Positive thinking? Isn’t that too touchy-feely, pseudo-sciencey for serious DC trench workers? Maybe not. The answer may lie in the mind-body connection (maybe better named the mind-body continuum). Currently, there is great interest in positive psychology, which is the study of the workings of healthy minds and very different from the more traditional study of malfunctioning minds. This has led to an increased number of studies on many aspects of positive thinking: from documenting the neurochemical and physiological changes wrought by affirmations and positive visualizations, to the long term benefits of meditation, to the examination of the winner effect in human brains. It has been said that we create our own reality, and the current research on positive thinking seems to bear this out.

So what constitutes positive thinking and how can you make it work for you? It’s a big topic, so this article will present an overview plus some quick tips. Further pieces will focus more in depth on various aspects and routes to positive thinking.

Positive thinking and positive psychology might sound like the same thing, but really they are a bit different. Positive psychology essentially is the study of healthy, happy minds- what makes them happy and healthy, how they look physically and biochemically when they are operating, what their thought processes and attending life-styles look like, etc. Most importantly, positive psychology attempts to systematically and scientifically document these things. And you might have noticed that in the mix there was “what do happy, healthy minds think?” Positive thinking is, in essence, an answer to that question.

You might think that positive thinking is a new idea, but not really. Buddhism, which has been described by the Dalai Lama as “a science of the mind,” has been purveying the notion for centuries. A case could be made that positive thinking is an important aspect of almost all spiritual traditions. So what is it? At heart, positive thinking is a way of mentally approaching life’s challenges and hurts with a positive attitude. This is quite different from denying life’s pains, or numbing them, or avoiding them, or wallowing in them. When we pretend that things aren’t hard or painful, we aren’t dealing with reality. Being delusional cannot get you very far, no matter the method you choose for deluding yourself. Wallowing means you’ve gotten stuck and are no longer moving. None of these are likely to bring you health, happiness, or freedom, but positive thinking may.

The good news is that positive thinking works. There has long been plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this, and science is catching up. Recent studies on meditation and neuroplasticity indicate that not only can the brain change with new input and habits but that the mind regarding itself can cause significant physical changes in the brain. Let that sink in. You, thinking about your thoughts, can change the architecture of your brain. Add to that that the brain tends to have thinking habits. You know, well-worn trails of thoughts in our minds that lead past the same mental landscape over and over.  If that landscape is good, we tend to feel good, and when we feel good, we tend to do good. But if the numbers on depression and anxiety are any indicator, many of us are walking through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, mentally.  Here in D.C., where the stakes are high and the pressure is always on, that can be especially true.

There are many ways to train your brain in more positive mental states. Meditation, visualization, affirmations, gratitude, laughter yoga, setting intentions, interrupting negative rumination, reading inspirational works, singing songs that make you feel joyful: all can bring about a positive mental state. Future pieces will go in-depth on some of them and how to apply them in real-life situations, but those are some ideas to get you started.

Positive thinking will not make your boss less demanding, your significant other less stressed and distant, or your mother approve of anything you’ve chosen to do, but it will help you greet those challenges with some inner calm and mental resilience. And isn’t that the best definition of safety? Knowing that whatever life hands to you, you can handle it with ease, grace, dignity, and aplomb.

Keep an eye out for follow up articles that will explore more aspects of positive thinking like Laughter yoga, Affirmations, intentions, and negative self-talk, plus the big one on meditation.