Do you want to learn how to think more positively?
Well, here’s some good news.
Science suggests that positive thinking is indeed a learnable skill. But how do you learn it? What techniques and exercises are most likely to help you boost your positive thinking skills?
In this article, we’ll explore techniques, strategies, and worksheets for positive thinking. These tools can provide the needed resources for cultivating this important skill.
Before we continue, you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology, including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the positive thinking of your clients, students, or employees.
This Article Contains:
- 3 Techniques and Strategies for Positive Thinking
- 3 Helpful Exercises
- 4 Useful Worksheets for Your Clients
- Positive Thinking in the Workplace: 3 Tips
- 3 Activities for Group Sessions
- Positive Thinking and Students: 3 Tools
- Teaching Positive Thinking to Kids and Teens
- A Look at Journaling for Positive Thinking
- Are Positive Thinking Exercises for Everyone?
- PositivePsychology.com’s Resources
- A Take-Home Message
3 Techniques and Strategies for Positive Thinking
When evaluating your own or others’ positive thinking skills, it’s helpful to explore different types of positive thinking. So take a moment to explore the following positive thinking techniques and strategies.
Think positively about the past
When we think positively about the past, we may reminisce on the good things that have happened. We might bring those positive memories to mind, reflect on what we learned, or feel grateful for the good stuff (Quoidbach, Mikolajczak, & Gross, 2015).
These past-focused positive thinking strategies can help us feel better in the present moment even if the present moment is challenging.
Think positively about the present
When we think positively about the present moment, we might pay attention to what’s going well (rather than what’s not going so well), or we might try to shift our perspective on our present circumstances by reframing the situation or looking for silver linings.
By using these present-focused positive thinking strategies, we give ourselves more control over how we feel even in challenging situations.
Think positively about the future
When we think positive thoughts about the future, we try to stay optimistic. We hold more positive expectations about the future or focus on the good things to come rather than the bad. Future-focused positive thinking can not only help us feel better in the moment, but it can also lead to better outcomes (Rasmussen, Scheier, & Greenhouse, 2009).
Attempting to improve our skills for each of these three types of positive thinking strategies can help us build this skill and improve our wellbeing.
3 Helpful Exercises
To cultivate positive thinking skills, there are several helpful exercises you can try. Here are a few:
Cognitive reappraisal exercise
Cognitive reappraisal is the act of reframing a situation to see it in a more positive light. You can practice cognitive reappraisal in a few different ways. One is to watch a movie or TV show. Practice finding the good in the difficult scenarios or think about the advice that you would give the characters to make themselves feel better.
After practicing this for a while, try to use this same strategy in your life by thinking about how difficult situations actually can have benefits or teach you important lessons (Troy, Wilhelm, Shallcross, & Mauss, 2010).
Three good things exercise
Research suggests that thinking of and listing three good things each day can contribute to increased happiness in the short term and longer term (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005).
Even better, this exercise is simple to do. Just spend a few minutes each evening reflecting on the day until you think of three good things.
Best possible future exercise
One study showed that imagining and writing about your best possible future increases positive emotions (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006). To do this exercise, set aside 15 minutes to write about what your best potential future could look like. Try not to focus on what could go wrong, and just think about what could go right.
This exercise can help train your brain to be more optimistic.
4 Useful Worksheets for Your Clients
When trying to grow positive thinking skills, it’s helpful to use worksheets. These provide guidance for how to do an exercise. Here are some worksheets to help you build key positive thinking skills.
Stacking the Deck
This worksheet explains how to make a card deck that helps you develop more positive thoughts about yourself.
Grab the Stacking the Deck worksheet for guidelines.
Things I Love
This worksheet provides a bunch of categories and questions that help you think of positive things in multiple areas of your life.
Check out the Things I Love worksheet to download it.
I’m Great Because…
Besides thinking of the things we love in the world, it’s helpful to think about the things we love about ourselves.
Get the I’m Great Because worksheet to practice this skill.
Valuing My Partner
Another aspect of positive thinking involves thinking positive thoughts about others. But sometimes it’s hard to think of all the good things about the ones we love.
Try the Valuing My Partner worksheet to practice reflecting on positive things about your partner.
