Lewis Tse Pui Lung/Shutterstock
Source: Lewis Tse Pui Lung/Shutterstock

I’m not asking you to strip your refrigerator of feel-good magnets or to toss all of those inspirational pillows. I’m just asking you to be a bit more mindful of the phrases that cross your lips when someone is need of comfort.

I come by my dislike of platitudes honestly, having been raised in a family which never met a cliché it didn’t take to heart, accept as wisdom, and offer up as the sole balm whenever I was upset. It was complicated by the fact that these were in Dutch—but I learned that the language in which a platitude is expressed matters little. My tears were countered with the truism Na regen komt zonneschijn (“After rain comes sunshine”), but even though the sun always came out eventually, it was clear to me that, particularly in Holland, it can rain for days on end, and what did that have to do with why I was crying? When I was disappointed or hurt, someone would inevitably murmur Alles heeft een reden (“Everything has a reason”) even though it didn’t seem, even at a very young age, that this was either reasonable or explanatory. (It still isn’t.)

We’re drawn to these faux nuggets of wisdom in times of trouble because humans are hardwired to respond more vehemently to bad experiences than good ones. From an evolutionary point of view, that’s a good thing: Your chance of survival goes up if your reactivity kicks into high gear when you’re faced with a predator or flash flood. It’s not so good when the misfortune that befalls us releases a tsunami of negative feelings. Luckily, as Daniel Gilbert explains, we have a psychological immune system which protects us in time of stress or threat. If you’ve been dumped by a lover, it can be excruciatingly painful at first as you remember every thing you adored about him or her, but in time, you’re more likely to remember all the things about that person that drove you crazy (drinking orange juice out of the container, being moody, eating with his mouth open, the way she hated your friends). Start remembering those moments and guess what? You’re feeling better. That’s the psychological immune system (also known as rationalization) at work. It happens on an unconscious level and the key, of course, is making sure that it doesn’t dragoon you into taking no responsibility for what went wrong or keep you from learning from the experience. We have to feel good enough to get out of bed and move on with life but feel the sting enough to do something about it.

Most platitudes are just articulated versions of protective patterns of thinking yearning to become needlepoint-pillow wisdom, which is another reason to resist the compulsion to share them.

People resort to platitudes when someone is in pain or trouble for a variety of reasons: They may actually believe in whatever the cliché expresses and share it in the spirit of helpfulness. Or they may not know what to say so they hone in on a platitude, wrongly believing that saying nothing would be worse. In the worst case, they’re simply emotionally careless, don’t get the difference between sympathy and empathy, or are deaf to the message the platitude actually delivers. (I’ve written about this in another blog post.)

Following are my personal picks for sayings I’d consign to the trash heap, and the reasons why:

1. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Thank you, Friedrich Nietzsche, for putting this into words (and inspiring a songwriter or two). But alas, this statement is both hopeful and reductionist at once since it assumes resilience is actually increased by severe stress. It isn’t true. According to different theories, how resilient each of us is has a great deal to do with personality and the ability to manage negative emotion. Approach-oriented people are generally more resilient in the face of stress. They’re geared to take on challenges but also anticipate and plan for possible failures and are good at recovering from them. They manage negative emotions reasonably well, in part because they grew up feeling loved and listened to, which made them securely attached. If anyone is going to get stronger under trying circumstances, it’s these people. But then, there are those who are avoidantly-oriented: They worry about failing, see challenges as daunting, and tend to stick to the known or less threatening. They manage negative situations and the ensuing feelings less well. They may become cautious adults who see the mountain but visualize tumbling down it and looking like a flop, and this is what motivates them. These people are not good candidates for this statement because they are more likely to go down for the count when something bad happens, especially if it’s calamitous. So much for being made stronger.

But—yes, there’s often a but—new research says that some amount of stress may not be a bad thing. What’s called stress-related growth has been examined in various studies. In one by Alia J. Crum, Peter Salovey, and Shawn Achor, the authors suggest that how we think about stress—our mindset—influences how stress affects us. If we believe that stress can actually enhance our performance by motivating us, we’re more likely to get mentally stronger as a result of it, while those with a stress-is-debilitating mindset won’t. Further good news? Our mindsets about stress can be altered.

2.“Happiness is a choice.”

