Is positive thinking helpful?

One of the challenges, in supporting people prayerfully in the church and otherwise, is knowing how much to encourage a positive attitude and how much to encourage people to be real about how they are feeling. Much of my work has been with families who are bereaved, and is informed by a knowledge of the Grief Process.* On the other hand, some people within Church circles seem to believe that there is a very close relationship between positive thinking and prayer. Indeed Jesus did say that whatever you ask for you should believe that you have received it and it will be yours.

I was interested and challenged by an extract in The Week of 16th January from Barbara Ehenreich's book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World.

She speaks of the behaviour of those around her – and support groups in particular – to her breast cancer. She found that people were trying to make her collude with a “positive” culture that, because of its attitude that any problem is a gift, prevented honesty about feelings including anger and also prevented honest discussion about what was being done to prevent and treat the disease in the population as a whole.

I think a wise balance is needed. It is my experience in working with those suffering grief (which includes redundancy and serious illness as well as the death of a loved one) that long-term denial is not helpful and that people need to have time and space to be real about how they feel, and that finding good in the event – or adapting to it – is a good eventual outcome but takes time.

*Here's an overview of the grief process. There are alternative descriptions for the various stages.

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