Positive Thinking in the Workplace: 3 Tips
Any of the positive thinking skills and activities you’ve already learned can be applied in the workplace.
For example, we can use cognitive reappraisal, future-focused positive thinking, and valuing others. Here are a few more workplace-specific tips to implement positive thinking at work.
Write gratitude notes
Practicing gratitude doesn’t have to be hard. And one of the easiest ways is to leave gratitude notes to others on a sticky note or index card. Try to do this at least once per week by taking a moment to think of something about one of your coworkers that you’re grateful for.
For example: Hey, I really appreciate you giving me feedback on my project yesterday. Or, Thanks! You always make me laugh. A simple gratitude note can get you thinking of the positives, and by sharing them with others, you make them feel good too.
Find the good in failure
We all have failures at work. We don’t perform as well as we might like, we fail to meet our boss’s expectations, or we don’t get the promotion we want. These experiences can be difficult to manage, but we can make them easier by trying to find the benefits of failure.
Just ask yourself, what did you learn from this experience? Did this help you build character? What will you do differently next time? Reframe failure as a learning experience and get all you can from it to shift your thinking in a positive direction.
Shift your attention to the good things
Even when our workplace is absolutely miserable and we can’t imagine getting anything positive from it, we can still use positive thinking to feel better.
For example, during the hardest parts of the day, try to focus your mind on something outside of work that brings you joy – maybe seeing your family, eating a good meal, or going to an upcoming event that you’re looking forward to. By focusing on the good stuff, we can help ease some discomfort.
3 Activities for Group Sessions
Are you trying to teach positive thinking skills to a group? Here are some activities to try.
Silent Gratitude Mapping
In this activity, have 3–5 people sit at a table around a large piece of paper. Give them colored markers and invite them to write the things they are grateful for and circle each thing.
Then ask them to write why they are grateful for each thing and circle it. Have them connect these circles with a line. After a few minutes, have them look to each other’s circles and see if any connect to their own.
Best Possible Team
Like the best possible future exercise, the goal here is to think about what your Best Possible Team looks like. You could use this in any type of team at work, school, sports, in therapy, or elsewhere.
Have each member share their vision of the best possible team with the group. Integrate the findings to create one version for the entire group.
Interpersonal Savoring invites participants to bring to mind and hold on to positive thoughts and emotions about a recent event.
After doing this individually for a few minutes, participants then share their events with the group.
Positive Thinking and Students: 3 Tools
There are several tools for teachers to help students increase their wellbeing.
Here are a few activities that may be especially helpful.
From My Way, No My Way, to OUR Way
Sometimes we can end up getting angry or frustrated when others disagree with us. This exercise can help young people resolve these negative emotions by seeing that there is no right or wrong way to do things. Instead, they’ll be urged to think of compromises that work for everyone.
What Is Hope?
Hope is an optimistic frame of mind. Helping students understand their own personal relationship to hope can help them develop this form of optimism. This exercise can help young people explore what gives them hope and how to create more hope in their lives.
Linking Feelings and Situations
Most of us have positive or negative emotions and don’t really think much about where they came from or what situations cause these emotions for us.
In this exercise, students can explore when they feel different negative emotions as a first step to reducing negative emotions.
Teaching Positive Thinking to Kids and Teens
Teaching positive thinking to kids and teens may be especially beneficial, given that their brains are still developing and their capacity to gain new skills is high. Many of the same exercises we’ve already discussed in this article can be used or modified in ways to make them simpler.
When using these activities with kids, keep in mind that kids may have shorter attention spans and need more stimulation to make the activities engaging. So existing tools may need to be modified for younger kids.
Another important thing to consider when teaching positive thinking to kids is that it’s not a panacea and should not be described as such. Positive thinking is just one strategy that can increase positive emotions and improve wellbeing, but it is not the only one.
There are many other strategies that can optimize mental health, and people vary in the extent to which each strategy is beneficial. In fact, positive reappraisal, or reframing a situation as more positive, was ineffective for some people in a sample of people with a history of non-suicidal self-injury (Davis et al., 2014).
All of this is to say that it’s important to be flexible about teaching positive thinking, especially when working with kids.
A Look at Journaling for Positive Thinking
One way to put together many of the tools, exercises, and tips we’ve discussed here is by starting a positive thinking journal.
