything I put my mind to'.
After a low moment
When you're feeling low, perhaps after a break-up, argument or big life change, reassure yourself with an affirmation like 'I am allowed to take the time to heal', 'I deserve love, compassion and empathy' or 'My feelings are valid'.
If you need more confidence at work
Confidence benefits massively from support. Speaking affirmations out loud is a brilliant way to build ourselves up and prepare for situations which cause us stress. Try 'I am not afraid to be wrong', 'I am proud of myself and all I have achieved' or 'My potential is limitless'.
When you’re building a positive mindset
Staying positive is not as simple as it might seem once the admin of everyday life crops up. Remind yourself of your own power to be positive with an affirmation like 'Positivity is a choice that I choose to make', 'I have the power to create change' or 'I deserve to have joy in my life'.
5 positive thinking motivational quotes to inspire you
Motivational quotes can help you to focus on your goals and become more positive over time. Find more inspiring quotes and affirmations on our Pinterest board.
Today is going to be awesome
Brighten up your home or office with this beautiful positive poster designed by Becki Clark – download it here.
Be a rainbow in someone else's cloud – Maya Angelou
Who puts it better than the wonderful Maya Angelou? This quote reminds us that we can inspire positivity in others.
It's okay for me to have everything I want
This quote is a reminder that we can give ourselves permission to be happy and that it's okay to put ourselves first now and then.
Embrace the glorious mess that you are – Elizabeth Gilbert
It's okay to feel that your life isn't perfect – most of us feel the same way! This quote is a good reminder for those times when you feel a little out of control.
Starting new is just about the bravest thing you can do
When you're facing new challenges in your life, remind yourself that you're actually being brave and congratulate yourself on your courage. You're doing the best you can.
This article was first published in In The Moment Magazine issue 1.
Photos by Angelo Pantazis, Brooke Cagle, Corinne Kutz, Emily Rudolph, Hassan Ouajbir, Kyle Glenn and Riki Ramdani on Unsplash. Illustrations by Liv Watkins and Becki Clark.