The Vast, Unstatable Importance of a Positive Attitude

Note from Scott: Leo Babauta, head writer of Zen Habits, has offered to provide a guest post while I’m recovering.  Check out Zen Habits for more great articles like this one.  Or read the other popular articles he’s written for this website, Do Less to Be More Productive and 20 Procrastination Hacks.

Photo courtesy of Lin_Pernille

I was talking to two friends recently, both of whom have life issues to tackle (like any of us don’t!). The first friend kept telling me how bad everything is, and especially how bad he is at everything. The second friend would tell me her problem, but also talk about how she was sure she could do it, and pointed to her past successes.

The difference between these two friends is night and day, and it revolves around their attitude.

The first friend has a negative attitude and a negative self-image, and will have a much harder time solving his issues. The second friend has a positive attitude, sees the positive in everything, and has a very positive self-image, and I have no doubt she’ll succeed.

Today we’ll take a look at why a positive attitude can be the key difference in whatever you do, and how to develop a more positive attitude to ensure the greatest likelihood of success.

Why a Positive Attitude is So Darn Important

Those who don’t have a positive attitude don’t realize the incredible difference that it can make. They roll their eyes, very often, and think that “the power of positive thinking” is just a bunch of gibberish. I know, because I was one of them.

But then I started running, and the importance of positive thinking soon became clear to me. On days when I gave in to negative thoughts, and told myself that I wasn’t having any fun, and told myself that I wanted to quit … those were the days when I would give up early instead of completing a run, and when running would be pure torture. However, on the days when I turned those negative thoughts on their head, and saw the positive aspects of running, and didn’t allow negative thoughts to flourish … those are the days when I’d have a great run, full of joy, never giving up.

Run after run, the importance of positive thinking was pounded into me, until it became a part of me.

Positive thinking and a positive attitude (there’s a subtle difference, but they’re inextricably linked in my mind) are not just some “success coach” gibberish that you read about in books. They’re the tools you need to do anything in life, to change your life, to even enjoy life to its fullest.

It changes how you interact with people, and that in itself is huge. If people perceive you as a negative person, they tend to get tired of dealing with you after awhile. But if you’re a positive person, you come off in a more positive light, and you’re a joy to talk to and work with and be with.

It will determine whether you reach your goals or not. Like I said with running, thinking negative thoughts means you’re more likely to give up. But if you use positive thinking, you won’t quit, and will do the things required to make something happen.

But I Can’t Change My Thinking!

I hear this from many people who believe that they are the way they are, and there’s no way to change that. However, the statement “I can’t change my thinking” is a great example of negative thinking. If you think you can’t do it, you won’t. If you think you can, you will — and I have, and so have many others.

It starts with an awareness of your thinking. You can’t change something if you’re not aware of it. So start simply by monitoring your thoughts — and decide whether those thoughts are negative or positive. You can often tell by also monitoring the feelings inside you, and whether those feelings are negative or positive. For example, when I start thinking thoughts like, “I don’t wanna do this anymore — it’s too hard!” I also start dreading the activity and feeling bad about it. But when I change that thought to, “I can do this! I’ve done it before! And running can be lots of fun.” … then I start to enjoy the running more, and I can lift my spirits up just by changing my thinking.

Once you’re more aware of your thoughts, try changing them. It’s simply a matter of stopping a negative thought, and replacing it with a more positive thought. Repeating a mantra works well (“I can do this!”, for example) — if you repeat it enough, you start to believe it, and it affects everything you do.

I’m not saying it’s easy. It takes practice, like anything else. You won’t be good at it at first. But take it in small steps, and you can do it. What follows are some way to practice and get better at positive thinking.

Practices to Develop a Positive Attitude

Each of these practices are just a variation of positive thinking and a positive attitude, but from slightly different angles. They give you an opportunity to practice your skills throughout the day — and the more you practice, the better you’ll get, and the more benefits you’ll see.

  1. Squash negative thoughts. After I learned to monitor my positive and negative thoughts, I started to envision a negative thought as a bug … and then I’d squash it! “I can’t do this!” SQUASH! Then I’d replace that negative thought with a positive one: “I CAN do this!”
  2. Mantras. Anticipate your difficult situations and think of a positive mantra for that situation. Then, when things get tough, repeat the mantra over and over. For example, when I want to develop patience and learn to be in the moment, I just repeat advice from Thich Nhat Hanh: “Smile, breathe and go slowly.” It works!
  3. See the good in any situation. You’ve heard the phrase, “Every cloud has a silver lining” … and that’s pretty true. Try to see the positive side to any situation, and you’ll enjoy it more, and you’ll feel better. Even tough situations have good sides: When something is difficult, see it as a challenge, as a way to learn and grow and get better and stronger. When there is a loss, see it as a reminder of what is important to you, of a way to cherish what has been lost, as a way to move on to something new, as a way to learn and grow.
  4. Enjoy small pleasures. Every activity has small things that can be pleasurable if you pay attention to them and learn to enjoy them. A difficult day at the office can also be a time for you and others to come together — enjoy those moments with others. Running can be fun for its physical pleasure, for the beauty of the nature around you, for the peaceful time of meditation. Cleaning house can also be a time for meditation, and the pleasure of a clean room or laundered bedsheets cannot be overstated. Notice the small things and take pleasure in them, and any activity can be positive.
  5. See the good in yourself. This is very important, because if you are negative about yourself, that affects whether you believe you can do something. If you think you’re an undisciplined person, you’ll have sloppy habits. If you think you’re lazy, you won’t work hard. If you think you’re dumb, you won’t try to learn. Instead, think positive thoughts about yourself. Try to see your strengths, see the good things you’ve done, see the silver lining in anything about yourself.
  6. See the good in others. Similarly, every person has good in them — and if you look for their strengths and the good things they’ve done, you will be more positive in dealing with other people. This will result in people treating you better, and you’ll feel better as well.
  7. Positive imaging. This is a tried-and-true method that has been tested on athletes — and has worked well for all kinds of non-athletes too. Visualize your success, or a positive image of yourself or any situation or activity. Visualize it in great detail, and allow yourself to feel positive things about this image. Then make the image come true.
  8. Anticipate fun. Go into a situation or activity thinking it’ll be horrible, and it will be. Instead, go into that situation or activity thinking that you’ll have fun, that it’ll be a new challenge, that you’ll learn and grow from it … and it will be much more likely to be true.

