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  • Tom Goldstein

Developing a positive mental attitude

Have you ever wondered how a positive mental attitude affects your wellbeing?

Try putting yourself in each of these scenarios and notice how you feel, react, and what thoughts come up for you:

1) Imagine that you have just lost everything you have in your life; your money, job, business, home, car, friends, family, loved ones, country of origin, everything. In one moment, everything you call dear, have built, take for granted has crumbled away to nothing.

2) Imagine now that your doctor has just told you that you have a terminal illness and you would have to live a restricted life for the rest of your life.

3) Now look at yourself in another scenario. You just got a text from someone you love, perhaps a life partner of many years, that goes somewhat like this: "it is over between us, never call or try to reach me again". No reasonable explanation for why they're leaving you, and they won’t respond to your calls or messages. It is truly over, and you may never know why.

Now take a couple of deep breaths and let out a sigh to release some of the tension you may be holding. Perhaps stand up and move your body a little. Notice where you are right now. Notice what you can see hear and feel around you.

The three examples above are extreme, but they could happen, and they do happen to people around the world often enough. So why did I ask you to consider these painful scenarios, since most people never bargain for such unpleasant situations or outcomes?

The answer is simple – the way our mind reacts to the situations we find ourselves in has a massive impact on how we feel and how we survive and move forward. In other words, in difficult situations our wellbeing is greatly affected by our mind.

However, this doesn’t mean that we should ignore reality and try to pretend that life is somehow different to how it is. Sticking our head in the sand or in the clouds is not the same as reacting with a positive attitude. We can, even in the midst of such things, chart a new course for our lives. We can live our best days, unleashing our full potential and surpass our past outcomes and become a great support to ourselves and to the people around us.


What is a ‘positive mental attitude’?

Positive mental attitude is a psychology concept that can easily be traced back to Aristotle (385-323 BC) and more recently to one of the original modern self-help authors, Napoleon Hill 1883 – 1970). A ‘positive mental attitude’ can be described as ‘how we see ourselves generally in life as well as our good disposition towards it when things don't go our way’. Viktor Frankl (1905 1997) is notable for showing how the way we think and react changes our world, for better or worse. His 1946 book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, written about his experiences in World War II concentration camps, explored how to bring the best of humanity in the worst of situations.

Positive mental attitude recognizes the fact that things have gone awry, while also acknowledging the reality of: the broader scope of our life outside of this crisis; the potential bright side of the situation; those things that we still have; the potential for positive change moving forward.

In essence, a positive mental attitude can be assessed by our thoughts, actions and the words we speak. Not just to ourselves or to our situation, but to people near and far when things go wrong.


How does a positive mental attitude differ from wishful thinking?

A positive mental attitude requires that we are ‘aware’ of what has happened, taking into account the facts, evidence and reality, but sees how things can still be changed for the good. This requires a broad assessment of the situation and life. This can involve imagining potential scenarios that fit with our values and desires for our life in the future, without holding any specific positive or negative outcome as the definitive truth.

Wishful thinking on the other hand, indulges in unrealistic expectations and imagination. It distorts past or current realities and it builds unrealistic current or future scenarios. This means thoughts, actions and expression based on pleasant thoughts and purely on desires, without regards for what is obvious - facts, reality and evidence.

Here are examples of different attitudes, positive attitude vs wishful thinking, to the same external reality:

Positive attitude: I know I have failed in business; I will try again and build a business that lasts.

Wishful thinking: Someone will bail me out, or I’ll just sleep in bed all day and wake up to see my business thrive again.


What is mental wellbeing?

In simple terms, mental wellbeing is the state of our mind. It can be thought about as the quality of the thoughts produced in the mind and the feelings that are generated in relation to these thoughts. There is a strong and inseparable link between thoughts and feeling, between the mind and the body. Thoughts are the precursor or the results of what we feel in our body (emotions, hunger, tiredness, pain, balance etc.) and what we perceive from the world around us (from seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling). For instance, what would you feel in your body if you were summoned to a meeting with your boss and HR first thing on a Monday morning?


Why is a positive mental attitude important in wellbeing?

Positive mental attitude has been shown to be important for both our mental and physical wellbeing. The state of our mind is reflected in our attitude towards life, ourselves and those around us. As mentioned earlier, our body affects our mind and our mind affects our body. This is true to the point where the two are virtually inseparable, a view that was held until René Descartes (1596 – 1650) promoted the idea of a separate mind, body and soul. The body-mind approach to psychology has now regained popularity and is now a key part of most modern psychological approaches. There is a great deal of research looking at the impact of the gut and the heart on the mind, and the impact of the mind and trauma on tension held in the body.

Two important studies help us to understand the impact of our beliefs and thoughts on our wellbeing:

  1. Yoo, Miyamoto, Rigotti, & Ryff (2017) found that happier people live longer but only if they believe being happy is important. The study looks at the difference in life expectancy in the USA and Japan for people who rate themselves as happy. People in the US who rate themselves as happy live longer than those who rate themselves as unhappy. This difference was not seen in Japan. Importantly ‘being happy’ is more important culturally in the US compared to Japan. This also demonstrates that positive attitude (it’s okay if I’m happy or sad) is more important than positivity (being happy all the time).

