“Everything happens for a reason.”
I’ve heard (and repeated) that many times throughout my life. I’ve said it looking forward, trying to console someone who’s suffered a loss about what the future will be like. I’ve said it looking backward, trying to connect the dots between today and something that happened long ago.
Maybe you’ve said it, too, or its cousin: “It’s all for the best.” That’s what’s called positive thinking—a mental and emotional attitude that focuses on the bright side of life and expects positive results.
Today, I’m quite suspicious about both these adages, because they leave out the most important thing about dealing with loss or finding meaning in our life: what we choose to do beyond just thinking about it.
I had a dear family member (now deceased) who challenged me to understand the difference by the way she talked about the traumas in her life, including the loss of one of her children. She had been through some dark times and, to make matters worse, was a quiet (but quietly noticeable to those around her) alcoholic.
I can’t say where her mind went when she was (drinking) alone. But she had an insatiable appetite for positive thinking when she was with us—keeping the conversation on the wonderful (her favorite word) things that were happening in her life.
It must have been her way of coping—but, by keeping us away from her vulnerability, it kept many of us at arm’s length from the authentic part of her very loving and generous soul.
As much as I cared for her, I could feel myself tuning her out. I would try to deflect conversation that I knew she wanted to expound upon. I just didn’t want to keep hearing about all the wuuuunderful news when I knew that there were other parts of her life—and mine—that were also interesting and important to discuss.
Thinking only about what’s positive in our lives is not only ineffective, it’s borderline delusional. Positive thinking is not the same as positive psychology for one big reason: Stuff happens.
On certain days, things are really bad. In our world, this seems to be happening more and more lately. Disasters strike. Loved ones pass away too soon. People are thrown into poverty and disability. Feuds turn violent. Justice is not served. Relationships blow up. Laws are passed (or repealed) in service to the powerful instead of the many. Things happen that I would definitely say are not for the best, not for some grand, transcendent purpose.
Not what you expected to read in an article about positive psychology? Well, I’ll say it again: Positive psychology is not positive thinking. In fact, I’d say that where positive thinking ends is where positive psychology starts.
Ignoring—or putting a purely positive spin—on the crap hitting the fan is little more than a stiff drink of whiskey. It may numb the pain and help you feel better (or at least different) temporarily, but it doesn’t change what’s happened. And it doesn’t change our mindset about how to truly be resilient in the face of the real world.
Keeping ourselves ensconced in the positive can be useful, and those around us may appreciate it in certain situations, but it also can keep us from looking at what’s really happening and keep us at a distance from our authentic and thriving self.
Positive psychology does not blindly ignore the suffering around us, or in us. It doesn’t try to sugarcoat the traumas or explain them away as some kind of divine plan that we have to trust is “all for the best.”
It’s not only the study of what’s good, or what’s just, or what’s beautiful that leads to our happiness. It welcomes all those aspects of life—but does not guarantee them. It does not require faith that everything will turn out okay. Because, if we are being honest, sometimes things do not turn out okay.
Positive psychology instead offers us this guarantee: Whatever stuff happens, we can make the best of it.
The key word here is “make.” With the tools and teachings available through Wholebeing Institute and other positive psychology communities, you can find the meaning and purpose in life, find pleasure, find your strengths, find the other people in your life that matter, find the stories that give meaning to your life, find the path to flourishing. What you look for, you can find—and make.
Then, when stuff happens (and it will), you can make the best of whatever it is.
This post was originally created for Wholebeing Institute as a part of my installment series on the fundamental concepts and stories of positive psychology. For the entire series, or to sign up now for a free two-part video training series and free e-workbook on evidence-based tools for flourishing, click here.