You have probably heard about “the power of positive thinking”—the idea that thinking positively helps people meet their goals and keeps them healthy, happy, and able to effectively cope with the negative events that they experience. It turns out that positive thinking really works. People who think positively about their future, who believe that they can control their outcomes, and who are willing to open up and share with others are happier, healthier people (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).
The power of positive thinking comes in different forms, but they are all helpful. Notwithstanding the potential risks of wildly optimistic beliefs about the future, outlined earlier in this chapter, some researchers have studied the effects of having an optimistic explanatory style, a way of explaining current outcomes affecting the self in a way that leads to an expectation of positive future outcomes, and have found that optimists are happier and have less stress (Carver & Scheier, 2009). Others have focused on self-efficacy, the belief in our ability to carry out actions that produce desired outcomes. People with high self-efficacy feel more confident to respond to environmental and other threats in an active, constructive way—by getting information, talking to friends, and attempting to face and reduce the difficulties they are experiencing. These people, too, are better able to ward off their stresses in comparison with people with less self-efficacy (Thompson, 2009).
Self-efficacy helps in part because it leads us to perceive that we can control the potential stressors that may affect us. Workers who have control over their work environment (e.g., by being able to move furniture and control distractions) experience less stress, as do patients in nursing homes who are able to choose their everyday activities (Rodin, 1986). Glass, Reim, and Singer (1971) found in a study that participants who believed they could stop a loud noise experienced less stress than those who did not think they could, even though the people who had the option never actually used it. The ability to control our outcomes may help explain why animals and people who have higher social status live longer (Sapolsky, 2005). Importantly, it is possible to learn to think more positively, and doing so can be beneficial to our moods and behaviors. For example, Antoni et al. (2001) found that pessimistic cancer patients who were given training in optimism reported more optimistic outlooks after the training and were less fatigued after their treatments.