Science has found a trick to get the most out of positive thinking

The Statue of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, The Thinker. Michele Tantussi/Getty Images

Being an optimistic person has more concrete more benefits than just a rosy outlook on life, according to the latest research.

Scientists have found that positive thinking speeds the recovery of the seriously ill and helps disaster victims overcome the psychological impact of a traumatic experience.

“People who are more optimistic about their recovery when they are ill are more likely to recover,” says Professor Donnel Briley at the The University of Sydney Business School.

“They’re more likely to have positive mental health, and they’re more likely to have a range of positive physiological outcomes.”

The findings, in a paper titled “Cultivating optimism: How to frame your future during a health challenge”, are seen as an important to the rehabilitation of people suffering serious physical and mental illness.

And there’s a way of thinking that gets the most out of positive thinking. The most effective thoughts are those that focus on future activities or behaviours.

“Mentally simulating your future is incredibly important to optimism,” he says.

“For example, if I’m ill, I might want to exercise more and by imagining myself exercising more actually makes it more likely that I will exercise more in the future.”

The research team, including Stanford University’s Professor Jennifer Aaker and the University of Houston’s Assistant Professor Melanie Rudd, monitored levels of optimism in ill and traumatised people.

“One simply asking them how they felt about their futures, but we also looked at physiological outcomes,” Professor Briley says.

“For example, we included in one study a hand grip task and we found that people squeezed it longer and more vigorously the more optimistic they were about their futures.

“We did something similar after a major flood when we went in and asked a number of people about their intentions to use a vaccine that would protect them from disease and we found that they were more likely to do so when they felt optimistic about the future.”

However, the research also found that cultural background can determine the way people generate optimistic thoughts of the future.

“We were interested in culture from the outset and we found some very interesting cultural differences,” says Briley.

“In one study involving cancer patients, we found that those of an East-Asian background were much more optimistic when they were thinking about the particular situations that they might face in the future while this bogged Anglos down,” he says.

“Anglos were much more optimistic when they were thinking in the abstract, and not about specific situations.”

Briley believes that doctors could use the research.

“People who are suffering from a critical illness, cancer, for example, or some other debilitating disease — HIV AIDS — really need optimism in order to recover and live a better life,” says Briley.

The research is to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research.