An optimistic attitude and our well-being (mental, emotional, physical, spiritual) are intimately connected. Many studies today have found that a positive attitude improves outcomes and life satisfaction and strengthens the immune system. People who practice positive thinking are perhaps more protected against the inflammatory damage of stress. Stress is inevitable as humans as we are ever exposed to uncertainty and change, but how we cope and manage stress can make a large difference for our health and quality of life. Positive thinking is not pretending that a challenging or unpleasant situation doesn’t exist nor convincing oneself to only think happy and warm thoughts. Rather, it attends and attunes to specific ways of thinking and reacting to reduce stress/adversity and the power it can inflict. Norman Vincent Peale, author best known for popularizing this concept, in his book The Power of Positive Thinking wrote: “I certainly do not ignore or minimize the hardships and tragedies of the world, but neither do I allow them to dominate.” So, positive thinking is not about being happy all the time, avoiding negative emotions, or pretending life is perfect. What positive thinking encompasses is the choice to grow, remain calm amid chaos, acknowledge emotions and not give them ultimate power and control.
While there are many helpful resources at our disposal and evidence that positive change can come from using coping methods such as thought challenging and reframing, positive thinking interwoven with the joy that comes from abiding in the Lord can together create and sustain positivity and endurance in the face of an ever-changing, uncertain and stressful world. Solomon, the author of Proverb 17, also made this observation long before researchers discovered a strong link between “positivity” and health. He stated that, “a cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person’s strength (Proverbs 17:22).” Solomon addresses how the joy that is good for the soul and the body is the joy that we find first in the Lord and then in the simple pleasures that He has created for human beings. This joy as John Piper describes is “the kind of joy that can be experienced simultaneously with a weighty sense of reverence and respect, and simultaneously with a painful groaning under the sinfulness and futility of this world.” This joy does not call us to ignore the difficult circumstances of life or solely lean into an attitude of light-heartedness. After all, we are not immune from the fragility of being human with all of our complexities stemming from trauma, familial relationship patterns, pain, grief and life experiences. Positive thinking and a cheerful heart are not one and the same with toxic positivity, rather, this outward manifestation of hope and optimism can and does exist and flourish even when life is messy and unpleasant.
Jesus can understand the reality of this and thus extends us compassion as we navigate being human. Scripture reminds us that the Lord “became like human kind” (Phil. 2:7) and “This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15).” The Lord understands the reality of being human spanning from joy and celebrating to grief and lamenting because “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men (Phil. 2:6-8).” Jesus left the right hand throne of God to dwell among us and thus can sympathize with us. Yet, over and over again, scripture exhorts us to rejoice in the Lord (Phil. 4:4, Pss. 32:11, and Pss. 68:3, for example).
We can be in what feels like a pit of hardship or season of unpleasantness and still find shelter, joy, and comfort in the Lord.
John Piper beautifully describes the ultimate purpose of God in creation as “a Christ-ransomed people with everlasting joy on their heads, sorrow and sighing gone, all creation transformed and applauding the work of God. Joy is the ultimate goal of God in creation.” The prophet Isaiah also paints a picture of this everlasting joy: “You will live in joy and peace. The mountains and hills will burst into song, and the trees of the field will clap their hands! Where once there were thorns, cypress trees will grow. Where nettles grew, myrtles will sprout up. These events will bring great honor to the Lord’s name; they will be an everlasting sign of his power and love” (Isaiah 55:12–13). What increases positivity and joy more than anything else is a heart that has found its ultimate satisfaction in God. Corinthians 10:31 reminds us that “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” How simple to give God thanks and experience gratitude in the mundane areas of life such as eating and drinking, yet, abiding in the Lord increases positivity and a deep soul satisfaction. If positive thinking can improve a person’s life satisfaction and health, then how much more can finding identity and purpose in an all loving and gracious God do for us?
Paul, one of the most infamous Apostles of Jesus, shared this encouragement with the church in Philippi that still holds true today: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:8-9). We can learn and implement effective coping strategies, relaxation techniques, and build resiliency while simultaneously abiding in the Lord and learning to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).” We can use coping methods and allow the Lord to transform us by renewing our minds (Romans 12:2). While adversity and trials are inevitable we can learn to both accept that change is a part of life and take action on problems rather than just hoping they disappear or waiting for them to resolve themselves. Both garnering a positive mindset and experiencing joy in the Lord require consistent action and daily movement. Everyday will present its own endeavor and challenge but an increase in positivity and resilience are powerful weapons to cultivate internal and external change. After all, small ripples over time create big and powerful waves.
-Carlyn Wood – learn more about working with Carlyn here!