Enhance your life with applied positive psychology

What is positive thinking?

Positive thinking happens when you engage in habits that allow you to become more adaptable, leverage your strengths, face obstacles with optimism, and maintain a strong sense of self. But sometimes, this is easier said than done. Although a negativity bias helped our ancestors identify and overcome threats to survive, in the present, it can be more detrimental than helpful.

Think of the last time one negative comment ruined an otherwise great day, and you’ll understand why it’s vital to proactively focus on the positive when you encounter challenges. But becoming a positive thinker doesn’t require you to ignore difficult circumstances. Instead, it involves processing and reacting to arduous situations from a logical, productive, and hopeful perspective.

How positive thoughts affect your brain

When you think happy or optimistic thoughts, the brain produces serotonin, creating a feeling of calm, focus, and well-being. Positive emotions such as joy can also activate the prefrontal cortex, reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and make it easier to reflect and become aware of your thought processes. Research has shown that this activation may stimulate creative thinking, problem-solving, and mental productivity. Conversely, when you experience negative thoughts, it may hinder creativity, impede problem-solving, and slow down thought processing.

How to practice positivity

Positive thinkers aren’t necessarily born; they are made. As such, positive thinking is something you can actively work on to improve your mindset. Read on to explore strategies you can employ to practice more optimism in your everyday life.

1. Keep a gratitude journal

Never underestimate the power of gratitude to shift your outlook. In times of stress, writing down the things you’re grateful for can help improve your mood, reduce toxic thoughts, and build your resilience. It’s important to remember that things you express appreciation for do not have to be monumental (although it doesn’t hurt if they are).

For instance, you can be thankful for something as simple as your partner making a thoughtful gesture or a friend brightening your day by checking in. If you aren’t ready to commit to a daily journal, start by making short lists on post-its or in the notes on your phone to get into the habit. The point is to think about and value the people, experiences, and aspects of your life that provide comfort and happiness.

According to a white paper by the Greater Good Science Center, practicing gratitude is associated with a multitude of benefits, including:

  • Better physical and psychological health
  • Increased happiness, optimism, and life satisfaction
  • Improved mood and sense of well-being
  • Increased self-esteem, creativity, and resistance to burnout
  • Enhanced motivation for self-improvement  

If you’re interested in learning about the research methods and approaches behind positive psychology, you can do so in APOP 2900: Understanding the Science of Positive Psychology at Penn LPS. In this course, you’ll explore how concepts such as well-being are operationalized and measured, learn the strengths and weaknesses of study design, and discover how to differentiate between drawing conclusions from a single experiment vs. a broader body of research.

2. Identify and disengage from negativity

With the 24-hour news cycle and the polarizing political discourse that pervades social media, it can sometimes feel impossible to avoid distressing information. That’s why it’s necessary to take breaks from your TV or smartphone and disconnect from troubling aspects of human nature, such as social comparison, bullying, crime, and war. It’s also essential to limit the amount of time you spend with co-workers, friends, or family who negatively impact your mood and prioritize time with those who lift you up.

One of the first steps toward actively disengaging from negative thinking is to identify it in the first place. This involves working on mindfulness, or your ability to be fully present in your thoughts and emotions without being reactive to them. Fortunately, teaching your brain to be more mindful through deep breathing, meditation, and visualization exercises is possible.

A common negative thought pattern to watch out for is perfectionism, wherein you create impossible standards that set you up for failure or disappointment. You should also be mindful of when you’re engaging in polarizing and catastrophizing thinking patterns. In the former, you view situations as inherently good or bad with no room for a middle ground. While in the latter, you may exaggerate difficulties and assume that the worst-case scenario will be the reality.

Another typical negative thought pattern is personalization. For example, if your boss doesn’t respond to an email and you presume it’s because you’ve done something wrong, you are personalizing the situation. In APOP 2000: Positive Psychology at Work, you’ll learn how our professional environments contribute to and impede our ability to thrive. And you’ll explore research topics on work relationships, positive leadership, and our sense of meaning and purpose as you gain an understanding of strategies to help you flourish and spread positivity at work.

3. Volunteer your time

One of the most rewarding ways to bring more positivity into your life is to be compassionate and act with generosity. When you volunteer your time—whether through a small act of kindness or a significant act such as spending time with the elderly—you enrich the lives of others and yourself. Volunteering can help reduce stress and anxiety, increase happiness, create a sense of community, and provide a sense of purpose.

Volunteering also allows you to meet new people and enhance skills such as active listening, empathy, leadership, relationship management, and communication. For example, if you volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, you may learn valuable construction skills, collaboration, and problem-solving abilities. This can help improve your self-esteem and stoke your sense of accomplishment.

