There’s a lot of talk about the power of positive thinking, but you might wonder whether there is sufficient scientific evidence to back these claims. As it turns out, new research in neuroscience and psychology is showing that not only is a positive attitude good for you, but a negative attitude actively harms you.
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In fact, some would go so far as to say that your life expectancy is actually shortened by complaining and focusing on the bad side of everything in life. Here’s why.
Synaptic Connections Alter Your Perception Of Reality
Let’s start by understanding how negative thoughts become entrenched. Firstly, it’s important to remember that your brain is full of synapses—whenever you think about something, one of your synapses shoots a chemical messenger straight across to another synapse, essentially building a “bridge” for electric signals to cross.
However, these same two synapses grow closer together every time the relevant electrical charge is triggered (i.e. any time you have the same thought), to make it easier for your brain to link related pieces of information in the future.
What this means is that every time you complain (e.g. saying or thinking something like “I don’t get along with most people and they tend not to like me” when you go to a party), your brain actually rewires itself in a negative way.
Now, what does this mean for your everyday thinking? Basically, it creates a pattern of pessimism, because synapses that are closer together will fire more quickly than any others, and so you’ll be more prone to thinking exactly the same antisocial, anxious thing about other people the next time you go to a party!
Sharing Negativity Changes Your Brain
As was explained above, your thoughts have a physical impact on your brain, creating and strengthening synaptic connections in a way that can make negative thinking a dangerous, difficult habit to break. However, other people’s thoughts can also influence your neural wiring—this is where mirror neurons come in.
Studies show that we see someone experiencing an emotion (whether it’s joy, sadness or anger), our brains actually “try out” this emotion in order to imagine this other person’s experience. This empathy response is a real asset to our relationships and helps to build solidarity in communities in times of tragedy, but it also makes us vulnerable to the negativity of others—their rage, melancholy and envy, for example. When we try out other people’s feelings in this way, our brain is trying to fire the same synapses as the individual we’re observing.
Given what you already know about synaptic connections, you should now be able to see how this means that your brain is reshaped by your social network—often in ways that are bad for you, and hard to shift.
Say you go to a bar with colleagues after work, and you all have a thorough bitching session about your boss, your partners, and all the little things that annoy you. This might feel cathartic and help you all feel superior, but it’s doing serious harm to your cognitive life—it’s forcing your brain to “try out” powerfully negative attitudes.
And if you spend a night a week complaining with this same crowd, pretty soon you have a brain that’s solidly wired to keep on triggering angry, despondent or sad thoughts.
Negative Thinking Can Be Fatal
Now that you’ve seen how your brain is constantly evolving in response to your own thoughts and those expressed by others, let’s consider how this can influence not only your mental life but also your physical well-being. The key factor here is stress.
When complaining becomes the norm and your brain is constantly firing off synapses associated with anger, sadness or general dissatisfaction, your body produces floods of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) in response.
Elevated cortisol levels can eventually be lethal—cortisol is associated everything from a weakened immune system to an increased risk of heart disease, weight gain, poorer memory and reduced bone density (to name but a few of the documented consequences).
Research shows a clear connection between a lower life expectancy and high levels of cortisol caused by chronic stress. Stress is even linked to the onset of mental health problems, which can carry their own reduction in life expectancy.
So What Can You Do?
If you want to be healthier and stay fit, happy and excited about life well into old age, you’ll need to put some serious effort into making positive synaptic connections. In other words, your goal should be to slowly and steadily do things that rewire your own brain, changing its structure in subtle but effective ways.
Over time, your body will begin to be less stressed, producing lower levels of cortisol and reducing your risk of the most common chronic illnesses and most frequent causes of premature death.
Since complaining and being around other complainers is a large part of what builds negative, stress-creating synaptic connections, it stands to reason that there are at least two obvious things you can immediately start doing in order to improve your situation.
First, think about who you hang around with and what you discuss. Try to spend time with people who have a realistic, balanced view of the world and tend towards finding the good in the world. In addition, think of new ways to steer conversations away from anger and sadness and towards appreciation, inspiration and hope.
You might need to consciously remind yourself to make this shift at first, but—as your positive synaptic connections strengthen—looking on the bright side will eventually become a habit.
The second goal to pursue is a more positive inner life. This will of course be easier if you’re in more positive social situations, but it will also need a bit of work during your alone time.
Try to spend at least an hour a day building positive synaptic connections—for example, keep a diary that documents one thing you appreciate about each day, practice positive self-talk, and deliberately reframe negative thoughts (for example, “I knew I’d never get the job” can become “What did I learn from this experience that will help me get a better job?”).
It takes time and effort to move away from a lifestyle of complaining and resenting, but the rewards can be huge—both mentally and physically.