Brain Health and the Power of a Positive Attitude

Written by Nicole Scheidl

July 12, 2017

Positive AttitudeA positive attitude has a powerful effect on both the brain and the body.

Research shows that positive thinking can

  • Improve your immune system
  • Help you cope better with stress
  • Make you more resilient
  • Help you live longer


In fact, the impact of a positive attitude has far reaching consequences for us as we age. And in the near term, it helps us deal with the inevitable bumps along the way.


The Power of  A Positive Attitude

A positive attitude is a powerful thing. But what is a positive attitude?  Well, a positive attitude is not sticking your head in the sand.  A positive attitude is not blind faith that everything will work out without any effort being required. It usually focuses on what can be achieved or at least attempted. It is not a refusal to face problems, but rather a belief that problems can be overcome.


Individuals with a positive attitude either find a way or make a way. They seem to have more resources at hand then individuals without a positive attitude. This effect is referred to in the scientific literature as cognitive broadening.


Building Resources Through Cognitive Broadening

Cognitive broadening refers to the range of personal resources built through the body and brain’s experience of positive emotions. Those personal resources include physical, social, intellectual, and psychological resources. A positive outlook, therefore,  has a wide-reaching impact on both the body and the brain.


Physical resources

It takes time to build physical skills. We don’t become fantastic athletes over night. In fact, maybe we never become a fantastic athlete, but we master enough of the sport to make the game enjoyable.


A positive attitude inclines us towards taking on new challenges and learning new skills. Learning a new sport or skill takes time and effort. An individual with a negative attitude generally gives up at the first unsuccessful attempt – making it difficult to master a new skill. A positive attitude helps you persevere.


We know that physical activity has a positive effect on overall health. When you are not deterred by the initial difficulties of learning a new sport you are more likely to continue until you achieve a sufficient level of mastery. With mastery comes enjoyment and the likelihood that you will continue with that activity, reaping its’ rewards.


As well, positive emotions impact us physically by reducing the effect of negative stress. Research shows that the body returns to its cardiovascular norm faster through the experience of positive emotions. This leads to improved health outcomes.


Social resources

A positive, open outlook on life helps us build friendships and social support networks. We know from the research that positive social networks reduce depression and increase longevity.


We all know from personal experience that Individuals with a positive outlook are easier to be around, while those with a negative attitude create a negative attitude. Thus a negative attitude can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, reducing social resources.


One of the common characteristics of individuals with a pessimistic attitude is the tendency to focus on the negative. And focusing on the negative tends to make that area grow. One of my friends referred to this as feeding the black dog. Whichever dog you feed – either the positive one or the negative one – is the one that is going to grow.


Focusing on the negative can also create social isolation. And we know from the research that social isolation can lead to depression and cognitive decline.


Intellectual resources

Positive emotions also have an impact on the growth of Intellectual resources. When we believe that we can understand information we tend to tackle more complex ideas and learning. Individuals with an expert knowledge base who thrive on intellectual complexity need a positive belief in their own capacities to understand. And to build that expert knowledge base, we need to believe that we have the capacity to do so.


Psychological resources

A positive outlook creates several psychological resources to call on in times of stress, including resilience, optimism, and creativity. These psychological resources can have a multiplier effect on other areas of your health.


In the Nun Study, a comparison was made between nuns who exhibited positive attitudes in their earlier life with those who had a more pessimistic outlook. Interestingly, the study found that nuns who had a positive attitude lived on average 10 years longer than nuns who had a more pessimistic attitude.


Research has found that the personal resources we accrue through positive emotions are durable. They stay with us through our lifetime and create resilience. Positive emotions, therefore, are a key driver in the building of cognitive resilience.


So how can you create a positive attitude?

If you were born an Eeyore, don’t despair. Creating and maintaining a positive attitude can be a learned trait.


Here are four ways to increase your ability to be a positive thinker:

  1. Check-in with yourself through the day to evaluate how you are thinking—is it positive or negative? Correct your thinking if required.
  2. Find the funny in situations. Seek out and surround yourself with humour—read a funny book, watch a funny movie, enjoy laughter with a friend.
  3. Surround yourself with positive people.
  4. Practice positive self-talk. Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to another human being.


Get A Cognitive Coach

If you are suffering from a cognitive impairment, like dementia, it is very easy to fall into negative self-talk. Levels of frustration, anxiety and anger will already be elevated by the impairment. This is where cognitive coaching can make such a difference to an individual’s outlook.


Fit Minds provides cognitive stimulation therapy through our Interact Individual cognitive coaching program. We have seen a marked improvement in the outlook of individuals who participate in our program.


It is common for individuals with a cognitive impairment to have a lot of negative self-talk going on inside of their head. When you are experiencing a real loss of ability, the usual response is to withdraw. This withdrawal reinforces social isolation and the view that you are no longer able to do things.


With cognitive coaching the focus is on working on what is achievable. When individuals are stretched, but not frustrated, they can surprise themselves and start to see that there are things they can do. They start to re-engage with the people around them, and communicate more often. This leads to a significant improvement in the quality of life.


The Gift You Give Yourself

Creating and maintaining a positive attitude is a gift you can give yourself. When you decide to create a positive framework for viewing the world, you create more resources for yourself. And those resources are life-long with benefits you will continue to reap.




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