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Helping or Harming?

The way we choose to think and act is vital for resilience.

In my particular corner of academia, I come across a great deal of research on the factors that enhance or hinder our well-being—some of which I’m finding particularly pertinent right now.

For example, while we've long known that our genes and circumstances have a big impact on our well-being, more recent psychological studies suggest that the way we choose to think, and the way we choose to act, also have a significant impact on how we feel and function in life. The University of California’s Sonja Lyubomirsky, a key researcher in this field, argues that as much as 40% of our happiness is governed by our daily activities and practices (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005).

With this in mind, I’ve recently been relying on a technique I picked up at UPenn, while studying resilience. When I’m trying to decide whether I will do something (get up and go for a run, have another glass of wine, visit the crash scene, talk to someone whose opinions are frustrating me, go over and over again the 'what ifs' of Abi's death) I ask myself, “Is this activity—the way I'm thinking or the way I'm acting—helping or harming me in my quest to get through this?”

While I'm employing this technique to help guide my grieving, the same question can be applied equally effectively to all sorts of everyday aspects of life from stewing over an argument, getting wound up over road rage, or stalling applying for a new job, to staying up late to obsess over Facebook posts of those who seemingly have a better life than yours. A basic tenet of cognitive behavioral therapy, this particular question was introduced to me by Karen Reivich as part of the resilience training programs rolled out across the U.S. Army (Reivich, Seligman, & McBride, 2011). As Reivich writes in her co-authored book, The Resilience Factor, the way we analyze events depends on thinking styles we’ve learned over a lifetime: "Nonresilient thinking styles can lead us to cling to inaccurate beliefs about the world and to inappropriate problem-solving strategies that burn through emotional energy and valuable resilience resources" (Reivich & Shatte, 2003).

Augmenting awareness of our thoughts and actions, and tweaking them, or altering course as necessary, makes it possible to help ourselves promote and protect our own well-being in our daily lives. In psychology, we call this "mental agility." While I’m aware this is over-simplifies the process, you can learn more from Reivich and Shatté's excellent book, or if you are really struggling, look for a CBT or ACT counselor on this site.


Reivich, K. J., Seligman, M. E., & McBride, S. (2011). Master resilience training in the U.S. Army. The American psychologist, 66(1), 25-34. doi:10.1037/a0021897

Reivich, K. J., & Shatté, A. J. (2003). The Resilience Factor. New York, New York: Broadway Books.

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