Cultivating a positive outlook can help you learn

Advice to ‘look on the bright side’ and ‘keep your chin up’ is as old as the hills. It is also very easy to dismiss. I mean, how can the way you think and feel about something change how it affects you? Well, science is discovering that those who manage to maintain a positive attitude can deal with the problems life throws at them much more effectively than those who allow themselves to become depressed or bitter.

A positive attitude actually has measurable, real world benefits in terms of your health and immune system, your ability to deal with stress and your overall wellbeing. As the title of this article suggests, it can also have a powerful effect on your ability to learn new skills.

It isn’t particularly magical how and why this happens. Anyone can see that positive thinking makes us feel more relaxed, happier and more open to new experiences. All of this has real benefits when it comes to learning and study. For example, positive thinkers are noticeably better able to absorb new information and can concentrate longer on complex tasks. The most successful teachers have known this for centuries, and typically do everything they can to make their students feel engaged, supported and positive.

But it is one thing to see a correlation and say ‘positive thinking works’. It is entirely another to look at what scientists have to say about how it works. Therefore:


What research has to say about positive attitude and learning ability


In this study, the Stanford School of medicine has shown that developing a positive outlook and attitude about learning can make your brain’s memory centre more effective. The effect is so strong, they found, that measuring a student’s attitude towards learning can accurately predict their performance on later tests, after controlling for other variables and factors, such as the student’s intelligence.

We encourage you to read the whole study, but we’ll summarise some of it here. 240 students between the ages of 7 and 10 were first assessed for their attitude towards an academic subject (mathematics), and were then tested on math problems. They were then taught how to apply the maths correctly, and tested again some time later. MRI scans were also performed, looking for neurological differences between the students.

As you might have guessed, those who were assessed with a positive attitude performed substantially better than those with a negative attitude. Furthermore, the MRI scans showed much more activity in the hippocampus of the positive attitude students. The hippocampus is the part of the brain most associated with learning and memory.

But how much did attitude affect the results? The lead researcher points out that “…the unique contribution of positive attitude to math achievement is as large as the contribution from IQ.” Being positive about learning is at least as important as being ‘smart’ or having any kind of ‘natural affinity’ for the subject.



What actual effects does positivity have on learning?


The study above noted that the students with positive attitudes about math specifically and about learning in general showed more interest in the study materials and were much more likely to practice it, applying the concepts in their lives. This led to enhanced memory of the process, and to better results when it came to solving the problems.

The researchers stress that the relationship between positive attitude and positive results is self-reinforcing. Those who have a positive attitude so well, and that in turn improves and maintains their positive attitude towards that subject in particular. In the same way, a bad attitude towards learning results in poor results, resulting in a worse attitude and worse results.


How can you make your attitude more positive?


There are a lot of things you can do to improve your overall attitude in order to take advantage of this ‘learning reinforcement effect’. We’ve outlined a few examples below, but really almost anything that brings joy into your life will do the trick.


  • Try meditation.

There are several studies (such as this one) which show how people who meditate frequently and regularly display a more positive attitude than non-meditators who are in other ways similar. It won’t be surprising to you that those who meditate also display other positive and learning-friendly traits, such as a lower incidence of illness, and increased willingness to socialise and greater mindfulness.


  • Write or journal about positive

Another well-publicised study suggests that taking time out to write about an intensely positive event from your own life or that happened to someone close to you can have many long-term positive effects. A group of students were asked to write about positive experiences three days in a row. They were compared to a control group asked to write about something neutral. The positive-writing students displayed better mood levels even when re-tested 3 months later, and even experienced less illness during that time compared to the control group.


  • Take time out for fun.

There are plenty of examples out there of the benefits of spending some of our valuable time just playing, as children do. All too often we are far too ‘tough’ with ourselves, scheduling time for our responsibilities to others but leaving no time for relaxation, joy and self-care. Schedule some you-time. If not every day, then at least every week. Maybe that can be exercise or meditation, but not if it becomes a chore. It is far better to truly leave the time free, and to commit to not ‘getting anything done’ for at least an hour or two. Just play.


How can you develop a more positive attitude towards your studies?


Now, that might help improve your sense of wellbeing overall, but how can it be applied to the process of learning and study? Read on:


  • Set your own learning goals, and keep track of them.

Studies like this one show that setting goals makes you feel empowered, and improves performance all by itself. Just the act of setting out clear goals, expectations and deliverables and then tracking your progress towards completion is a great way to motivate yourself about any project. In terms of studying, it can give you the ongoing sense of achievement you need to keep reinforcing your positive experiences on an ongoing basis. Remember to break big tasks down into smaller ones. The sense of achievement at each small goal will keep you on track for the larger goalposts!


  • Keep on top of your stress levels.

Stress and anxiety can be poison to a positive attitude, and university can be a stressful time for anyone! Research shows that when we are stressed we focus much more on negative things than positive, and this can lead to the negativity spiral we talked about earlier. So get organised, and if stress is getting the better of you, don’t be afraid to reach out for support! There are many more programs designed to help you than you might think.


  • Keep an open mind, and look for new ways to learn.

As a rule, people don’t like change. This is perfectly natural, but natural isn’t always good. Again, researchers have shown how keeping an open mind and being willing to examine your beliefs, habits and actions can improve your ability to learn. It can also prevent that pesky ‘negativity spiral’ from ruining everything.


  • When in doubt, visualise things working out perfectly.

‘Visualisation exercises’ sound a bit like ‘magic’, but when the results are scientifically verified, you have to accept it. Visualising success does improve optimism and improves your attitude. As we’ve shown above, that positive attitude actually does help you learn, and that success reinforces itself. Thinking about success really does make success more likely.


  • Examine your failures and learn from your mistakes.

Visualising success is one thing, but not learning from failure is simply doming yourself to repeat it. We all fail sometimes. Indeed, if you never fail, you are probably not being anywhere near ambitious enough. You need to stretch yourself, and in order to really learn something you need to fail and then examine where and why you failed. This is the only way to experience real growth.

This ties in with several of the points we’ve mage above. Acknowledge failure, but don’t wallow in it. Don’t look at failure as a negative consequence, but rather as a positive one – an opportunity to learn, and to do better (or at least fail differently) next time.

Seeing failure as a positive experience is all part of avoiding the ‘negativity spiral’ and making it a part of your overall positive learning strategy.


In essence, keep a positive attitude, take time out for self-care, and do everything you can to remain positive about the experience of learning, especially about those subjects which are the most difficult. If you can manage that, you’ll start to see that positivity leading to more positive results, which will lead to more positivity and so on.

So don’t worry. You’ve got this.