Better Than Positive Thinking: Resilient Thinking

Positive thinking is a relatively familiar concept. Some people love positive thinking, and some people hate it. But I think there is something better than positive thinking; it’s resilient thinking. Before I explain what resilient thinking is, let’s look at positive thinking and some of its advantages and disadvantages.

What is Positive thinking?

Positive thinking and related ideas have been around for hundreds of years. And it seems that every year, people publish new books or other media products about the power of positive thinking or some related topic.

Some folks who promote positive thinking seem to suggest that people’s success is solely up to them. Or they suggest people can change their world for the better simply by changing their thoughts.

There certainly seems to be something true about the belief that our thoughts can affect our life for better or for worse.

For example, if we only see all the bad things in our life and focus on our failure, we will likely continue to act on this discouraging information. Accordingly, we will feel discouraged a lot of the time. On the flip side, if we focus on good things in our life, as well as on our strengths and potential, we will likely act on this encouraging information. And we will feel more joyful and hopeful.

This idea is reflected in various religious teachings like the verse in Proverbs that says, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he”[1]. It is also reflected in the beginning of the Buddhist Dhammada in these verses: “Mind precedes all mental states. . . If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts, suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox . . .If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.”

Such thoughts point out the basic fact that we often sow what we reap or that our thoughts and actions have consequences.

Therefore, it makes sense that thinking negatively can bring about at least some negative effects. And thinking positively can bring about at least some positive effects.

So far so good.

There can, however, be several problems with positive thinking. Some (though certainly not all) schools of positive thinking advocate that life should be one long ride of successful bliss. And some schools of positive thinking also suggest suffering and failure is always the fault of the individual. It is, so this kind of thinking argues, something of which people should feel ashamed.

I will refer to these beliefs, and those like them, as irrational positivity because they fly in the face of reason, everyday examples, and even ethics.

For example, no matter how positive or spiritual a person is, he or she cannot escape sickness, evil intent from other people, and (ultimately) death. These things are outside of our control, although we can control how we respond to them.

You might like reading more about this issues here: Can Self-Help Perpetuate Injustice?

And all our greatest moral and religious teachers teach us that some hardship and suffering is a normal part of life. Such people provide guidance for how to endure or confront suffering and injustice with virtue. And, in fact, Martin Luther King, Jr., Buddha, and Jesus all experienced great suffering in their lifetime.

Given that these teachers[2] are paragons of virtue, it would be very strange to claim that they brought their suffering on themselves through their negative thoughts. Instead, their example reminds us that even the most spiritual people suffer pain sometimes.

And if suffering occurs even for those closest to God or enlightenment, it should not surprise us that pain is a common part of everyday human existence. After all, every human being is imperfect and has blind spots.

This means that no matter how hard we try, we will make mistakes and fail sometimes. This is what it means to be finite. And, in fact, some of our greatest moments of growth come from making mistakes and learning from these missteps.

These examples show the error of irrational positivity. And such thinking is certainly unhelpful.

So, is there a way we can capitalize on the benefits of positive thinking without falling into irrational positivity?

I believe there is.

One of the ways we do this is to practice something I call Resilient Thinking.

Resilience is a character trait that allows people to rise to challenges and bounce back from adversity. I think of it as a character trait that allows us to rise, learn, flex, and thrive.* It’s a character trait which anyone can cultivate through certain habits and thinking patterns.

Here’s a good article that details the history of resilience research:

Invulnerables: The Origins of Resilience

And I am especially interested in resilience because, unlike some forms of positive thinking, resilience does not deny the inevitability of some suffering. Nor does it deny that mistakes and failures are a normal part of life.

On the contrary resilience research and philosophies acknowledges that we often face difficulties and painful challenges in life. And it helps us to know how to rise to such challenges and thrive in the face of them.

