When Norman Vincent Peale published The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952, the idea that you could improve the quality of your life by simply having a good attitude was a novel one. Although many were skeptical, the book became a bestseller, and people are still reading it today. What makes positive thinking so powerful? Whether you’re trying to improve your athletic performance or get a promotion at work, your mind can help you achieve your goals and reach your personal potential. Still not convinced? Let’s take a closer look.
I want to start with one of the basic tenets behind the power of positive thinking: that you should picture yourself succeeding. This idea is a crucial component in the training plans of athletes the world over. You’ve probably heard the phrase “mental toughness.” Having completed an Ironman triathlon as my 50th birthday challenge, I’m pretty well acquainted with the concept myself. According to Psychology Today, mental toughness has four parts:
Rather than thinking of yourself as a passive character in the movie of your life, you believe you’re in charge of your own destiny.
Whether at work or play, you’re determined to give it your all.
You perceive obstacles as positive (challenges to be met) rather than negative (threats that may defeat you).
Whatever you set out to do, you believe in your ability to do it.
In sports, these four things are what allow elite athletes to rise above the competition. A group of people may possess nearly identical physical ability, but mental toughness—being driven to achieve and believing without a doubt that you can do it—separates the best from the rest. And you don’t have to be a professional (or even an amateur) athlete to harness the power of positive thinking. All of us can benefit from believing in our ability to succeed, which is why Peale’s book has sold millions of copies.
Another way that the power of positive thinking can help you achieve your goals involves having a sense of purpose, something I talk about here as well as in my TEDx talk, here. Not only can having a sense of purpose make your life better, it could also make it longer. An analysis of ten studies following 136,000 people from the United States and Japan for seven years found those who reported a feeling of higher purpose in life lowered their risk of death during the study period by approximately 20 percent. The study also found participants who said their lives were meaningful had less chance of developing heart disease. Although it’s not clear exactly how a sense of purpose can lengthen life, the authors of this particular study think it might protect the body from potentially harmful stress responses as well as encourage a generally healthier lifestyle. While the study shows an association rather than a cause and effect relationship, its implication—that knowing what you want out of life and having a plan to get it can impact lifespan—is significant.
To improve your chances of actually meeting your goals, positive thinking also plays a role in holding yourself accountable. Research shows that setting and declaring a clear intention drastically improves your chances of succeeding. HuffPost reported on one study that measured how often people exercised over two weeks. Researchers randomly divided 248 people into three groups. In the control group, participants were asked to keep track of how often they exercised and instructed to read a few paragraphs of a novel. In addition to being asked to track exercise, the second group read a pamphlet on the benefits of exercise for reducing heart disease and heard a motivational speech. The third group did everything that the second group did, but were also asked to come up with a plan explicitly stating where and when they intended to exercise. At the end of the two-week study period, only 38% of people in the control group and 35% of the second group exercised at least once a week. What happened to the third group, where participants wrote down exactly what they planned to do? A whopping 91% of this group exercised at least once a week (more than doubling their odds)! By simply setting and stating a clear intention, you can seriously amp up your chances of achieving your goal.
Wondering what others areas of your health could use your attention? Consider taking my Optimal Men’s Health quiz. It’s designed to help you determine your next best step to getting healthier and closer to winning.
Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board-certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has traveled with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on Dr. Oz, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times.