• How we think can change how we perceive the world and the events that arise in our day to day lives

  • Dr Jack Lewis and Adrian Webster explore the power of positive thinking to improve your life

  • We have coaches available to support you to shift your mindset and achieve what you want in life – find yours here

If “placebo” describes the power of positive thinking to trigger the release of naturally produced, helpful chemicals in the body and brain, “nocebo” describes the opposite effect. Nocebo (Latin for “I will harm”) captures the power of negative thinking to make the outcome worse.

If you truly believe that something is going to hurt you, then even if it does not contain any harmful substances, the negative belief itself can elevate levels of cholecystokinin (CCK) in the brain, increasing the pain.

What’s more dangerous to your health: nuclear power or sunbathing?

When we think of nuclear fission our minds often jump to disasters like the USSR reactor meltdown at Chernobyl, or devastating acts of war, like Hiroshima. When we think of sunbathing, however, we tend to think about the pleasant sensations of sunshine warming our skin on a summer holiday.

This leads most people to conclude, instinctively, that nuclear power is much more dangerous than sunbathing, while the hard truth is that skin cancer from sun exposure kills considerably more people every year than nuclear energy.

Beautiful, wonderful, heroic and heart-warming events happen every day, but they’re simply not as visible as the nasty, gory, frightening stuff. Happy stories don’t sell newspapers, they don’t bring eyeballs to news websites and TV shows, and so they’re usually overlooked in favour of whatever has shock value. While you might not have the power to influence what ends up in the news, you do have control over how much news you consume and to which sources you go to get the news you do consume.

If the information you habitually consume is giving you a bleak outlook on life, making you feel low and giving you the distinct impression that everything is hopeless, then eliminate it. If the source of the information in question is the news, stop watching the news, stop reading that newspaper. If it’s doom scrolling on social media that’s making you miserable, delete the app from your phone. At least unfollow all the sarcastic, frustrated, angry people who fill your days with bile and find others who post more uplifting stories and pictures. If it’s spending time with someone who constantly moans about how terrible everything is, try to limit your exposure to that person.

If you can reduce all these sources of negative “priming” in your life in favour of more optimistic influences, your chances of spontaneously generating positive emotions will be greatly improved. And the more you can nudge yourself in that direction, the happier, healthier and more productive you will become.

Mind-wandering: vice or virtue?

Have you ever noticed that whenever you take a break, your mind doesn’t just stop and do nothing, but instead goes on walkabouts? All sorts of mundane thoughts, and a handful of bizarre ones, zigzag through your mind while you twiddle your thumbs and gaze into space. It turns out that the average person spends 25 to 50% of their waking day in this state. Is this a tremendous waste of time? Proof that our brains are built to procrastinate? Or testimony to the joys of getting lost in thought and letting our imaginations roam free?

Mind-wandering can bring about both negative and positive outcomes, according to whether the emotional content of your daydreams tends to be positive or negative. That’s because negative emotions tend to narrow our attention to focus on dealing with immediate threats or dangers, while positive emotions tend to open our attention up to broader possibilities, which helps us to spot opportunities.

Allowing your mind to engage in flights of fancy, to think of playful or silly things that make you smile, to wonder about ways you might go about fulfilling your hopes and dreams can be really useful. This type of mind-wandering is fallow ground for creative thinking and goal setting, to name but two benefits.

If, on the other hand, your mind has a distinct tendency to meander into dark alleyways of self-doubt and unsettling labyrinths of worry, mind-wandering can also be distinctly unhelpful. If you’re the type of person that tends to brood at length about all the terrible things that might happen in the future, or ruminate endlessly about upsetting things that happened to you in the past, then your mind-wandering might be doing you a disservice.

We all need to keep a keen eye on the content of our daily excursions into the world of daydreams, taking steps to nudge ourselves back towards a more positive mindset if we start spending too long in the darker recesses of our imagination.

Dr Jack Lewis and Adrian Webster are the authors of Sort Your Brain Out: Boost Your Performance, Manage Stress and Achieve More

Further reading

Mental flexibility and resilience to change

The neuroscience of emotions

Tips to help your pandemic brain bounce back

Why escapism can be harmful

3 steps to challenge your limiting self-beliefs