A positive thinking journal can be used each day, every few days, or once per week.
A gratitude journal can also be useful for writing about positive events, imagining positive possibilities in the future, and creating lists of positive things. Basically, any of the written positive thinking exercises can be kept together in a journal to help an individual build positive thinking skills.
Are Positive Thinking Exercises for Everyone?
A recent review synthesized past research and reported that many positive activities help people increase their happiness (Layous & Lyubomirsky, 2014). These include writing letters of gratitude, practicing optimism, and using one’s strengths in a novel way. However, this report also highlighted some important considerations. Namely, that some exercises work better for some people than others.
The report states that the extent to which any positive exercise will work for us depends on several factors. Our motivation and beliefs are some of the biggest factors that may influence whether an exercise is effective. More simply, if we don’t think an exercise will work or we’re not motivated to do it, it’s not likely to work very well, if at all.
Another thing that impacts how well exercises work is how much effort we put in. If one person is dedicated to doing an exercise every time they feel bad, and another person does it only occasionally, the person who exerts more effort is likely to benefit more.
Lastly, our culture affects how effective different positive practices are. For example, Eastern cultures place more emphasis on harmony and connection, while Western cultures focus more on independence. These characteristics may affect the extent to which different exercises are beneficial.
Overall, the message is that it’s important to keep in mind that we are all different and therefore are likely to benefit differently from different exercises (Layous & Lyubomirsky, 2014).
We’ve already shared a bunch of resources from PositivePsychology.com that you can put in your positive thinking toolkit. Here are few more than can help you build related skills that can improve positive thinking and happiness.
Dispute Negative Thinking
Sometimes our challenge isn’t so much about thinking positively, but in reducing negative thinking. That’s why it’s helpful to talk back to our negative thoughts, telling them why they are wrong. The Dispute Negative Thinking activity can be a good resource for building this skill.
Build a positive emotion portfolio
When we’re not feeling so good, it’s hard to remember all the times that we felt good. That’s why it can be helpful to build a positive emotions portfolio for a record of the times when we felt a variety of positive emotions.
When we visualize success, we help shift our minds in ways that may help us more easily achieve success. By imaging the details of success, we can really get into it, making it feel more real. For guidance on how to do this visualization, check out the Visualize Success tool.
17 Positive Psychology Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, this signature collection contains 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.
A Take-Home Message
Positive thinking is a beneficial skill that can be boosted by having a variety of tools in your toolkit.
The best positive thinking toolkit would benefit from tools focused on various aspects of positive thinking. For example, tools we enjoy will be easier to use when needed because they’re fun. We should also include tools we struggle with. By doing challenging activities that help us grow, we can likely make greater improvements.
Over time, we should also swap out tools in our ultimate positive thinking toolkit, since some tools may become boring as we use them more often. By having a wide variety of tools in our toolkit, we’re always challenging our brains to think in innovative ways and always have something new and fun to learn.
Overall, using the guidelines, tools, and exercises presented here can help you improve your positive thinking skills and help others do the same.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
If you wish for even more tools, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 370 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.
- Davis, T. S., Mauss, I. B., Lumian, D., Troy, A. S., Shallcross, A. J., Zarolia, P., … McRae, K. (2014). Emotional reactivity and emotion regulation among adults with a history of self-harm: Laboratory self-report and functional MRI evidence. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 123(3), 499–509.
- Layous, K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). The how, why, what, when, and who of happiness. In J. Gruber & J. T. Moskowitz (Eds.) Positive emotion: Integrating the light sides and dark sides (pp. 473–495). Oxford University Press.
- Quoidbach, J., Mikolajczak, M., & Gross, J. J. (2015). Positive interventions: An emotion regulation perspective. Psychological Bulletin, 141(3), 655–693.
- Rasmussen, H. N., Scheier, M. F., & Greenhouse, J. B. (2009). Optimism and physical health: A meta-analytic review. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 37(3), 239–256.
- Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410–421.
- Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(2), 73–82.
- Troy, A. S., Wilhelm, F. H., Shallcross, A. J., & Mauss, I. B. (2010). Seeing the silver lining: Cognitive reappraisal ability moderates the relationship between stress and depressive symptoms. Emotion, 10(6), 783–795.