I am especially interested in resilience because of 1) watching my mom practice resilience as a paraplegic my whole life, which you can read about here:

About My Mom: Paraplegia, Swimming, and Resilience

2) Because of observing my own life and better understanding my thinking patterns. I realized that some of my thinking patterns drove me to despair over my failures and some helped me to thrive in the face of them. You can read more about that here:

How Embracing Vulnerability Changed My Life

3) Because of observing my students over the past 25+ years of teaching and recognizing the kinds of thinking patterns and practices that help them feel  confident in the classroom. You can read more about that here:

Do Our Thoughts Affect What Other People Think of Us?

People debate what exactly resilience is and the practices and mindsets that encourage it.

In my own resilience studies, I have become especially interested in the five mindsets below that I believe encourage resilience. I have provided links for each of them, and of course I will write more about them later.

Intrinsic Worth: When we understand that we have Intrinsic Worth, we recognize that we don’t have to prove our worth through our actions or accomplishments. Rather, we understand that we possess worth internally and that we can never lose it.

When we understand this, we also recognize that mistakes, failures, and obstacles do not negate our worth. And when we disconnect worthiness from the challenges we face, it helps us face them with more courage and objectivity.

You can read more about the Intrinsic Worth Mindset here: Why You Have Intrinsic Worth Today No Matter What

Connection: When we recognize that we are connected, we understand that we are not alone. And we understand that we do not have to deal with difficult circumstances by ourselves. Rather, we know that we are connected to each other through visible and invisible bonds. And we also realize we are connected to something larger than all of us.

When we understand this, we know that whenever we face challenges, we can always reach out for more wisdom, strength, courage, and grace. And we also know that when we reach out for these gifts, they are always reaching back to us.

You can read more about this here: Help for Fear and Despair

Playful Performance: When we recognize that we have intrinsic worth and are connected to each other and something bigger than ourselves, we can approach life in playful performance, rather than perfectionism.

You can read more about this here: Playfulness and Performance: Two Modes of Living

This means that we know we need to do certain things in life, and some of them are hard. But we also know that we don’t have to prove our worth through our performance. And we know that we can ask for help and receive it when we need it. This means we don’t have to be perfectionists, trying to prove that we are good enough through our actions. We can be playful and approach our life, even our challenges, with curiosity, openness, and even joy.

Creative Compassion

Creative Compassion helps us understand that life is hard sometimes, and some suffering is inevitable. It reminds us that suffering is not a sign of weakness or failure. Rather, it is a sign of our humanity. Suffering also does not just go away if we ignore it. That is because our suffering is the little child in all of us that needs comfort and love during a scary storm.

Therefore, when we suffer, the best thing we can do is sit with ourselves in our suffering, gently and non-judgmentally. And when we are ready, we can remind ourselves that we are different from our suffering.

So, we can respond in a variety of ways to it. Some of those ways are unhelpful and make our suffering worse. Some of those ways are extremely helpful and transform our suffering into something beautiful, meaningful, and empowering. That’s the creative part.

You can read more about this here: Judgement or Compassion

Adventuring: Imagine that we know all the following:

We know that we are worthy.

And we know we can always get help when we need it.

We know that we can approach life through playful performance.

And we know we transform our suffering through creative compassion.

When we know all this, we are inspired to approach our life as an adventure.

And on this adventure we know that we will encounter difficult obstacles, mistakes, and failures. But we can adventure with confidence because we know that we possess the mindsets we need to rise to these challenges and thrive in spite of them.

That is the mindset of adventuring. Adventuring is the confidence that inspires us to seek out new learning opportunities and try new challenges that help us develop our potential. In fact, such adventures, explored in your unique way, are the purpose of your life. You were made for adventures.

You can read more about this here: How to Find Your Purpose

Let’s Stop and Reflect

Positive thinking may or may not be helpful for you. But resilient thinking probably will be.

Resilient thinking reminds you that you are . . .

Worthy right now.

Connected to something bigger than you with access to the resources you need.

Capable of performing playfully.

Able to transform suffering through creative compassion.

Made for adventures.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing on social media.

*I am indebted to my colleague, Carrie Cook for co-developing this definition of resilience with me.

[1] Proverbs 23:7

[2] Or, for instance in the case of Jesus, God incarnate (in the Christian tradition).

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