Read more from Leo Babauta at his blog, Zen Habits.

  • Charles

    There’s a typo in the first sentence, Scott.

    “Leo Babuata” -> “Leo Babauta”

  • Stu | Improved Lives

    Great post Leo. There is something that you allude to that is really important to realize when trying to change yourself in this kind of way, which is that change doesn’t happen over night, it takes time!

    The mechanism in our brain that allows us to change and grow as individuals is called neuroplasticity, (… ) and one of the many things researchers have come to understand about neuroplasticity is that it’s a slow process, and you have to keep plugging away at your new habits if you want them to take hold in your brain.

  • Lana

    Scott, you probably are not aware, but you have developed a higher brain function, which is why you are able to watch your thoughts, the lower liner thinking. Few people are at this stage, majority of people are associated with their thoughts.
    First must be a realization that “we are not our thoughts” ..then .practicing detachment, creating witnessing state (higher brain function). long long process and many will not be able to even grasp it, let alone function in that state:-)

  • The Success Professor

    Excellent post Leo. Scott, thank you for sharing this. This is a powerful reminder of the importance of a positive attitude and some great tips on how to get there.

    I would like to add one more point, although it could really fit well with point #4.

    – BE THANKFUL – take some time each day to consider some of the many things that you have to be thankful for! Doing this will automatically move your thinking from things you might want to complain about, to things that you can be thankful for. It helps you move from negative thoughts to positive thoughts.

    Thanks again for a great article.

  • Tabs

    You mentioned you were recovering, not prying just wanted to wish you quick recovery and send a little healing light your way.

    Take care of yourself,


  • Scott Young


    Yes, I was out for two weeks, but I’m starting to get back to my old self again.


    Yikes. Unfortunately Babauta doesn’t come up with the spell-check, so it’s easier for me to miss. Thanks for the head’s up!


    Actually this post was written by Leo Babauta from Zen Habits, but I agree with the core concept. The right attitude isn’t easy, but it’s necessary.

  • Avi Marcus

    Yes Lana, most people don’t do it! Once you do, you realize that giving your thoughts control over you is ridiculous!

  • Bethany


    How right you are, my friend. The majority of situations in life can be looked at in a positive manner, and many people don’t, or don’t want to, realize this. I love to share one story from my life that exemplifies this kind of thinking. My husband and I were living in Prague and were coming to the US to visit my family for Christmas. Once we arrived at Heathrow Airport, we discovered that all flights were being delayed at least one day due to heavy cloud cover. We would have to spend the night in London. We were a little frustrated, but we thought, “Hey, we get a chance to check London out.” And the next day, we got on a flight to New York.
    In New York, we discovered that our bags hadn’t made it on the same flight. All we were left with were our carry-ons which included little more than books, sweaters and an iPod. Later that night, after having borrowed clothes from my brother and sister-in-law to go out to dinner, I awoke to a severe case of stomach flu, which lasted the rest of our vacation. So, there we were, without our belongings or gifts for our family, having lost a day of our vacation and myself dealing with an illness so bad I could hardly keep bread down.
    Throughout our trip my family marveled at our attitude. They wondered at how we could laugh and joke and not lose our temper with the airport staff. My husband and I were just as amazed at their amazement. We simply said “Being angry isn’t going to bring our bags back or make us feel better. It will only ruin our time with our loved ones.” Without that outlook, we truly would have overlooked what was the most important part of the vacation.

    Thanks for letting me share.

    -Bethany Shaffer

  • Scott Young


    Great story, thanks for commenting!


  • Karl Staib – Your Work Happine

    A great guest post! Positive imaging is only one I recently been using. When we can see ourselves doing great work then we can have a clear understanding of how to reach these goals.

  • H R Sridhar

    Hi, I was led to this post from Zen Habits (which I’ve started reading recently). This is another good post from Leo.

    Having read quite a bit about the power of positive attitude from various sources, I have thought about why it makes it makes such a huge difference to an individual though the situation round him (the external stuff over which he /she has no control) remains the same. The answer lies in Ralph W Emerson’s immortal words, “…that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.” What a positive attitude allows a person to do is to focus his energies on “tilling the ground bestowed to him” rather than allow his energy to dissipate on the things that put him in a disadvantage.

    – Sridhar