Can positive thinking make us feel better when problems are beyond our control?

Positive thinking can’t work unless there are opportunities to succeed.

Posted May 07, 2011

Last month, I was delivering a keynote address on the theme of resilience in Montreal, along with Chris Peterson and Nansook Park, both positive psychologists. They were asked by a professor of social work whether positive thinking is enough to overcome all the bad things that many people have to deal with. They rightfully distinguished the science of positive thinking from the occult-like practices and motivational tutorials of Rhonda Byrne (author of The Secret) and similarly superficial psychological pablum. But the question was never satisfactorily answered.

How much does positive thinking help us overcome a bad start in life? How much will it help us contend with being poor? With the automotive plant where we work closing down? With our child being diagnosed with diabetes? With a lack of medical insurance? With police who stop us just because our skin color tells others we are different?

The answer seems to be "a little, but not a lot." There is no doubt that in circumstances where you have choices and abundant opportunities to exercise them (what's the good of choice if there is nothing to choose?) positive thinking makes us experience a better sense of well-being. When there are doors to open, then exercises like recalling each day three good things that you have happened to you, no matter how infinitesimally small, and finding opportunities to use your talents to your benefit and the benefit of others, are very likely to instil a sense of happiness where there was once depression and self-loathing. Think of Neil Pasricha's The Book of Awesome and you have some sense of how this works. Changing how we think about the world, and changing how we behave in the world ("fake it until you actually make it") leave us with an empirically measurable change for the good in how we feel.

But does it work when bad things happen, especially bad things beyond our control to change? For that answer, there is no study because no one has yet measured the potential of positive psychology to influence people's experience of the everyday problems that come with living in very difficult times. What we do know, however, is that subjective well-being tends to plateau when we have all our basic needs met. Prince William and his new Bride Kate may be exceptionally famous and wealthy, but their measure of happiness, so we might assume based on the research, is likely not all that higher than that of their loyal subjects who felt the contentment of waking early, sharing tea and crumpets with family, and watching the festivities on television.

Happiness and well-being seem to have much to do with how contented we are with our lives, and how we position ourselves on the social comparability index. We don't actually compare our lives to that of princes and princesses. We ogle them for fun. But we do compare ourselves to our neighbours and co-workers. When we feel as good, or just a little better off than them, we are likely to feel a mix of satisfaction and philanthropy, a desire to reach out to spread the joy we feel.

Which brings us back to the question: can positive thinking compensate for a bad lot in life? Only once we have secured for ourselves all of what we need to feel minimally safe and secure. That includes feeling equal to those around us. The unemployed factory worker who is part of a community that have all lost their jobs is more likely to benefit from positive thinking that encourages him, or her, to be proactive and make changes in life when he or she knows others are just as bad off. It also helps if one isn't plagued by self-doubts that economic downturns and global shifts in capital to emerging economies is somehow "my fault". At times like that, a little appreciation for the awesome moments of our lives, like a child's smile or a warm cup of tea under a sunbeam, may keep our spirits up and fend off depression.

Such is not the case, however, when we are singled out for attack. Is it any wonder that bullied children in frightening numbers suicide? It is the individuality of the attack that makes the violence so damaging. Will small wonders like naming three things the child did well today before turning off her light at night prevent suicidal thoughts when the entire day was a series of brutal assaults on her self-worth? Not likely. In fact, some interesting research by Wassillis Kassis in Germany with 5000 children showed that among those who had experienced violence, either as witnesses, or victims, depression could be alleviated by positive experiences like promoting self-esteem only for those children who experienced the lowest levels of violence. For those who were abused more severely, positive experiences had no influence on depression. What those children needed first was for someone to reach out to them and stop the violence in their lives.

I think herein lies the answer to my question. If we are living in situations where we feel treated fairly, have the opportunities we need to make changes in our life, and are provided with the basics of what we need, then yes, cognitive therapies that focus on changing our perceptions of ourselves from incompetent and unloved to competent and loved will help prevent depression and increase happiness.

But for those who are living in much more dangerous, poorly resourced circumstances, such trite exercises as counting one's blessings are not necessarily going to make us impervious to the soul wrenching calamity of being beat up by life. In those cases, people need help changing the world around them first. They need jobs, safe homes, and all the other things that offer hope for the future (education, food, family supports). Ensure someone with problems these things first, then offer a dose of positive thinking and good results will follow.