Can positive thinking really impact our performance?

power of positive thinking

Susanne Jacobs explores research from positive psychology and what it can tell us about the association between our positivity and the impact on our performance and wellbeing alongside a proven technique to improve our levels of optimism.

Now I doubt many would argue that happiness and positivity are anything other than good things, but whilst the associated feelings are great to have when they arrive, what do they really have to do with rational business decisions, strategic success and economic return? The answer is in fact – a great deal.

Research has shown us that, instead of a threat,when we are in a positive frame of mind, our brain is around 31% more productive than when it is in a negative, neutral or stressed state. We are 37% better at sales and Doctors are 19% faster and more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis . So how do we leverage this knowledge about positivity in the work place and why is it so vital for performance?

The brain is on constant alert, scanning our environment for whether we are safe or under threat. Crucially though it is not the external events that are responsible for our positive frame of mind – 90% is in fact down to how our brain processes and interprets the world. This process, which takes place at a sub-conscious level, is extremely efficient and very fast. Should our brain perceive a threat it will trigger a micro-second neurochemical reaction, part of the effect of which redistributes energy resources from less necessary bodily functions – including taking it away from the part of our brain responsible for our decision making and rational thought. Ever had that time when you’ve felt anxious and you’ve not been able to think clearly – a bit fuzzy headed? Well this is the threat response redirecting your thinking energy – perfectly normal but can be very unhelpful at times when we really need clarity to work and juggle priorities. This primary emotional response, driven by our mid-brain, fixes our attention on the threat and gets our physical selves ready for action, hence the term emotion. I use the term perceive deliberately because whilst our senses take in information it is the neural pathways that are set-up to interpret the data. These pathways have been created, in the main, by our experiences establishing automatic thought patterns which speed up the assessment of potential danger. The challenge for us in today’s society is that the threats we face are in the main psychological rather than the physical threats our ancestors had, but the neurochemical reaction is no different.

Our brains get very good at what we practise and that includes how we think. If we have set up a way of thinking about the world in a negative way, a trait, we ingrain the neural circuity for the negative and tend to then see all events that way, activating the threat process which consequentially raises the level of neurochemicals designed to get us to act but when not used for physical defence or flight, over time, have a corrosive effect on our bodies and health. In fact optimists are not only higher achievers, they have better overall health than pessimists, in part, because of this chemical interplay. A pessimistic cognitive style, a glass half empty view, narrows our mind to possibilities and opportunity.

Psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman studied the concept of luck and as part of this the effect of positive psychology. He interviewed the two individuals – one who considers himself lucky, and one who considered himself very unlucky. He told these two volunteers that he would interview them in a coffee shop, and arranged individual times to meet them there. In reality, the coffee shop itself was the experiment. Wiseman placed a five dollar bill on the step leading up to the coffee shop, and arranged to have the shop filled with customers, except for one table, where he placed a wealthy businessman. First, the “unlucky” person approached the coffee shop. He was so focused on the interview, and so apprehensive about his performance, (the threat for his brain) that he missed seeing the five dollar bill. He then sat next to the businessman and, without saying a word, waited nervously for the interview. Soon Wiseman arrived, and asked him,

“So, how was your morning”?

“Oh, nothing special” he replied. “Same as usual…”

The “lucky” man later approached the shop. He spotted the bill, put in his pocket, sat down next to the businessmen, began a conversation, and exchanged business cards. Wiseman arrived and asked this man the same question.

“I had a great morning”, he answered. “I found a five-spot on the step and met a promising new business acquaintance. Lucky as usual!”

Barbara Frederickson explains this widening of our view through positive psychology in what she calls the broaden and build theory . Her research suggests that positive emotions broaden one’s awareness and encourage novel, varied, and exploratory thoughts and actions. Over time, this broadened behavioral repertoire builds skills and resources. So that ‘lucky’ person whose positive view gave him wider span of attention versus the ‘unlucky’ person whose attention was narrowed.
If we take all of this and translate it to business we can see how we can either shut off opportunity or set up pathways to see them. The great news is we can change our brain wiring and build neural circuits for the positive. Martin Seligman, widely known as the founder of positive psychology has shown through his work on learned optimism , exactly this. That’s not to say it’s about blind optimism where the world is seen through a proverbial rose tint, but realistic optimism. The reality being that things do go wrong and challenges occur but those with an optimistic trait will move to focus on the solution, pulling on their strengths to cope and move forward – a significant advantage in the workplace where challenge and change is part of the normal day. Equally in business, strategic pessimism can often be useful ensuring risk mitigation.

One technique that Seligman has shown in his research to generate a long-term shift to optimism is simply write down 3 positive things every day and a strength that you have used, particularly in a different context than you would normally expect to use it. Practise this for at least 21 days and you’ll start to strengthen the circuits for the positive. Now put this back into work and notice the impact on your performance and how you manage day to day stressors.


(1) From the research of Shawn Achor, The Happy Secret to Better Work, Harvard, Feb 2013
(2) R Wiseman, The Luck Factor, 2004
(3) B Frederickson, The Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions, 1998
(4) M Seligman, Learned Optimism, 1990
Susanne Jacobs is Programme Director for the Positive Group. She can be reached by email at Blog:

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