It’s said that we are what we eat. But are we also what we think? According to Dr Annabelle Chow, a clinical psychologist at Annabelle Psychology, the answer is yes, pretty much.

“There is some truth in saying that we are what we think. We use beliefs about ourselves and how we perceive the world around us as a guide to understanding who we are, and who the people around us are. These beliefs affect the way we feel and behave,” she says.

“Having optimistic thoughts about ourselves and the world around us helps us to have positive feelings – we tend to feel happier, more hopeful and more appreciative.”

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If we think positively, we have the potential to create tremendous change in our lives.

Beneficial for self-development and health

Of course, simply thinking something isn’t enough to bring it to life. But when we perceive something positively, there’s a higher chance that we’ll yield a positive result, thanks to something called the self-fulfilling prophecy.

“This is a concept in psychology, and the best example to illustrate it is the ‘baby face phenomenon’,” says Dr Chow.

Basically, if you have a baby face, you’ll be more likely to be perceived as innocent, gullible or adorable. And when people assume you encompass these traits, they are more likely to treat you ”like a baby”, and be kinder and more patient towards you.

The thing is, the more they take to you in this manner, the more you’ll want to live up to their expectations of you because of the extra leeway. This creates a cycle.

This is why you’re helping yourself when you adopt a positive mindset: If you behave in socially confident ways like being friendly and approachable, other people will be comfortable in your presence and find it easier to be around you. This will, in turn, not only help you build longer-lasting relationships, but also repeatedly reinforce the positive thoughts you have about yourself.

Also, positive thinking can have physical manifestations.

“We sleep better because negative emotions can affect our sleep cycle, which leads to insomnia or broken sleep. We live longer because negative emotions give rise to stress hormones like cortisol, which can have a negative impact on our organs. And we feel more energetic because negative emotions can make us fatigued,” says Sha-En Yeo, a graduate of the graduate of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the founder of Happiness Scientists, which facilitates positive transformations in individuals and organisations, and Positive Education, which uses positive psychology tools to enhance education and parenting.

Mindfulness, questioning and gratitude

Now that you know why it’s crucial to think positively, the next thing is to learn how to do so effectively. Like everything else, it requires practice, and Dr Chow recommends that you do so via at least one of these three techniques.

First, there’s mindfulness – the practice of bringing our conscious mind to being fully present in any given moment of time.

“We learn to sit with any negative or uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, and embrace their existence in us without judgment or reaction,” she says. She adds that mindfulness is a step in positive psychology, and that its benefits have been extensively researched and associated with positive outcomes.

Then, there’s cognitive restructuring, which is based off cognitive therapy. Its goal is to challenge, modify, adapt or identify unhelpful, unhealthy or negative thoughts that could shape our world view or perception of ourselves. While there are several methods to it, one of them is Socratic Questioning.

“This technique calls for you to examine your negative thoughts, question the evidence for or against those thoughts, consider alternative perspectives, and determine whether it was a cognitive distortion – like over-generalising or catastrophising – or if the thought is a fact.”

Dr Chow points out that after you do this with yourself, you might realise that in most instances, your negative thoughts are not facts. This will then allow you to feel better and be less negative.

The third one is to practise gratitude.

“By being grateful, we acknowledge that there are things in our lives that are positive, and that we can feel positive about. This can be difficult if your thoughts are often more negative than positive, which may cause you to believe that your life is far worse than it is.”

Adopting a growth mindset

Is it better to constantly evolve or to always stay the same? Because when it comes to positive thinking, it is necessary that you maintain a growth mindset over a fixed mindset – both terms coined by American psychologist Carol Dweck.

“People with a growth mindset believe that we can learn, adapt and do better in the future,” says Cherlyn Chong, a break-up recovery and trauma specialist at Steps To Happyness. She adds that they draw weaker links between a rejection and themselves, and believe that they can improve on their personal flaws. On the flip side, several studies have shown that people with a fixed mindset take much longer to move on from negative experiences.

“They take rejections personally, seeing it as a revelation and confirmation of an unchangeable aspect of themselves – that they will always not be good enough. For instance, if they’ve been hurt by someone, they may have recurring thoughts about how they will never find a person like their ex, that they always try so hard only to be disappointed, or that they should be on their guard in every relationship,” says Cherlyn.

But here’s the thing: while it’s important to think positively, it should also be acknowledged that no one is expected to be able to do so every single time. It is perfectly normal to have negative or unwanted thoughts from time to time, particularly after something bad has occurred.

“Positive thinking has to be done in a balanced way. Adopting positive thinking does not mean being positive at all cost, otherwise known as toxic positivity. Positivity becomes toxic when we dismiss, reject or avoid negative events or emotions like sadness, fear and anxiety, or when we actively suppress our own feelings just to ‘be positive’,” asserts Dr Chow.

“Rather, a healthier mindset of positivity involves paying attention to what we can be grateful for in our sphere of concern, while also learning to emotionally let go of what is not within our sphere of influence.”

This article first appeared in the January 2021 issue of Her World.