From any aspect, it’s bad. Fact: we’re in the thick of a global pandemic with a rising death toll, economic decline, and restrictive isolation. Every day, we wake up to news of worsening conditions and new concerns. There are many uncertainties: do we risk a trip to the store, do we wear masks, should we disinfect our deliveries, are we social distancing enough when outdoors?
In any situation—even this one—there are positives. For example, the air quality has improved in some cities with the absence of commuters, and some people who feel they never see their kids enough now have invaluable quality time. Positive thinking is more than an attitude. Nothing is ever all bad or all good; an accurate view includes positive aspects.
But in the face of widespread hardship, people often send positive thoughts and extol the virtues of optimism, including a way to combat disease. How helpful is this? What are the real benefits to positive thinking?
Let’s consider three priorities at this time—your immune system, your mental health, and your community—and effective ways to support them.
- Your immune system: Positive thinking is not a defense against infection
According to an article from the National Institutes of Health, studies found that optimists did not fare better in difficult battles with serious illnesses such as HIV and cancers. In fact, there’s evidence that optimism may have negative effects on the immune system beyond the common cold: “The best doesn't always occur. When things go wrong in a big way, the optimist may be particularly vulnerable.”
There are many variables that affect your immune system and the outcome of an illness. There are experts who claim positive thinking may boost resistance against depression or the common cold, but right now there’s a lack of conclusive evidence—and the possibility it does the opposite against life-threatening infection.
How do you keep it real? There are several scientifically proven ways you can increase immunity: don’t smoke, maintain a healthy weight, consume a nutrient-rich diet (and supplements such as probiotics), exercise regularly, get enough sleep, follow good hygiene, moderate your alcohol intake, and minimize stress.
Note that minimizing stress is an action, not a thought. It can mean swapping coffee for tea, taking control of certain aspects of your life (saying no can be a great stress reliever), freeing up your schedule for time to breathe, or simply venting to a friend.
- Your mental health: Moods are not thoughts
Thoughts and emotions are different things. For example, you could break your leg and have a positive attitude about it, pragmatically assuring yourself that broken bones heal completely. You will suffer no permanent damage. But that doesn’t mean you won’t feel sad when it snows a foot and all your friends go skiing. Similarly, you could enter a race with very low expectations to win and be thrilled to participate.
Philosopher Alain de Botton even argues that “optimism is the greatest flaw of the modern world” and pessimism “helps us to sustain happiness in light of the inevitable setbacks we encounter.” Research supports this notion, concluding that pessimism may encourage people to be safe and live healthier lives.
But both optimism and pessimism can go too far. The key is to be realistic and honest with yourself, which requires open eyes toward all viewpoints. Recognize your emotions, address your challenges, and practice self-care. Right now, that could mean anything from stepping away from the news or giving yourself a facial to having a hard conversation with a loved one or getting counseling.
- Your community: Positivity isn’t always helpful
In times of crisis, it’s normal to feel helpless. Nurses, delivery drivers, and grocer employees risk their health to provide their services. Maybe we want to contribute in a positive way—share our strength of positivity. But when so many people are struggling, intrinsic value doesn’t exist. In other words, nothing matters if it’s not helpful; there are no points for positivity. Instead, provide a service: support.
Whitney Hawkins Goodman, LMFT, illustrates what is helpful in this chart.
You guessed it: to be truly helpful, you have to keep it real. Support requires empathy, which means you have to recognize people’s struggles and emotions. Validation helps. Compassion helps. If you haven’t heard of toxic positivity, it’s very common. Many well-meaning people who want to share their positivity can unintentionally do more harm with insensitive, dismissive language.
Helping others contributes to your own personal growth, happiness, and feeling of purpose. And that always has profound value, but especially now.