When you volunteer for a group or cause you’re passionate about, you may also find that you make meaningful connections through mentors or job prospects. Suppose you don’t have a particular volunteer charity or organization in mind. In that case, you can start by reaching out to local schools and youth organizations, service organizations, political groups, senior centers, family and homeless shelters, LGBTQ+ groups, food pantries, animal rescue shelters, or places of worship.

If you’d like to learn more about research on fostering well-being with others, explore APOP 2200: Flourishing with Others: Building Thriving Relationships at Penn LPS Online. In this course, you’ll study close bonds in families, romantic partnerships, friendships, work relationships, and broader relationships with communities, nature, and the planet. You’ll also learn ways to nurture and enhance these bonds and help yourself and others flourish within them.

4. Practice positive affirmations

The way you talk to yourself is extremely important. When you have a negative internal dialogue, it can diminish your confidence, motivation, and self-esteem. However, engaging in positive self-talk can re-frame negative thought patterns, feelings, and behaviors in a more positive and productive light. For instance, instead of reacting to a mistake by saying, “I always screw things up,” you can ask yourself, “What have I learned from this that I can apply in the future?”

One way to help shift your mindset in a more constructive direction is to start practicing positive affirmations. You can use these simple statements to motivate yourself, combat maladaptive narratives, and improve your state of mind. All you have to do is choose an applicable phrase and repeat it internally or aloud, depending on your preference and environment.

For example, if you’re feeling nervous about speaking up during an important meeting, you can practice saying, “My input is valuable and deserves to be shared,” or, “My work performance does not define my sense of worth.” Although doing so may seem strange at first, with practice, you can train your brain to over-write negative thoughts with positive ones, reduce worry, and increase your chances of success. The beauty of this strategy is that you can practice it in the middle of difficult situations without anyone else being aware.

In APOP 1200: Human Flourishing: Strengths and Resilience, you will explore how to leverage positive character strengths to build resilience and enhance well-being. As you study the physical and psychological factors that constitute the ability to bounce back in the face of challenges, you’ll learn how to cultivate them and improve your ability to thrive.

5. Visualize your success

There’s a good chance you’ve already practiced visualization—or imagining a goal you want to achieve as if it were already true—without being aware of it. Outcome visualization involves picturing yourself reaching the desired objective, while process visualization is envisioning the steps you must take to achieve this outcome. If you practice visualization consistently, you can help improve your focus, motivation, and self-confidence. Whether your objective relates to your career, relationships, or another aspect of your life is up to you; what’s important is getting to a place where you believe that you will achieve it.

A key component of visualization is trying to engage all five senses as you imagine your ideal outcome. The more details you can add to your vision, the better (including the positive emotions you will feel when you are successful). If possible, make time to visualize for 5 to 10 minutes daily, either first thing in the morning or right before you go to sleep. You can ease yourself into the practice by starting with a guided visualization meditation from an app like Calm or Headspace or a free video on YouTube. You can also try writing out your desired outcome on an index card or creating a vision board you can look to throughout the day.

Undergoing an effective visualization practice involves patience and the ability to exercise your creative muscles. In APOP 3400: Flourishing through Creativity and the Arts, you’ll learn how engaging in creative pursuits and with the arts can contribute to well-being. As you gain an understanding of the major scientific findings related to this powerful triad, you’ll discover how you can harness it to bring more positivity into your own life.

What are proven benefits of positive thinking?

In addition to the advantages referenced above, such as increased self-confidence, enhanced well-being, and improved cognitive performance, there are numerous additional physical and mental health benefits of engaging in positive thinking.

According to an article by Insider, the research-backed benefits of thinking positively include fewer chronic illnesses, lower risk of heart disease and associated mortality, improved fertility in women, reduced risk of hypertension, higher overall quality of life, enhanced coping strategies during times of hardship, reduced vulnerability to disappointment, improved quality of relationships, and lessened symptoms of depression.

Why study applied positive psychology?

One of the most compelling reasons to study applied positive psychology is the opportunity to learn strategies to help you lead a fuller and more satisfying life. If that sounds appealing, take some time to explore the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (BAAS) degree at Penn LPS.

The applied positive psychology course block will introduce you to the fundamentals of this fascinating field and tools that encourage personal, organizational, and community well-being. You'll also learn the theoretical and empirical foundations of human flourishing as you explore key themes including positive emotions, strengths, relationships, and meaning. BAAS concentrations related to applied positive psychology include:

If you’re not looking to pursue a degree program, the Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology at Penn LPS can provide an excellent entry point into the discipline. This 4-course program is designed to help you build the skills to help you thrive in all aspects of your life. In addition to learning strategies to enhance well-being, you’ll also learn how to collaborate with others to increase employee engagement, develop your effectiveness and resilience as a leader, and use a strengths-based approach in your professional development.

If you haven’t already, apply today to take the first step toward exploring everything applied positive psychology has to offer. View our course guide to see the full range of what’s available in the upcoming term.

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