We’ve all heard about it before, the power that positive thinking has on our physical health. To many, it sounds hokey, especially given today’s chaotic mix of proven, cutting-edge scientific techniques and the resurgence of holistic and alternative medicine. Is there any truth to it? And if there is, how exactly does a good attitude affect your physical health?

In a recent survey of over 160 studies on the subject, lead by University of Illinois professor emeritus of psychology Ed Diener, there was a surprisingly consistent result: that a positive attitude did, in fact, give you better chances of having good health and more longevity.

Not only did otherwise healthy people live longer and healthier lives when they felt more positively about their lives, but animal studies backed that up. Animals who received the same treatment (food, exercise, attention, etcetera) but were exposed to more stress (by having less space or more cage mates) had weaker immune systems and a higher incidence of heart problems—and, not incidentally, higher mortality rates.

But why is this the case? Experiments have proven that stress-related hormones are reduced and immune function is increased when humans experience positive emotions; they even promote the recovery of the heart after exertion!

Even scientists, though, seem to be surprised by the apparent conclusiveness of this evidence. Diener is quoted as saying that he is “certainly surprised to see the consistency of the data.” He also cautions that “happiness is no magic bullet” and that some studies show exceptions to this rule, but does suggest that doctors should be urging their patients to not only eat right, exercise more, and avoid smoking, but to try to increase the positivity with which they view their daily lives.

Easier Said Than Done

Changing your lifestyle is hard enough, when you get right down to it—but changing the way you think can seem like a nearly impossible task. We get so trapped by our thought patterns that it can seem like a Sisyphean task to break through or change them. Is it even possible to change the way you think?

It is—but it’s not easy. The sheer amount of money spent in modern society on therapy, self-help books, and other methods of attempts to gain clarity on the human mind and the sources of its conflicts—from psychics to mediators and lawyers—is a testament to that. And you certainly won’t learn how to change your thought processes by reading a blog in a newsletter. There are, however, a few beginning steps you can take.

  1. Try to let go of past grudges. Is it really doing you any good to hold onto that hurt?
  2. Appreciate the good things in life. Try making a list at the end of the day of all the good things that happened to you since you woke up.
  3. Do nice things for other people. You’d be surprised what a boost this can give your own mood!

It may not be easy to do, but adjusting the way you think about your life may just end up being more than a mental health benefit—you could see it reflected in how long you live, as well.