  2. Keller, A et al. (2012) found that people who lived stressful lives only had a shorter life expectancy than those who lived stressful lives, if they believed that stress was bad for them. Again, the belief about whether their experience in life was much more important than the actual experience. If you can accept your situation and look forward with optimism and hope, you are much more likely to experience better mental and physical wellbeing.

It is important to point out that physiological (body) processes cannot be separated from psychological (mental) processes. Having a positive mental attitude also benefits those around us. There is strong evidence that peoples’ mood is affected by those around them. Many findings, according to the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Fredrickson and other psychologists have discovered that positive mental states:

  • Increases lifespan.

  • Reduces stress, depression and stress levels.

  • Enhances the body’s immune system by increasing resistance to common cold (even having a cold infrequently).

  • Improves total physical and psychological well-being.

  • Favours cardiovascular health by lowering risks of developing cardiovascular diseases like obesity, hypertension etc.

  • Helps to boost coping skills required during trying times..

  • Produces a greater sense of overall happiness

  • Improves sleep.

Since having a positive mental attitude has so much to offer, how can you cultivate a positive mental attitude to win any challenge in life?


15 options for cultivating a positive mental attitude

Take a look through these ideas and see if you can find some that resonate for you:

  1. See yourself as work in progress every time you wake up. Face into your day with that feeling that life is a mystery and that you can grow into that mystery each day, no matter what has happened before.

  2. Set small short term goals that will eventually lead to a good outcome. As you start each day, look at those goals and positively affirm that you have all it takes to execute them. Goal setting will help you see and celebrate small victories in every good effort you make.

  3. See failures as lessons and most importantly as steppingstones.

  4. Notice your negative thoughts, and have a little mantra such as ‘ah, I see you negative thought’ or ‘I know this is a negative thought, and that’s okay, and I don’t have to believe it’. Find your own way to notice, accept and not completely buy into those thoughts.

  5. Move on from your past by actively forgiving yourself and others. It’s quite easy to get stuck in your past, either what you have or haven’t done, or what others have or haven’t done. However, this means continually looking backwards. If you did this while you were walking down the street, you would walk into a lamp post, or worse. So, live your life looking forward, and noticing where you do want to go rather than where you do not. Your future can be bright, whatever happens. Allow yourself to believe that.

  6. Surround yourself with realistic and positive-minded people at work, socialising and at home.

  7. Learn to find a sense of contentment and joy that comes from inside you, rather than from external sources. When we need material items, or praise all the time to feel happy, our mental wellbeing is dependent on others. When we learn that we are inherently safe, good and important, simply by being ourselves, we cultivate a powerful state of wellbeing, irrespective of whatever is happening around us.

  8. Notice the language you use. If you’re often using negative ways to describe yourself, experiences, situations, other people – become aware of this. Start to use more positive words and descriptions and you might find that you start to feel more uplifted about life.

  9. Practice gratitude: In everything and every situation, be grateful - for family, for health, for friends, for being able to move around, for the feeling of the ground against your feet and more. How can you do this effectively? Let your mind think and meditate on the good things in your life no matter how insignificant they may seem. You can even cast your mind back and appreciate some of those good old moments and victories, without getting stuck in the past.

  10. See challenges as a chance to grow with an extra boost.

  11. Guard your mind from fake and negative news. Our minds are impressionable, and we are much more likely to remember negative news than positive news. Limit (or stop) your exposure to news through the TV, internet, social media etc.

  12. Exercise is generally a plus to mental well-being and thus can help to maintain a positive state of mind.

  13. Prepare for the worst while you do your best to take charge of situations. Be proactive in having options - plan B’s. Try to focus on solutions rather than the problems.

  14. Notice the mood you wake up in and learn to attribute it to the emotions you felt while you were asleep, dreaming. Your mood in the morning can have a huge impact on your thoughts and feelings for the whole day. Since our dreams have such a big impact on how we feel first thing when we wake up, learn to let that feeling go rather than accepting it as your truth.

  15. Notice what is in your circle of concern vs your circle of ‘direct influence’ or control. Focus on what you can control and influence in your life, rather than what concerns you.

You may find that it is very difficult for you to cultivate a positive mental attitude. If you do find that happening, try to allow that to be okay. By taking the time and space to regularly practice any or all of these 15 options, you will slowly be planting the seeds and watering them. Over time you are likely to start to notice a difference. Find which ones work best and most easily for you. Alternatively, you may feel guilty for feeling positive in difficult situations, and when others around you are feeling defeated, angry, negative, etc. Try to give yourself the time, space and permission to feel positive, and while holding compassion for how others are feeling, perhaps a little of your positive attitude will rub off on those around you. Remember, a positive mental attitude isn’t the same as denial or fake positivity in the face of real challenge.











  9. Yoo, Miyamoto, Rigotti, & Ryff (2017), Linking Positive Affect to Blood Lipids: A Cultural Perspective, Psychological Science, Vol 28, Issue 10, pp. 1468 – 1477,

  10. Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality. Health Psychology : Official Journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 31(5), 677–684.

  11. Covery, S. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York, USA: Simon & Schuster.


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