There’s no platitude more withering for someone who’s already down or struggling, but people say it anyway, believing that the positive spin will awaken the sufferer’s inner cheerleader. But this is a half-truth masquerading as wisdom because, according to the theory set forth by Sonja Lyubomirsky and others, we only control a specific piece of the happiness pie. How happy each of us is depends on three factors: our happiness set point, life circumstances, and intentional activity. Your happiness set point accounts for roughly half of your happiness, and is determined by heredity and personality; it’s relatively stable over time. Life circumstances—which account for as much as 15 percent of happiness—include factors the quality of your childhood experiences, your relationship status, job satisfaction, income, and the like. So roughly 40 percent of happiness is actually determined by your intentional activity. This includes—setting goals, working to manage negative emotions better by reframing them, nurturing close relationships, going on a trip, or anything else that raises what psychologists call subjective well-being.

If you’re saying to yourself, “Well, 40 percent does make it our choice,” keep hedonic adaptation in mind: Humans get used to improvements in their lives, which is why so many things we believe will make us happy—getting a new job or promotion, moving to a new house, buying the car we’ve lusted after—only make us happy for a short time. To avoid going back to our happiness set point (and some of us will, alas, be less happy than others by nature), we have to work at staying happy by being conscious and grateful and, of course, doing more to stay happy. This is very hard to do when you’re already down and it’s all a lot more complicated than the expression suggests. so instead of murmuring this platitude, why not try a hug?

3.“When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”

Thank you, Dale Carnegie, great-grand-daddy of self-help, for popularizing this platitude, which alludes to the myth of the American entrepreneurial spirit while summoning up a Norman Rockwell painting. (Can't you just visualize a tow-haired boy or girl at a lemonade stand?) The problem is, despite the ubiquity of this sentiment, there are lots of situations which don’t yield any lemonade or life lessons that make us feel better. Sometimes, we simply have to do the work of recovering from what’s befallen us, and hearing about those lemons just doesn't help. Psychologists have looked at why, in addition to personality, some people are better at bouncing back from setbacks than others. Some of it may have to do with not just the ability to manage negative emotions but the ability to set more abstract goals as a way to recover from loss. Charles Carver and Michael Scheier, for example, suggest that people who have experienced the loss of a spouse and who focus on the sense of connectedness as what they miss and need most will find more ways of assuaging their loss and moving forward than those who try to cope less abstractly. It is obviously a lot easier to spend time with friends and family, or engage in volunteer work or other activities which make you feel more connected in the world than it is to find someone new whom you want to spend your life with.

4. “Time heals all wounds.”

The real problem with this—other than the fact that it isn't true—is that it suggests that simply the passage of time will assuage grief or loss and so it often leads people to believe that there is some magical period of time, whether it be days, months, or years, that should fix you right up. Most unfortunately, this often makes people think that you should have recovered from whatever loss you’ve suffered by some set deadline. Time does permit acceptance and re-framing to occur but, for some, real healing will remain elusive.

5. “Everything happens for a reason.”

I think this is a dandy statement if you actually believe it for whatever reason you do and, if you do, I'm happy for you. But please do not visit it upon someone else until you know that they have reached the same conclusion all by themselves. We live in a world filled with random events and incomprehensibility and all any of us can do is to make sense of it as best as we can with our own psychological immune systems in tow. A true empath says nothing when in doubt about the effect of his or her words.

Unsplash.com. Copyright free. Milo McDowell
Source: Unsplash.com. Copyright free. Milo McDowell

  • Gilbert, Daniel. Stumbling on Happiness. NewYork: Vintage Books, 2006.
  • Sheldon, Kennon and Sonja Lyubomirsky, “Achieving Sustainable Gains in Happiness: Change your Actions, not your Circumstances,:"Journal of Happiness Studies (2008), 7, 55-86.
  • Eliott, Andrew and Todd M. Thrash, “ Approach and Avoidance Temperament as Basic Dimensions of Personality,” Journal of Personality, 78, no.2 (June 2010): 865-906.
  • Crum, Alia J., Peter Salovey, and Shawn Achor, “Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2013) vol. 104, no.4, 716-733.
  • Carver, Charles S. and Michael F.Scheier, On the Self-Regulation of Behavior. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

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