Your Brain on Positive Thoughts

Laura Sugden
Well-being & Health Coach

The power of positive thinking on the brain, according to science

Fill your mind with positive thoughts. Put your positivity out into the universe, and good things will come to you. Manifest what you want. Visualise your best future. The power of positive thinking is rife—from the evangelical to the sceptical converts, and everyone in between.

But, what’s the science behind it? Is the power of positive thinking proven, or hearsay?

What happens in the brain when you have a positive thought?

When you have a positive thought or experience feelings of joy, happiness, or optimism, serotonin is released in the brain. Serotonin is your “happy” hormone that improves your mood, and creates a sense of well-being; your brain’s Jedi force if you will. This serotonin release helps to decrease cortisol levels, which, if left unchecked (by dwelling on negative thoughts, for example), can lead to slower brain function, and even the development of depression. So, in this instance, cortisol is your brain’s dark side.

How to be more positive—6 proven ways

    • Crack a smile - Smiling can have huge knock-on effects on the brain, in your body, and out into the world around you.
  • Have a laugh - Want to relieve stress, give your immune system a boost, and top up your serotonin? Have a good laugh.
    • Be grateful - As well as encouraging you to think more positively, gratitude journalling can improve well-being throughout your life, increasing your self-esteem and overall life satisfaction. 
  • Go on holiday - Taking a holiday can improve your mental health, and increase your brain plasticity. 
  • Get playful - Improve your work performance, cognitive well-being, and quality of life with regular time to switch off, and just play
  • Phone a friend - Having friends around can make scary things less intimidating, and stressful situations easier to manage. Thanks, mate.

Positive thoughts promote neuroplasticity

Filling your mind with positive thoughts, and the resulting feeling of well-being can help your brain to function at its best, and also support neuroplasticity, particularly in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is an important zone (well, all brain zones are important,) because it enables you to: 

    • regulate the signals from your brain to other parts of your body
  • reflect on what you’ve been physically doing
    • control your emotional responses
  • focus on what you choose
  • get insight on your thought processes

The PFC is kind of like your choice centre that gives you the ability to decide what you want to do, and how you want to do it. So, by choosing positive thoughts, you’re contributing to the neuroplasticity and flexibility of the prefrontal cortex, which will mean you’re better equipped to choose positive thoughts. (See what we did there? The force is strong with this one.)

Positive thinking can impact your health

In this study from the University of Kentucky on a group of law students, those who were more optimistic had stronger immune systems than their more pessimistic counterparts. The positive thinkers were better able to fight off bacteria and viruses.

Positive thinking can help more than just fighting off everyday things like the common cold. A circulation study showed that a positive outlook was associated with less plaque build-up in the arteries, and a lower risk of developing coronary heart disease in women. And, in this study on optimism and heart failure, positive thinkers over the age of 50 were less likely to suffer from heart failure.

Positive thoughts can help you live longer

In this classic study, nuns with the highest amount of positive emotions lived 10 years longer than those with the lowest amount of positive thoughts. The study took into account their handwritten autobiographies for the data, and found that positive emotional content in their early-life writings (around age 22), was strongly associated with longevity six decades later. 

And, in this 28-year study, longevity was predicted by how happy people felt in their lives overall.

So positive thinking = longer life. Can’t really ask for a bigger endorsement than that.